Meet Kenyan in US team making rocket to rotate the moon

Aeronautical engineer Samuel Ndaro with his wife Eve and their children Catherine and Christopher.

Aeronautical engineer Samuel Ndaro with his wife Eve and their children Catherine (centre) and Christopher inside Boeing premises. 

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • US-based Samuel Ndaro, 39, was in charge of one team among many that were working on a component known as the intertank.
  • He was part of a team from the US-based multinational aerospace company Boeing, where he has worked since 2013.
  • The Artemis I mission to orbit the moon from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States was called off at the last minute.

A Kenyan-born aeronautical engineer was involved in constructing part of the rocket launching system for the towering Artemis I mission to orbit the moon whose lift-off from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States was called off at the last minute yesterday.

This was the second time the mission was being postponed after the first one was called off last Monday for technical reasons.

US-based Samuel Ndaro, 39, was in charge of one team among many that were working on a component known as the intertank.

He was part of a team from the US-based multinational aerospace company Boeing, where he has worked since 2013.

In an interview with the Sunday Nation, Mr Ndaro – who was born and raised in Mombasa until 2002 when he left for the US after sitting his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examinations – described his participation in the project as a dream come true.

“It gives me chills right now just thinking about this thing going up,” he said.

Technical issues

Yesterday, reports indicated that another attempt could be made on Monday or Tuesday — but could take longer if there were more technical issues to be fixed.

The intertank is part of a 64-metre-long cylindrical component on whose top the Orion spacecraft sat ahead of launch.

The cylinders, carrying mainly fuel, provide the thrust required to break off the force of gravity and head towards space.

They break off along the way as the spacecraft roars to space. In technical terms, the intertank and the cylinders it connects constitute the Space Launch System (SLS).  

Mr Samuel Ndaro, an aeronautical engineer working with Boeing.

Mr Samuel Ndaro, an aeronautical engineer working with Boeing. He took part in the construction of a component that will be used in the launch of the Orion spacecraft.

Photo credit: Pool

An illustration on the website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) depicts the intertank as a ring-like structure that joins two gigantic components that resemble huge gas cylinders.

The lower cylinder carries liquid hydrogen while the upper one carries liquid oxygen.

In a November 2018 press release announcing the completion of the intertank, Nasa stated that the component “holds some of the avionics that helps control the rocket”.

The statement added: “It will be bolted to the propellant tank that will hold 196,000 pounds (88 tonnes) of liquid oxygen.”

Apart from the component, the Kenyan-born engineer was closely involved in, Boeing is a major partner in the design, development, production and test of key constituents of the Artemis programme.

Moon return

In Artemis I, the spacecraft—without any crew inside — will leave Earth and orbit the moon.

The mission is scheduled to last about 40 days. It is also expected to deploy cube satellites to be used in research.

Artemis II will be the second mission and the spacecraft in this will have astronauts on board. It will fly around the moon and then return. This is scheduled to happen in 2024.

Artemis III, scheduled to happen in 2025, will then take humans back to the surface of the moon — including a woman and a person of colour.

This will be the first time since 1972 that humans will be returning to the moon since the six Apollo missions that started in 1969.

The current Nasa moon mission is named after a goddess in Greek mythology who was Apollo’s twin sister,

Mr Ndaro, who is the director of the MH-139 Services Programme at Boeing Global Services–a role he took up in January–was a liaison engineer in the Artemis construction six years ago.

The work was located at a facility located at Michoud in New Orleans and Mr Ndaro was part of a team of Boeing staff involved in the project at a Nasa facility. 

Liaison engineers, or MRB engineers, are charged with taking note of any engineering shortcomings that may arise in a project, documenting them and advising on how to correct them.

NASA is expected to launch Artemis I mission.

NASA is expected to launch Artemis I mission, the first step in the space agency’s plan to send humans back to the lunar surface for the first time in over five decades. Graphic shows timeline of the Artemis Moon missions.

Photo credit: NASA

“You hope that when you go through a production system, everything comes in perfectly and everything comes in the right way as it was designed and everything works in a perfect world. But we know we never have a perfect world,” says Mr Ndaro, explaining his role.

We asked Mr Ndaro to explain in layman's terms what his role entailed and he flashed back to the days he and other boys made toy cars out of empty cooking fat cans in Kenya.

“In the process of building that toy car, sometimes that tin got damaged. But you didn’t have that luxury of just going to pick another tin because everybody wanted one.

So, what one did was figure out how to use the same tin to make the toy car. In terms of the intertank, parts came in from suppliers to Boeing, and we were putting the rocket together.

While we were trying to put this rocket together, sometimes we had discrepancies or faults happening in production — maybe while drilling a hole, you’re supposed to make a quarter-inch one but you oversize it beyond the specifications,” he said.

The engineer added: “What I needed to do is an analysis to make sure that the repair we provided was good enough— in terms of engineering, quality and safety— to be put back on the rocket.”

His team was working on an already designed product, he noted.

“I was just part of the production engineering team,” said Mr Ndaro. “I was leading four engineers working with me. I was the person making sure that the dispositions or the analyses that go on the repairs are sufficient or good enough to be put on it.”

Mr Ndaro had to go through a certification process to be qualified to be a material review board engineer. He said that working on the intertank was no walk in the park because the materials that go into it are scarce.

Rocket launch

Before reports of yesterday’s postponement, Mr Ndaro had told the Sunday Nation he would have loved to be near the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to witness the launch but family obligations would not have let him.

He was supposed to attend a football tournament his son is participating in.

“I’ll be probably with my cell phone watching, but also on daddy duty watching my son play soccer (football),” said Mr Ndaro.

“If it happens during a playing break, probably my wife, our children and I will be sitting there, watching on the phone. For sure, we’re going to watch it. It just depends on the exact time but there’s a window where the rocket can leave. For sure I’ll be watching. I’ve always watched launches.”

Mr Ndaro, who will now have another chance to watch the launch, had also planned for his parents in Ganze, Kilifi County, to watch.

Artemis I is meant to be the first, and basically a test, of other missions ahead whose ultimate goal is to send a man to Mars.

Nasa says of the failure: “During that launch attempt, teams were not able to chill down the four RS-25 engines to approximately minus 420 degrees F (-251 degrees Celsius), with engine 3 showing higher temperatures than the other engines. Teams also saw a hydrogen leak on a component of the tail service mast umbilical quick disconnect, called the purge can, and managed the leak by manually adjusting propellant flow rates.”

Mars landing

 Mr Ndaro explained that as part of going to Mars, the US has decided to put a step-by-step process.

“When man returns to the moon, the idea is to maybe build some sort of station up there, either to the moon or another international space centre up in the sky, so that the next time we send a rocket up, maybe we go dock in the middle of between Earth and Mars and then from there, shoot up to Mars,” said the Kenyan-born engineer.

He went on: “The ultimate goal is to get to Mars. But certain tests need to be done before we can have that flight to Mars.”

Nasa also says that the project is the “largest rocket stage ever built” and that it fuels the world’s “most powerful rocket”.

Mr Ndaro said the launch system is a key component of the project.

“A lot of people think about the Orion (spacecraft) on the top. But the space launch system is the bread and butter. Without this, we’re not going to Mars,” he said.

After leaving Kenya, Mr Ndaro studied aerospace engineering at the Wichita State University, and he interned at aircraft maker Bombardier, setting the stage for his rise in the aviation industry.

He later served in the army for four years as a helicopter engine repairer then left to join Boeing, where he has been since June 2013.

At Boeing, Mr Ndaro who has had a phenomenal career rise scored another milestone late last month when the US Air Force admitted a helicopter developed under his leadership.

According to an August 23 article on the air force website, the jet that is dubbed MH-139A will replace the UH-1N range of aircraft.

“It has an impressive pedigree of performance in multiple missions in the civil, public, and military domains,” an air force official is quoted saying.

Mr Ndaro said he is in charge of many aspects.

“Every day is a dream,” he said. “This is the first time in so many years that the United States Air Force is putting a new helicopter, fighter jet, anything, into their organisation. So, that’s another big deal. Now I am responsible for that: profit and loss for that helicopter solely lie with me. So, I have to make sure that that project is successful.”

For a man who struggled to raise airfare to the US after securing admission to Wichita, and struggled, even more, to get fees to gain admission, playing a part in constructing a spacecraft is a rare feat.

Mr Ndaro is confident the ‘moon rocket’ will soon successfully take off given the amount of work and time that has been invested in it.

“I just want it to be successful, to have a good flight and then I’ll sit there and be like ‘I did my part in terms of this historic, monumental flight,” he said.

The Kenyan-born engineer added: “Ten years down the line, everybody is going to forget about it, but we’re going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, man. Ten years ago, we did something to make sure we have humans on Mars.’ It’s fascinating, man.”