When Michael Thornton was growing up in the small south Florida city of Clewiston, he never dreamed of working in America’s space program. Today, he not only is helping NASA prepare for the Journey to Mars, he recently was selected as the agency’s Kennedy Space Center Employee of the Year.
As software lead for the Ground Special Power Branch of NASA Engineering, Thornton traveled to Denver in 2015 for a meeting between officials with NASA and Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for the Orion spacecraft. Following the review, he realized there was a need to upgrade ground power systems to adequately support the new vehicle.
According to Ralonda Farrant, a management and program analyst in the Avionics Division of NASA Engineering, Thornton found that some of Kennedy’s ground power interfaces were lacking the ability to take full advantage of several features included in Lockheed Martin’s plans for Orion to receive electrical power during ground processing.
“He brought those issues to the attention of the Engineering Directorate’s lead design engineer and management team,” she said in nominating Thornton for special recognition. “Michael has also identified and presented solutions to the design team which were approved for correction and implementation.”
For this achievement, Thornton was selected as NASA’s Employee of the Month for September 2015. From among last year’s Employees of the Month, he was recently honored further as the spaceport’s 2015 Employee of the Year
Thornton prefers to give credit to those he works with on a daily basis.
“I don’t think I would be here without my team,” he said. “They definitely work hard and we work together as one. We all listen and understand each other. That’s what makes us jell as a team.”
Having been raised in Clewiston, a city of just over 7,000 citizens, the Florida spaceport seemed to be far away. Thornton thought he had “no chance” of ever working in the Space Shuttle Program he heard and read about.
But in 1999 Thornton graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. A few months later, he had an opportunity to interview with and go to work for United Space Alliance, or USA, NASA’s Space Program Operations Contractor at Kennedy.
“It was very exciting to actually get to work in the Shuttle Program,” he said.
USA was formed as a limited liability company between Lockheed Martin and Boeing to operate the Shuttle Program at Kennedy, the Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
In 2005, Thornton was offered a new opportunity to go to work in NASA’s Engineering Directorate. Today, he is leading a team that is preparing Ground Special Power, or GSP, to support the agency’s Orion spacecraft.
Built to take humans farther than they have ever gone before, Orion will be the exploration vehicle that will carry crews to space launched atop NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket, the largest and most powerful ever flown. The SLS rocket will be capable of sending humans aboard Orion to deep-space destinations such as an asteroid and Mars.
During the times Orion spacecraft are assembled and processed at Kennedy, Thornton’s group acts as the “power company.”
“Anytime Orion needs electricity, we make sure the spacecraft gets what it needs,” he said. “We convert AC power to DC through the ground power unit.”
AC, or alternating current, is an electric stream in which the flow of electric charge periodically reverses direction, whereas in DC, direct current, the flow of electric charge is only in one direction.
Thornton noted that electrical support would be needed anyplace the vehicle needs power, including the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building where Orion will undergo assembly and testing. As processing moves along, other key locations will include the Vehicle Assembly Building where it will be stacked atop the SLS rocket, and Launch Pad 39B right up until the final moments before liftoff.
Recently, Thornton and his team have been designing and developing the integrated launch operations applications software for the electrical power distribution and control, or EPD&C, systems. This effort has included the fabrication, installation and verification of GSP hardware racks, which include power supply, backup battery modules and interface control displays.
“Michael has provided invaluable leadership during the development of the software requirements documents, programmable logic controller code, displays and models,” Farrant said. “His knowledge of the EPD&C and GSP systems continues to be a driving force to the team.”
During his recent visit to Lockheed Martin in Denver, Thornton learned about many of the Orion capabilities that will require GPU support.
“I realized that we’d need to modify the center’s GPU systems to take full advantage of Orion’s capabilities from voltage monitors to the spacecraft’s avionics,” he said.
Looking ahead, Thornton and his team already are planning for Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, the first Orion launch atop an SLS rocket slated for late 2018.
EM-1 will be the first mission in which the Orion spacecraft will be integrated with the large SLS booster. The multi-week mission will send the spacecraft farther into space than any human-capable spacecraft has gone before. Flying nearly 40,000 miles beyond the orbit of the moon, the mission is designed to test the vehicle, making sure it’s safe to put humans aboard the next launch of an SLS.
Thornton says that he is looking forward to that first SLS liftoff and hopes to be in the Launch Control Center Firing Room.
“Down the road, I definitely would like to be in the Firing Room with my headset on,” he said. “As the NASA test director is polling his people on that first EM-1 mission – a big step on our way to Mars — I want to be the person to say, ‘yes, we are go.’ “
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