KINDRED, N.D. — Growing up on a farm near here, Wayne Jermstad was always more captivated by space than by the prairie.
Jermstad, 53, was too young to remember the first moon landing in 1969 because he was just a toddler, but subsequent Apollo missions quickly became etched in his mind.
He recalled watching late-night television broadcasts of the missions with his parents.
“It just had an impact on me. It was something that, right away, I wanted to be part of,” he said.
Jermstad has become a part of it and then some.
He fills a senior executive position at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and a key role in the Artemis program, NASA’s bold mission to travel back to the moon and beyond.
The Orion spacecraft carrying crews and payload on Artemis missions will launch on NASA's new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS.
As director of Cross-Program Systems Integration, Jermstad is tasked with coordinating systems between the spacecraft, the rocket and the ground.
He works on SLS from "both from a physical integration perspective … do the bolts line up, do the cables connect? And then also to the analytical integration, so things like the trajectories, the loads, the aero heating,” he said.
The three Artemis missions planned thus far involve an un-crewed test flight orbiting the moon as early as late November, a similar flight with astronauts on board in late 2023 and a return to the moon's surface by late 2024, more than 50 years after the last lunar landing of the Apollo mission.
In Greek mythology, Apollo has a twin sister, Artemis, hence the new mission’s name.
Artemis will land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon and, someday, venture on to Mars.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” Jermstad said.
Early start at NASA
Jermstad’s journey to a career in space exploration began as a mechanical engineering student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
He signed on with the Cooperative Education Program, a structured way of mixing classroom education and practical work experience, with his sights set on NASA in Houston.
“I pestered the people at the Johnson Space Center until they would allow me to come to work there,” Jermstad said with a laugh.
After graduation from UND and a short detour for his master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he went back to NASA in 1992.
Early on, he was a structural and mechanical designer and analyst working on space shuttle flight hardware projects, including the payload of space shuttle Discovery.
“It flew in 1994, and I got to do just about everything ... including going down to Florida to install it in the payload bay,” Jermstad said.
There have been somber tasks, as well, including assisting with the investigation of the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003 and the subsequent return to flight in 2005.
The young daughter of Rick Husband, the flight commander who perished along with six others aboard Columbia, happened to be a student in Jermstad’s wife’s third grade classroom at the time.
“We knew the family personally,” Jermstad said.
Living in Friendswood, a suburb of Houston, he has multiple friends and neighbors who are astronauts.
'Working for the long haul'
Returning to the moon will have its own challenges, but putting a human on Mars will be a feat in another realm.
Besides the harsh environment, sheer distance is perhaps the biggest difficulty.
A lunar trip takes three days, while a round trip to Mars, approximately 140 million miles from Earth, could take two to three years depending on how it's done, Jermstad said.
There’s even a possibility of having to stay longer on Mars in order for it to line up again with Earth before coming back home.
Round-trip communication between the two planets can take up to 20 minutes each way, Jermstad said, so it’s not even possible to have a phone call with someone on Mars.
“They’re going to be kind of on their own,” he said.
With space projects, some short-term deadlines have to be met in order to keep things on schedule, but other timelines can be many months or years away.
“We’re working for the long haul,” Jermstad said.
In fact, he’s been working on the Orion spacecraft since 2005 and on the Space Launch System since it began development in 2011.
Jermstad said his North Dakota upbringing has served him well, having learned the value of hard work on the farm.
His parents, Clarence and Shirley Jermstad, still live in the Kindred area, and his brother, Jim Jermstad, lives in Davenport, N.D.
Wayne Jermstad and his wife, Shawna, have four children, two of them in college and two a few years younger.
The hope now, with the Artemis project, is to inspire a new generation of space enthusiasts, just as Jermstad was inspired as a child.
“I would say, follow your dreams. You know, I did it and you can, too,” he said.