When a project like Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft launches, it’s often hard to look beyond the countdowns, blazing fire, and astronauts to the individuals who played integral roles in the conception, planning, and building of the entire mission. Even though Orion isn’t set to land on Mars until at least 2030, the path to get there is clearer than ever. 5280 sat down with Heather McKay (propulsion engineer) and Josh Hopkins (deep space mission architect), both involved directly with the Orion project, at Lockheed’s Waterton Canyon campus in Littleton.

5280: Until now, the idea of sending humans to Mars has been science fiction. From the big picture, why is it so important to send people there?

Josh Hopkins: One reason is Mars is the most Earth-like [planet] in our solar system. We know it was more like earth billions of years ago. We know it had water and it was warmer and wetter. It was probably like Colorado in its past. The question of whether life ever got started on Mars would tell us a lot about if we are really alone in the universe. You have to wonder: If two planets in the same solar system have water, and one has life, then the odds are really good that the other has life. If life didn’t get started with almost perfect conditions, you wonder if it takes some type of incredible miracle or coincidence for life to appear. The question of whether there are alien civilizations or we’re the only ones is pretty fascinating.

Those are some lofty ideas to comprehend. Do you spend all day thinking about things like that?

JH: There are days when I come home from work and my wife asks me what I did. One day I told her that we were designing a sample return system that would go to Mars and bring back a piece of rock so we could study it. One of the big challenges is that we don’t know if there are microbes on Mars. But if there were, you wouldn’t want to bring back a Martian disease to earth and spread it. We basically spent the day trying to protect planet Earth from Martian microbes.

(Orion’s flight test: One small step for Denver, a giant leap for mankind)

This is the first time for many Americans to potentially see humans land in outer space. Do all the people working on Orion realize the magnitude of the project?

Heather McKay: Orion really is the next generation spacecraft. If you think about it, we haven’t been beyond low Earth orbit in 40 years. Two-thirds of Americans were not even alive when Apollo 11 landed. This is a really exciting time for our nation, for Colorado, and for the next generation to have their moment in space.

When Apollo landed, the astronauts gained instant fame. Do you think the same thing will happen with Orion’s crew when it heads to Mars?

HM: I’ve heard astronauts be called the “superstars of science.” They are the only celebrities where people will stand in line to get their autograph without knowing their name. This is about the enduring drive for humans to explore and plan for tomorrow.

And, the kids in today’s classrooms are likely to want to be these astronauts. Did you know early on that you wanted to work in the space industry?

HM: I was 10 years old when I went to “take your kid to work day” at Lockheed Martin with my mom. Hearing from former astronaut Bruce McCandless (the first man to ever float untethered in space), I knew I wanted to be part of this. I also like being in the clean room putting the spacecraft together. There are seven billion people on the Earth and only a couple thousand get to work on the spacecraft that will take people into deep space.

At the end of the day, what is the most important part of working on Orion?

HM: Orion needs to be the safest spacecraft in history. I think about it carrying humans to explore the universe and then getting them safely back home to tell the world about it.

(Read how Colorado is cashing in on Orion)