Lenoir native leads testing of NASA's latest, greatest rocket

Apr. 16, 2014 @ 09:09 AM

Ashley Lee never really had an interest in computers and engineering while he was a student at Hibriten High School and Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute, focusing more on sports and martial arts.

Today, Lee is an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he is leading work on ARTEMIS, a simulator designed to test flight control systems for the on-board computer flight programming for the largest, most powerful rocket ever built – NASA’s Space Launch System.

In school, Lee’s only real interest in computers was video games, and after CCC&TI, Lee joined the U.S. Army, serving for a decade with the infantry, where his interest in computers and software really flowered.

Leaving the service in 1997, Lee enrolled in the University of North Alabama, studying computer science and software engineering, later going on to get a master’s degree in IT systems and project management from Colorado Technical University.

He worked with geographical information systems, developing applications and on working on contracts with the Department of Defense, including work with flight systems for Apache helicopters.

When an opportunity to work for NASA revealed itself, Lee jumped, wanting to take advantage of his prior military service by taking a civil service position.

After the first interview, Lee thought there was no way he’d get the job. After the second interview, he was convinced he wasn’t going to get the job – but he did, and within the first six months Lee saw the opportunity to step up into work with SLS. There Lee found his niche, now leading a team of 30 engineers with backgrounds from aerospace engineering to physics and numerical analysis.

“The challenge of leading a team like that is pretty rewarding,” Lee said, adding that he never would have envisioned himself doing this work while riding the streets of Lenoir as a teenager. “It just goes to show that when you put your mind to something and work hard, you can achieve just about anything.”

ARTEMIS – an acronym for Advanced Real Time Environment for Modeling, Integration and Simulation – tests the electronics used in the flight system to be used by SLS, presenting the flight system with wind and weather conditions, thruster outages and other adverse conditions, to see how the flight system reacts.

“We’re able to put the flight software through its paces,” Lee said, adding that ARTEMIS can also simulate the SLS on the launch pad, interacting with its flight systems as if the rocket were actually about take off.

ARTEMIS is made up of 1.3 million lines of computer code, but it takes the program only 2.5 milliseconds to run its tests and report back, about the same speed as the plucking of a guitar string, Lee said.

One of the best parts of his job, Lee says is the constant learning.

“I’m not an aerospace engineer by background, but I’m learning everyday what it takes to build a rocket,” Lee said. “You hear people say, ‘It’s not rocket science,' but for me, for this team, it is.”