Talk about a red-letter month for aviation.
December, of course, marks the founding of Civil Air Patrol. The birth of powered flight occurred Dec. 17, 1903, on a frigid windswept North Carolina dune thanks to the Wright brothers. Fifty years ago marked the successful end of America’s first lunar landing program with the Apollo 17 mission.
And this Dec. 11 featured another milestone—the successful conclusion of an unmanned soup-to-nuts test flight, the inaugural mission for the Artemis program.
The unmanned flight is the first page of a new chapter in lunar exploration. Artemis is intended not only to allow humans to live on the moon but also to serve as a way station on the way to Mars.
And a CAP alumnus, Sean Fuller, is the public face of the Artemis effort.
A former cadet and senior member in the Missouri, Florida, and Texas wings, Fuller is the Gateway program international partner manager for Artemis, an international effort by the U.S., Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency and other international public and private partners.
The December mission was the inaugural flight of the 70-metric-ton SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft. The rocket produces 8.8 million pounds of thrust, making it the most powerful ever built.
A full test of the system — the SLS and Orion — was the heart of the mission. The Orion spacecraft actually journeyed beyond the moon in a “shakedown cruise,” Fuller said, all in preparation for a manned effort on the next flight.
“We sent (Orion) around and actually beyond the moon. It was testing its power production system, its thermal control system, the computers on it, the thrusters, the guidance and navigation systems in it to control the spacecraft. … We wanted to test out all those systems before we put a crew on it.”
While all tests were critical, consider the heat shield on the spacecraft. Orion re-enters the earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph, about 7,500 mph faster than when crews from the International Space Station return home, Fuller said.
And the test flight’s results?
“Overall, it performed just phenomenally,” Fuller said. “On a test flight you kind of expect to have issues and things creep up when you fly it. When you go from ground design and analysis testing to actually putting it up in the air and in space, you kind of expect that.
“But it was a very, very smooth flight — very few hiccups, if you will. We got to test more than we originally planned.”
Long before an SLS rocket and an Orion spacecraft pierced the heavens, Fuller’s story began on the ground in middle America, in the Missouri home of Randy and Mary Fuller.
To say the hardworking couple fueled their three sons’ love for aviation is no overstatement.
“It’s because mom and dad that got us where we’re at, that’s for sure,” Sean Fuller says.
From their sons’ earliest days, Randy, a jet engine mechanic, and Mary, a former schoolteacher, ingrained the values of work, curiosity, honor, and love of country in the boys. And the Missouri Wing’s River City Composite Squadron in Fenton buttressed those core beliefs.
“From very early days, certainly I remember (my parents) instilling those values,” Sean Fuller said.
Sean, Kurt and Chad, all of whom achieved Civil Air Patrol’s top cadet honor, the Gen. Carl A. Spaatz Award, parlayed their CAP involvement into flourishing aviation careers. While Sean works for NASA, Kurt is Bell Helicopter’s vice president of engineering for the Bell Boeing V-22 program in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Chad is an F-16 pilot in the Colorado National Guard.
From boyhood on, the brothers were seemingly immersed in aviation. Sean Fuller turned his eyes to the skies in third grade.
“I remember my dad at the time, very early on, was full-time Air Guard. That certainly left an impression … and between his touch and aviation, I remember growing up and knowing that was exactly what I wanted to do. (My parents) always gave great, loving support to that.”
And a sixth-grade teacher, Lance Berra — a distant relative of baseball great Yogi — used rocketry to teach math to Sean Fuller and his classmates.
In 1988, Randy Fuller read an article on CAP in a local newspaper. He had never heard of the organization until then. Sean, then the only Fuller boy old enough to join, and his father went to a squadron meeting, and the rest is history.
The younger boys soon followed, and their mother also joined— “out of self-defense,” Randy joked.
Eventually, Randy and Mary Fuller served alternatively as squadron commanders for 15 years.
As Randy Fuller, who now lives with his wife in Owensville, ponders his boys’ involvement in aviation— specifically Sean’s involvement in this new chapter in space exploration— he sometimes has to fight back tears. The memory of a kid’s dream of flying is still fresh.
“(Sean) almost had his private pilot’s certificate before he had his driver’s license. He was more interested in flying than driving,” his father recalled.
“When he came and told me he wanted to learn to fly, I knew it was in his blood,” Randy Fuller said. “I didn’t know how far he’d take it. But it was in his blood.”
The tears come even now when Randy remembers Sean received the Joseph C. Gilliam Academic Achievement Award for $1,000 from Navy Junior ROTC.
In the wake of his sons’ successes, Fuller urged parents to get involved with their children.
“You’ve got to be involved with your kids.”
Sean Fuller credits CAP’s aerospace education and leadership education for playing a key role in his career.
“I was learning it (aerospace and leadership) before I was even in college.”
To Russia, the Moon and Beyond
After graduating in engineering physics from Embry-Riddle and working for a NASA contractor, Sean Fuller joined NASA. He served as a liaison between the agency and its Russian counterparts in the International Space Station program.
Artemis is a two-pronged mission — human sustainability on the lunar surface and the moon as a way station en route to the Red Planet.
“Apollo was a scouting mission,” Sean Fuller said. “Now, we’re going back in a sustainable manner with Artemis.”
Initially, crews will travel to Gateway, then land on the lunar surface for a six-day mission and explore the moon’s South Pole, a region that has never seen light but where water ice has been discovered.
The mission hopes to unlock other moon mysteries, but with an eye on Mars.
America’s space effort sometimes draws flak, from Main Street to Capitol Hill. Critics question spending on space in the light of earthbound problems.
Fuller has a response. For example, pharmaceuticals in production today began with research on the International Space Station and crystalline structures that can be produced in space, but not on the ground.
“All the things we’re discovering (in space) as the ‘unknown unknowns’ … through exploration become the knowns. If you look at the Lewis and Clark expedition, the western half of the United States was an unknown unknown to us before Lewis and Clark headed west.
“You don’t know what you’re going to discover until you go out there,” he said.
And from space, considering the peaceful global cooperation spawned by programs like Apollo-Soyuz, the ISS and now Artemis, comes a vision fitting for December: peace on earth to men and women of good will.
“You don’t see political lines,” Sean Fuller says. “You don’t even see human structures. You see the Earth as a whole.”