Putting eyes on Orion: Nat Keammerer helps NASA send back pictures from the Moon

When NASA’s Orion capsule reached the Moon’s orbit in November 2022, it sent back incredible images of the lunar surface. For Nat Keammerer (BSME ’94), this was more than just a neat postcard from space. It was the culmination of 10 years of work from his team at NASA, who are responsible for the communications, computers, and camera systems of the Orion capsule.


Running the Course

Nat grew up in Valparaiso, Indiana, where the most exciting thing that might happen in his town was the annual Popcorn Festival (honoring Purdue alum Orville Redenbacher)! At 9 years old he began delivering newspapers, learning the value of hard work at an early age. “I jumped into everything: 4-H, Cub Scouts, baseball, basketball, cross country,” he remembered. “I was a busy kid!”

Almost too busy, as it turns out. During his senior year in high school, he became so focused on running cross country, that he missed the deadline to apply to Purdue University’s College of Engineering. “I was devastated,” he said. “But Purdue gave me a lifeline. They told me I could attend a regional campus for the first year, and then transfer to West Lafayette the next year. So that’s how I ended up living at home, and attending what was then called Purdue North Central in Westville. Sometimes life throws you a curveball; the important thing is what you do after that!”

Another lifeline came in the form of Purdue’s Co-op program, where students have the opportunity to alternate semesters between learning in the classroom, and working full-time in industry. Nat wanted to participate, but living 90 miles away from Purdue’s main campus caused some issues. “This was 1990,” said Keammerer. “There were no cell phones, and there certainly wasn’t Zoom! So I had to drive an hour-and-a-half, both ways, every time there was a co-op meeting. I discussed this with the co-op coordinator at the end of the meeting and he said, ‘Why don’t we just take care of this right now?’ He handed me a stack of applications that were blank, because the real signups were to begin the next day. So I had my first pick of companies! That’s how I ended up at NASA Johnson Space Center.”

Purdue has a long history of sending students to NASA, and Nat was excited to explore everything they had to offer. “They treated me like a normal employee,” he said. “They introduced me to the teams, they gave me important tasks. And because I co-op’d for five semesters, I had five opportunities to experience different jobs at Johnson Space Center: safety, manufacturing, operations. I definitely gravitated to Mission Control.”

After graduating, Nat joined NASA full-time, working on the ADCO console (Attitude, Determination, and Control Officer), responsible for ‘flying’ the International Space Station (ISS). In addition to serving as ADCO Group Lead, Nat also had the opportunity to help design the computer displays that astronauts see while onboard ISS. “Those displays incorporate all the commands and telemetry of ISS,” he said. “That really helped me to see the entire system. And it also was great interacting with the astronauts who would use the system!”

After a Purdue co-op, Nat Keammerer got his start at NASA working at Mission Control at the ADCO console (Attitude, Determination, and Control Officer), essentially "flying" the International Space Station. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Fly Me to the Moon

After nearly two decades at NASA, Nat decided to take on a new challenge: the Moon.

For years, NASA had been developing the Orion spacecraft for a potential return of astronauts to the Moon; those plans were formalized in 2017 as part of the Artemis program. As Data and Communications Exploration Group Lead, Nat and his team occupy two consoles at Mission Control, monitoring Orion’s onboard communication systems and computer systems. They are also responsible for the 16 different cameras on the vehicle – showing not just Orion and its occupants, but spectacular exterior views of the Moon and the Earth.

After a decade of effort, Nat’s work was put to the test in November 2022, with the launch of Artemis 1 – a demonstration mission featuring an uncrewed Orion capsule that would fly to within 80 miles of the Moon, slingshot around, and then splashdown back on Earth 25 days later. “That was one of the proudest moments in my entire 30-year career,” he said. “That mission could not have gone better. We sent a human-rated capsule to the Moon for the first time in 50 years. We went farther beyond the Moon than even the Apollo missions. We did a close flyby of the lunar surface. It was just a spectacular success.”

And those cameras? Their stunning imagery filled social media feeds and news broadcasts around the world. Amazing videos showed the Earth passing by as a tiny blue marble, more than a quarter-million miles away. Photos showcased the rarely-seen “dark side” of the Moon. Even the navigation cameras sent back amazing close-ups of the lunar surface from just 80 miles away.

During the Artemis 1 mission, the Orion capsule came within 80 miles of the Moon's surface. Nat Keammerer's team was responsible for delivering amazing images like this. (Photo courtesy NASA)

“Everyone was amazed by the pictures and the video from Artemis 1,” said Keammerer. “But it meant much more to me personally, because our team was responsible for those images! Our communications team operated the cameras, and our computer team downlinked the data. We’ve been working for years to achieve this goal, and that’s why I’m most proud of our team. It’s people like that who make these missions successful.”

Of course Artemis 1 was not an end, but a beginning. Artemis 2, scheduled to launch next year, will feature a crew of four astronauts, who will become the first humans to orbit the Moon since 1972.

“We learned a lot of lessons on Artemis 1,” said Keammerer. “But on that mission, the passengers were just manikins. With humans onboard Artemis 2, there’s a lot more at stake. Our team are training the astronauts to use Orion’s communications systems and computer systems. We’re so excited to send the first woman and the first person of color around the Moon. The next missions after that will actually land on the Moon, and then it’s only going to accelerate from there! We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, but we’ve got a super strong team who’s going to make it possible.”

Nat Keammerer oversees the communications team (INCO) and the computer team (CDH) who work to send images back from the Orion capsule. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Boiler Up

“My time at Purdue was invaluable – not just for my career, but for life in general,” said Keammerer. “Purdue was there for me. They didn’t have to offer me a regional campus option, but they did. They didn’t have to stick around after the co-op meeting and help me out in person, but they did. They instill so many great values of hard work and problem-solving that have helped me succeed here at NASA.”

Working at NASA Johnson Space Center for nearly three decades, Nat Keammerer has helped to expand the opportunities for human spaceflight. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca Robiños)

Writer: Jared Pike, jaredpike@purdue.edu, 765-496-0374