Ever since Patrick Gorski was a little kid, he found himself building car models and fixing up old trucks, sparking an early passion for mechanics and engineering.
“My dad was a mechanic, so essentially, my entire childhood growing up — I spent a lot of time learning from him,” Gorski said. “Learning how mechanical systems work, how to analyze and fix them them when they break, how to properly design improvements — I guess you could call it applied mechanics.”
Years later, Gorski is now a junior at Penn State, co-leading a team that is trying to build a much bigger, more ambitious vehicle: the Lunar Lion, a spacecraft that will land Penn State on the moon.
However, Gorski’s path, which took him from a curious child in Hope, New Jersey, to an aerospace engineering major at Penn State, has been far from linear.
“When I graduated high school, I couldn’t afford college,” said Gorski. “So I decided to enlist in the military.”
His first deployment with the U.S. Marines took him to Ramadi, Iraq, where he served as a Team Leader, responsible for the well-being of four Marines. Gorski and his unit, as part of a Police Transition Team, were also responsible for training Iraqi police to eventually take charge of domestic security after U.S. forces pulled out of the country.
Almost immediately after returning to the States from Iraq, Gorski was sent to a Marines Corps Infantry Squad Leaders course. After the course’s completion, he was promoted to Squad Leader within his unit — a rank above Team Leader — a role in which he was responsible for training and leading a squad of 13 Marines.
Gorski’s unit was then deployed on the U.S.S. Ashland, off of Africa’s east coast, as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). MEUs, essentially, are worldwide first responders. Located all across the globe, they allow Marines to arrive at any coordinate on the planet within 72 hours to restore security and to provide emergency relief.
As such, Gorski’s MEU was one of the first responders to arrive in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010.
“Everything was destroyed and everyone created tent cities with no real resources,” he said.
The sights of damage — entire villages rendered homeless — were an eye-opening experience for the then 20-year-old who, before the military, had seen very little of the world.
“You learn and you grow up pretty fast,” Gorski said. “You’re given a lot of responsibility in a short amount of time.”
But by 2011, Gorski had completed two trips overseas, and decided that he was ready to pursue his educational passions.
“I thought I would be underselling myself to stay in the military, and it would be a very poor decision to not use the education benefits given to me from the military,” he said.
Gorski began looking for schools known for both their prestige in engineering and their services to veterans. “And that’s what eventually led me to here,” he said.
He spent his first two years at Penn State Lehigh Valley, before arriving at University Park in the spring of 2013. Only months after traveling the world with a MEU, Gorski sought another source of challenge and excitement.
“I wanted something awesome to do,” Gorski said.
So, in his final weeks at Lehigh Valley, Gorski began looking for a captivating project to immerse himself in upon arriving at the main campus. That’s when he found the Lunar Lion online.
Gorski’s prior familiarity with mechanics and machinery proved helpful during his first days with Penn State’s moon mission.
“That’s what got me into the structures and vehicle design department,” he said.
Just three years removed from leading squads through Haiti and Iraq, Gorski is heading up a new team as Deputy Lead of the Lunar Lion’s Structures and Vehicle Design subsystem. “Subsystem,” in case you were wondering, refers to a unit within Lunar Lion that handles a specific function of the project — in this case, the design of the moon lander.
Gorski’s Vehicle Design team, in conjunction with Lunar Lion’s other subsystems, is attempting to build a spacecraft that will reach the moon by the end of 2015. It would be the first privately funded mission to the moon, ever, and could net the university $20 million in prize money through the Google Lunar X Prize competition.
Gorski, Vehicle Design Team Lead Alwin Paul, and the rest of the subsystem are designing the Lunar Lion lander at Penn State’s Learning Factory, a 6,500 square foot machine shop equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, water jets, and, according to Gorski, “almost every piece of metalworking machinery you would ever need.” The on-campus facility will allow Gorski and his subsystem to construct a prototype moon lander that will help the team determine if its control algorithms are conducive to space flight.
This prototype, according to Gorski, is a truss structure that will support the electronics, propulsion, and other substructures needed to lift the spacecraft into the air. Also, it must be able to absorb the energy of landing on the moon, without damaging the components inside.
In other words, Gorski’s team is tasked with designing the skeleton for the spacecraft. The team will then complete the craft by placing a propulsion unit within the vehicle. If all of their tests here on Earth prove to be successful, the team will begin work on the real unit that will ideally land on the moon.
These infrastructures are challenging to create, especially for a team of primarily undergraduate and graduate students. That’s why the Lunar Lions have teamed up with the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA, along with other undisclosed companies, will provide rocket thrusters and other essential equipment in exchange for data and feedback from the Lunar Lion’s rocket tests.
These companies are providing the thrusters because it would be both unnecessary and an inefficient use of resources for the Lunar Lion to rebuild something that’s already been constructed, according to Gorski.
“Basically,” said Gorski, “they’re donating things so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
This summer, Gorski will take a break from designing the Lunar Lion’s space-bound chassis. He’s accepted an offer to intern at Ball Aerospace and Technologies, researching orbit anomaly resolution — in layman’s terms, how to fix issues that may arise with a satellite’s orbit. As a plus, his work at Ball should prove helpful in the final stages of the project.
“The experience I gain at Ball Aerospace will enable me to assist the team in controlling and modifying the Lunar Lion’s trajectory as it approaches the moon,” Gorski said.
By December 2015 — the Lunar Lion’s scheduled launch date — Gorski’s work should be complete when the lander puts Penn State on the moon, a feat that has only been accomplished by the space agencies of the U.S., the then-Soviet Union, and most recently, China.
If the Lunar Lion’s mission is successful, it could be one of this generation’s greatest engineering feats, according to Gorski.
“The Apollo generation proved what mankind could do. We landed something on the moon, nothing on this world taught us how to go to space,” he said. “I feel that it’s my generation’s challenge, and something we can prove with this project, that yes, we can go to the moon and we can do it at a fraction of the cost.”
After the Apollo frenzy wore off, people dismissed the prospects of space travel because of the cost, according to Gorski. But he thinks that, in less than a generation, the space exploration paradigm — which is currently centered around high-budget NASA missions — will be shifted.
“If you talk to NASA to do what were doing, they’d give you a price tag of around $500 million,” he said. “We’re trying to do it for no more than $60 million.”
Regardless, the idea of reaching the moon, despite the cost, is enough to make Gorski reflective.
“It really is amazing,” he said. “Never in my life would I have thought that, as a college undergrad, I would be involved in a project that could land something on the moon.”
In less than two years, Gorski may be able to say that he succeeded.