This weekend, I got to have a once in a lifetime experience: I was one of 50 people chosen to participate in a two-day NASA Social surrounding the scheduled launch of the SpaceX Dragon, the first commercial vehicle going to the International Space Station. I got to meet some amazing people, hear some of the brightest minds speak, and see inside places that many NASA employees have never seen. How did this all happen? What was it like? Did we eventually get to see the rocket take off? Read on to find out.
What’s a NASA Social?
Started in 2009 (as NASA TweetUps), a NASA Social is a gathering of social media users who follow and interact with NASA accounts. From their website: “Socials provide NASA followers with the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at NASA facilities and events and speak with scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers. NASA Socials range from two hours to two days in length and include a ‘meet and greet’ session to allow participants to mingle with fellow socialites and the people behind NASA’s social media accounts.” Recent events that had NASA Socials associated with them included the delivery of the Space Shuttle Discovery to the Smithsonian Museum, a gathering at the Dryden Research Center, and the one I attended, the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon Launch to the International Space Station.
Registration openings and upcoming Socials are announced on the @NASA and @NASASocial twitter feeds, along with their other social media properties. All costs associated with travel are up to the participants, but a flight or some gas and lodging are a small price to pay for a once in a lifetime experience.
I happened to see a link on BoingBoing about the NASA Social happening nearby at the end of April the day that registration closed. I signed up and didn’t think much about it until I woke up one morning to find an email from the program saying that I was one of the 50 (out of apparently 1600+ registrants) who had been chosen to attend. I immediately told everyone I knew because, seriously, how cool is that? As the launch date approached, though, the launch was pushed back a week, as SpaceX did more testing. The second date was pushed back and when the date was set as May 19th, I was kind of scared to talk about it before I was on my way down there lest this magical beast get pushed back again.
Come the evening of May 17th, though, everything was still looking on schedule, so I packed myself up and, after a pit stop for sleep in Orlando, drove into the sunrise as I made my way to Kennedy Space Center bright and early on Friday, May 18th.
The NASA Social
(For those who are already thinking “tl;dr,” I compiled a handy Storify of the event for your viewing (and another about the successful launch), and if you want to skip straight to all the pictures, you can check out my Flickr set.)
After we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Press Accreditation Office and picked up our badges and swag bags (filled with tons of cool info about NASA that my nephew is now enjoying), we followed our instructions to head to the Press Site and started our list of completely surreal experiences after showing our badges and ID to the guards at the gate and getting to drive on past. Our parking was pretty sweet, as well.
If you looked to the left, this was our view (you can see my same car in the lower right hand corner there)
After settling into our room, setting up our computers, iPads, cameras and other communication devices of choice, we introduced ourselves and waited for the 9:30 a.m. official start time. Our scheduled speakers for the morning were Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX; Ed Mango, Program Manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Programs; and Scott Colloredo, Chief Architect for the NASA GSDO (Ground Systems Development and Operations), but we were excited to have surprise visits from Jose Nunez and Todd Arnold, who spoke about the International Space Station perspective, and Josh Byerly, NASA Spokesman and Lunch Commentator. The entire morning session was broadcast on NASATV’s Education Channel and is available in full on YouTube if you’d like to hear all the speakers for yourself.
The first speaker was Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, who brings with her a long and successful career in the aerospace industry. After a quick introduction about the flight, she jumped straight to questions from the attendees. Among the topics she tackled were the timetable that SpaceX is looking at for sending manned missions up (testing starts in two years), how SpaceX has integrated their launch escape system into the capsules, and possible commercial launch sites. Upon being asked about her advice to students, she advised them that even though the Shuttle program was done, they should stay interested in space. Shotwell explained how, as a teenager, her mother (an artist) encouraged her to be an engineer and took her to an event where she saw a female engineer speak and fell in love with the field. She advised students, especially girls, “Don’t be shy or nervous about going for something like that. If you’re good at something, pursue it.” It was absolutely inspiring to hear her talk and I have so many more thoughts on her that I could (and possibly will) feature them in an entirely separate post.
Ed Mango, Program Manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was up next to speak to us about their “same crew… new ride” concept. NASA is very invested in the success of the various commercial companies pursuing space travel, as it would mean that the U.S. would be able to send our own people up to the International Space Station once again. As it stands now, our astronauts and supplies hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz rockets (which you might know about from The Big Bang Theory). The NASA agreement with Congress provides support for the ISS through 2020, and as research is provided, will look at extending the term, so the sooner that commercial companies can get up there, the better. In preparation for that, some bays in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) will be renovated to be available to commercial vendors, as well as the Launch Complex 36. On the future of space now that the shuttle era is over, Mango said, “Opportunities abound, especially for the kids in school today…If we dream it, it’ll happen.” The heart of the NASA mission is “all about the people on Earth” and the research that the space program provides for that can benefit humanity without end. Scott Colloredo, Chief Architect for the NASA Ground Systems Development and Operations reiterated this commitment to working with commercial companies, adding that the retrofit of the VAB should be completed by 2014, as well as speaking of the Clean Pad concept that would make the launch pads as generic as possible so that anything can come in and launch from them with a minimal amount of adjustment. The crawlers that carried the shuttles between the VAB and the launch pads are also undergoing renovations to enable them to carry up to 18 million pounds (up from their current capacity of 12 million pounds).
Carrying the theme on to what happens once we get up to space, we heard from Jose Nunez, NASA mission project engineer, and Todd Arnold, newly appointed Deputy Director of Public Affairs about the work that the International Space Station is doing. With the ISS having reached Assembly Complete by the end of the shuttle program, they are now in Full Utilization mode, which means a focus on research in the areas of human health, technology, physical sciences, national labs, and partnerships. Last up before our lunch break was Josh Byerly, NASA Spokesman and Launch Commentator. Josh reiterated that the NASA public affairs team is busier than they’ve ever been in the post-Shuttle era, describing it as almost like studying for a test when they learn about new vehicles for commentating purposes. He also shared his unique perspective of having done commentating for the Soyuz launches, as well, describing them as “not for the faint of heart” and revealing that they’re only about a kilometer from the launch site. Yikes! When asked what the astronauts on the ISS do for fun, he explained that mainly, they look at Earth, adding, “I don’t think that view could ever get old.”
After lunch, we loaded onto buses for the really exciting part of the day: a tour where we would get to see somewhere that no other NASA Social had seen. Needless to say, we were excited.
Our bus had the luck of heading to our surprise tour stop first: The Orbiter Processing Facility where the Space Shuttle Atlantis is currently being housed and prepped for display at Kennedy Space Center. With anticipated display beginning in the summer of 2013, Atlantis will be housed within a new structure at the KSC Visitor’s Complex, suspended at a 45° angle with the appearance that the shuttle is in orbit. Stephanie Silson, NASA Flow Director within the Shuttle Transition and Retirement Directorate, showed us around the facility, answering our questions and explaining the process that is involved with decommissioning the last Space Shuttle. Discovery was recently delivered to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (to be displayed in a pristine museum state) and Endeavour will be delivered to the California Science Center later this year where it will be displayed in a launch ready setting. As we strolled around underneath Atlantis (WE STROLLED AROUND UNDERNEATH A SPACE SHUTTLE!!!!), we got the unique experience of seeing the space shuttle tiles that comprise the Thermal Protection System up close. Each tile, specifically measured to its location (even down to the space in between tiles or lack thereof), had an individual serial number. The darker the tile, the newer, and the dark streaks on the shuttle are made by the angle of re-entry.
The next stop was Launch Complex 40, housing SpaceX, to see the Falcon 9/Dragon on the launch pad. While there, we had another special guest, former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who joined SpaceX as an astronaut safety and mission assurance consultant.
After a quick pass-by of Launch Pad 39-A, the only pad still set up in shuttle formation, we headed to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Formerly closed to the public, for a limited time, Kennedy Space Center guests who purchase the add-on Kennedy Up-Close Tour are able to tour the building. The “limited time” is presumably until the bay renovations that we heard about earlier in the day are completed and the VAB is used to service commercial vehicles. Stepping inside the VAB is a truly awe-inspiring sight. The largest single story building in the world, it stands at 526 feet tall with doors measuring 456 feet high and looking up into the rafters is an experience that can’t be described in words (but is well worth the extra $25 on your ticket). Even more awe-inspiring is the fact that this building, built in 1966, has withstood numerous hurricanes and has continued to be a useable building and will continue to be one in the future as the commercial space programs begin using it. The VAB currently houses one of the Crawlers, as well as the Shuttle-era Astrovan.
We ended the day at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, which is part of the regular Kennedy Space Center Bus Tour and houses memorabilia from the Apollo missions and, suspended in the center of the room, a Saturn V Rocket. It’s one of the most photographed places in Kennedy Space Center and for good reason; it’s absolutely amazing to see the things in person. Our last special guest of the day joined us for a quick talk: Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator. After getting a group photo, the day was over, and everyone headed out for some rest before we had to be back bright and early at 3:30 a.m. for Friday’s scheduled launch.
The Launch Day
Arriving back to our new center annex home, I’ve never seen a group of people more excited at 3:30 a.m. While we waiting for NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana to come speak to us, we also had the opportunity to hear from Ryan Puri, a tenth grade student from California whose team experiment was selected through the SSEP program to go up in the Dragon capsule. His team is studying the Effect of Microgravity on the Antibacterial Resistance of P. aeruginosa, which has a historical connection to space missions, having caused astronaut Fred Haise to become sick during the Apollo 13 mission. Ryan was a natural and easy spokesman for his team, deftly answering questions like he was an old pro at this. After a quick hello from Charlie Bolden and Bob Cabana, it was time to head out for the launch.
As we stood on the bleachers past the countdown clock (after seeing a passby of the International Space Station) and awaited a magnificent show from the rocket lifting off… well… it just didn’t happen. With half a second to go before liftoff and all nine engines already ignited, the computers detected high pressure in engine five and shut the engines down, aborting the liftoff. (One of my fellow NASASocial attendees wrote a nice explanation of why this wasn’t a failure.) Since the capsule would need to line up with the trajectory of the ISS, the launch had what is known as an instantaneous launch window… missing that meant it couldn’t attempt again until Tuesday morning. We headed back to the room to find out what happened next. Some attendees stuck around for the press conference at 6:30 a.m. and some (my tired self included) headed back to hotel rooms to catch some more sleep. We left knowing that we would be invited back for the next launch attempt, tentatively scheduled for 3:44 a.m. Tuesday morning. Throughout Saturday and Sunday, updates about the engine problems trickled out. The pressure was traced to a faulty check valve, which was replaced, and the rocket was given a go-ahead for a Tuesday attempt. Later simulations showed that the rocket could have launched without a problem, but when you’re gambling hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment, I’d say it’s better to be safe than without a rocket and capsule.
Launch Day… Again
After hemming and hawing over whether I wanted to get up in the middle of the night and trek back down to see the rescheduled launch, I reminded myself (with the help of my encouraging boss) that I wasn’t going to have too many opportunities in life to see a launch from the press site, so my husband and I carted ourselves down there in the middle of the night for the second attempt. About 20 of the original 50 attendees were able to return, and the enthusiasm was still in the room as we gathered together again for the launch. As the countdown clock passed T-20 minutes, we headed out to the bleachers in anticipation. Something felt right this time. It felt like a launch day.
As the countdown hit zero again, we saw that magnificent sight that we hoped to see only a few days before. I can’t even begin to describe the sight and sound of it, other than to say that it really did look and sound like a Dragon heading up there. The rocket could be seen for a good five minutes and heard for a couple minutes after that, and once out of view and sound, we headed back into the room to watch the NASA TV replays.
NASA Coverage of the Launch:
From @twirlandswirl, another NASA Social attendee (warning: we were very excited, ie: LOUD):
After the aborted attempt on Saturday morning, the haters and cynics came out in droves, heralding this as a huge failure for SpaceX. Really, though, the last second scrub was a reminder of two things. One, Space Is Hard. Getting things (let alone people) into space is really, really hard. Everytime we attempt it, we are attempting something that was thought impossible just over half a century ago. And now, we do it on a regular basis. It became so common that we forgot just how difficult it is, just how many tiny factors have to line up exactly right for everything to happen perfectly. Space. Is. Hard. Two, the launch was aborted with half a second to go. With half a second and all engines firing, the computer was able to bring everything to a standstill because something was off. With half a second, the computer could have kept a disaster from happening. That could not have happened with the Space Shuttles. That’s a feat unto itself.
The successful launch on Tuesday quelled most of the haters. As NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said post-launch, “The significance of this day cannot be overstated.” I’m still processing that I was able to have an exclusive view of what will no doubt be one of the most historic moments of the 21st century. While the next 72 hours, as the Dragon capsule performs test maneuvers and attempts to dock with the International Space Station, are still critical to the mission’s overall success, a commercial company, for the first time, has launched a vehicle that intends to dock with the ISS. That is a huge achievement for the future of space travel.
One of the frequently occurring themes that stuck out to me during the weekend was how focused the NASA team is on the next step… the post-Shuttle era. Growing up in the time when schools would stop their classes to turn on the TV and watch the Shuttle launches, I was sad to see the Shuttle program ending. Seeing my nephew’s new obsession with the Space Shuttle after seeing my pictures makes me sad that he’ll never get to see one of those awe inspiring launches for himself. But listening to every person we encountered makes me realize that my nephew will be seeing (and a part of) amazing things that I can’t even imagine now. Seeing the Falcon 9 take the Dragon capsule into the air, lighting up the night sky like it was a sunrise, makes me realize that the post-Shuttle era is spectacular in its own way. The example that came up from multiple speakers was that of the commercial aviation industry: having started as primarily a governmental operation through the military and the U.S. Post Office, then expanded to government contracts with private companies, and has now evolved to a primarily private industry. By and large, the people we spoke to see that same trajectory happening for the space industry.
The other theme that came up time and time again was the importance of keeping kids interested in space, in science, and in technology. From that front, it was supremely inspiring to see women like Gwynne Shotwell, Stephanie Stilson, and Lori Garver, excelling in male-dominated fields and providing an amazing example to young women out there that engineering and science fields are not just for boys hunched over computers or for a privileged few. They are for anyone who has a passion to learn new things every day and change the ways in which the world is seen. One of my favorite quotes from the weekend came from tenth grader Ryan Puri: “When you see an opportunity like this, take it and strive hard. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.” As long as kids like Ryan keep striving, we’ll keep learning as a result.
(Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy the author under a CC 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike license)