Saturday, March 21, 2015

Let's light this candle! Part 3

The QM-1 NASA Social group and Astronaut Stan Love.
The day began just as early as had the previous one, yet was very different - we were going to see the world's largest Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) test-fired. Though the people at Orbital ATK (OATK) had cautioned us that many people - space enthusiasts, locals, etc. - would likely make their way out to the public viewing area, I don't believe many of us in the Social group understood what that meant, or gave a lot of weight to it...but we would soon be shown that they knew what they were talking about.

What had been a dark and nearly solitary drive to the OATK facilities the previous day turned into a steady stream of vehicles forming a nearly unbroken line for many miles. While it was a bit heartwarming to know that interest in various aspects of the space program was still strong, I must admit that I was a bit concerned whether or not there'd be room for everyone.

People...lots and lots of people.
Luckily, the throng of vehicles was moving at a steady pace...and a great majority of them weren't going to the private OATK/NASA Social area...so all was well, right? Wrong. Oh, so very wrong. I haven't played musical chairs since I was a kid, but the frantic 'dance' to get a parking spot was a pretty close approximation to what happens in the mad scramble to grab a seat once the music stops. As the valid, lined spots filled, many people decided to settle for any available spot of asphalt. I was grateful that I successfully fought against the urge to hit the snooze button to get some more sleep - a delay of a few minutes might've meant the difference between getting a space or not.

Upon snagging one of the rapidly disappearing parking spots, I gathered my stuff and headed inside to the lobby. While waiting until time to board the bus, I took a moment to take a look around at the people that were milling about packed elbow-to-elbow: these weren't just some poor schlubs like myself...in the crowd were high-ranking military officials, industry big-wigs, and even a few astronauts! Although, in my mind, I *knew* the QM-1 event was a big deal, I'm not sure I quite realized how big of a deal it was until I saw these VIPs all in the same room. With me. Cool.

Colorful sunrise seen prior to heading to private
viewing area.
After a while, the room began to empty as people boarded the waiting buses that would take us to the private viewing area. We had a couple of stragglers still inside the building, but that gave us the opportunity to see a gorgeous sunrise from the windows of the bus. After the short delay, the bus departed and delivered us to the spot from where we would see the test-fire. Several members of the group, including me, headed to the viewing area as soon as we stepped off the bus so we could take some pictures of the booster, which was 1.25 miles (approx. 2.01 kilometers) away. Seeing how far away it was, there was a small concern that the event might not be as impressive as I thought. We'll revisit that concern in a bit. While I was examining the viewing area, one of our fellow NASA Social people came out to our group to say that there was a speaker in the NASA Social trailer waiting to talk to us.

One of these guys is cool, funny, super-smart,
and an astronaut. The other is me.
The NASA Social organizers had arranged for Astronaut Stan Love to speak with our group. While I have had the pleasure of listening to astronauts speak prior to this, I must say that Astronaut Love is - hands down - one of the most energetic, enthusiastic, engaging, entertaining, and interesting speakers I've yet to encounter. I hope that NASA and the Astronaut Office knows what a resource they have in Astronaut Love...I think he's an excellent representative of the organization and could help generate a lot of interest and excitement in crewed space flight.

Love was peppered with questions, running the gamut from history...to geo-political...to deep science...and even aliens. He performed deftly, and was quite candid in some of his responses...something for which I was immensely appreciative. Some of my favorite exchanges/responses (mostly paraphrased):

  • Love: On my mission, I didn't exercise. I thought it wasn't really necessary for the short amount of time I was in space. However, upon returning to Earth, I'd lost 8 pounds of muscle from my legs. People, if you go to space, EXERCISE!
  • Attendee: What do you think about cooperation with what might be geo-political foes?
    Love: It's cheaper than fighting them.
  • <after discussing the enormous hurdle of life-support in deep space>
    Attendee: What do you think of Mars One?
    Love: <pause> I believe I have already answered that.
Love stayed with the group for much longer than had been arranged, even joining us on the trip up to the booster after the firing.

Pano of the 'Media' section of the viewing area. SRB is down the road.
With the Q&A session now over, it was time to move to the viewing area for the static fire test. The test had a multi-hour window in which to occur (permission is granted based on weather conditions - no one wants the exhaust/debris cloud to pass over populated areas) and was running a few minutes behind. We took the opportunity to chat with each other, and talk with those around us. One of our group, a high school teacher, took the time to set up a Skype call with her class as the clock ticked-down to the firing. Very cool, and I love her dedication - I would've loved to have had a teacher like that in high school.

As the clocked neared -01:00, I prepared my cameras - both my always-with-me iPhone and my old-but-trusty Nikon D50. The announcer counted down, and when he reached T-10 seconds, I began recording:


Just as thunder follows lightning, it took several seconds for the booster's roar to reach us (in the video, you can hear the announcer call "Plus five" just before you hear the booster). What followed was an impressive display of sight and sound. The booster's flame was so bright that looking at it for more than a short period of time wasn't recommended...and the sound of the booster was every bit as impressive as I thought it would be, counter to my earlier concerns. The burn lasted for slightly more than two minutes, right in-line with expectations.

After retiring to the trailer for lunch, the group was taken to the test area for some pictures and to be able to see the SRB from a much closer position. Stepping off the bus, the smell of spent rocket fuel was strong...but non unpleasant. OATK workers were busy securing the area, and we were restricted from approaching too closely, but there was no problem finding a good place from which to take pictures. Even though the test had occurred nearly two hours earlier, the area was still quite warm from the flames, and the aft portion of the booster was being sprayed with water to accelerate cooling. Fun fact: The deep layer of sand over the concrete structure below the booster is turned to glass from the intense heat of the flame.

All-too-quickly, we were rounded up and told to get back on the bus...thus drawing to a close the QM-1 NASA Social. I can't speak for others, but I had an exceptional time. Both NASA and Orbital ATK did an outstanding job of arranging an informative and entertaining event, and it's something I will remember for the rest of my life. I enjoyed reacquainting myself with some NASA Social alum from previous events, and loved meeting new and interesting people from this one.

I hope that you have learned something about NASA and/or the space program that you didn't know, and I appreciate the time you've taken to read this. I took a ton of pictures of the entire trip, and have shared them in a Flickr album as there was no practical way to include them in the blog entries - feel free to take a look. Until next time, thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Let's light this candle! Part 2

I need one of these. For reasons.
Welcome to 'Part 2' of my experience at the incredible NASA Social for the QM-1 Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) test. If you've not yet read 'Part 1', I would like to invite you to do so before reading this entry. As before, I'd like to thank NASA, the NASA Social team, and Orbital ATK (OATK) for organizing this event, and extending the invitation to so many of us space enthusiasts to witness such an incredible experience as we lay the groundwork for humanity's steps to become a multi-planet species.

As a reminder, security guidelines prohibited recording/photographing anything once inside the security perimeter, so there is a lack of pictures from many of the interesting places we visited...and because I didn't think ahead, neither pen nor paper was in my repertoire...so I'm digging through the recesses of my less-than-perfect memory for much of the information from 'Day 1'. If I happen to miss a detail or two, feel free to mercilessly mock me...or politely correct me - I'm simply pleased you're reading this.

After passing through the gate, we only had a short journey to our first stop. We had to break into two smaller groups to make the tour through the areas more manageable. At our first stop, an OATK engineer gave a brief, but informative, description of one of the omniaxial gimbal bearings being developed for a future SRB (though the one on SLS is very similar). The bearing consists of multiple, alternating layers of a rubber compound and aluminum (I think), which allows hydraulic actuators to move (gimbal) the SRB's nozzle +/- 8 degrees to maintain a proper thrust angle. If your eyes glazed over after reading that, the short of it is this allows the rocket to steer a bit to make sure it's heading in the correct direction.


"Ares I-X launch 08" by NASA
Sandra Joseph and Kevin O'Connell
The group was then ushered into the area where the liner/insulation is applied to the interior of the casing and nozzle. The insulation was the primary culprit in delaying qualification of the new five-segment booster. Though the new SRB was essentially the same as the Space Shuttle's four-segment booster, and practically identical to the five-segment booster used in the Ares I-X test flight several years earlier, NASA was no longer given special allowance to use an asbestos-based insulation as they had been for Shuttle. This meant that booster engineers needed to find a solution that didn't add undue weight while still maintaining the thermal protection characteristics as the now-banned insulation. Unfortunately, there was a reaction between early iterations of the insulation, and the fuel in its liquid-ish state, which created voids/pockets as it cured. These voids were a serious issue and could have promoted a casing/joint burn-through, greatly increasing the likelihood of loss-of-vehicle. It is believed that the insulation problem has been resolved, which has allowed NASA and OATK to proceed with qualification testing.


Our group in front of one of the mixers.
Credit: Orbital ATK
We were also allowed the opportunity to enter one of the propellant mixing facilities. In these hardened buildings, the ingredients are placed into a temperature-regulated 600 gallon "bucket" and mixed until proper consistency is reached. Truly, the machine looks like a super-industrial version of a restaurant floor mixer...albeit with a much more dangerous batch of "cookie dough" to blend. The mixer blades are quite large, and tolerances are tight - while blades scraping on the inside of a metal mixing bowl might be OK when making cookies, stray sparks and unnecessary heat and friction are things to be avoided when blending solid propellant. Due to the high degree of safety required when mixing the propellant, the building is unoccupied during operations and everything is controlled from a remote location. The remote operations center keeps a watchful eye on everything via cameras and sensors. This level of precaution is not unwarranted - in June of 1985, one of these hardened buildings was destroyed while mixing propellant, resulting in the loss of the $3 million facility.

Unlike liquid-fueled engines which have their fuel pumped to them when needed, SRBs need to have the fuel 'cast' into a casing. This casting occurs in a VERY large building, with deep pits designed to hold the huge motor segments while the putty-like fuel is poured/dropped/fed into casings. Since SRBs cannot be actively throttled, varying levels of thrust can be passively achieved by casting the fuel in a particular shape. Since the fuel burns from the inside of the casing outward, the fuel's surface area will change over the duration of the burn...and a change in surface area will directly impact the amount of thrust being generated. This casting is achieved by placing a mold into the segment casing while the fuel is being poured, which creates the desired shape. The three middle segments use the same mold, but the forward and aft segments require molds specifically designed for them.


Other than the actual booster test, I sorely
wanted a picture of the X-Ray facility.
One of the more interesting things, other than the huge X-Ray building we could not enter, was the tour of the SRB stress test area. In this facility, we were shown the results of what happened to the forward and aft sections of the SRB as they were stressed beyond their operational limits. At first glance, the damage didn't look too bad...but closer inspection clearly showed what would've been catastrophic failure in an actual flight. However, this damage only resulted from applying significantly more force to the attachment point than would be experienced during a real launch. It's important to test items not only to their design specification, but to see how far beyond that they can go before failure. In so doing, NASA is helping to design and build the safest human-rated heavy launcher yet.

We ended our day by taking part in a NASA-televised conference featuring many of the key people involved in developing not only the new boosters, but the SLS program as a whole. I've seen Todd May (NASA SLS Program Manager) speak at a couple different events, and I quite like him. It's obvious he's very intelligent, but has an easy manner to his speech that renders him immediately likeable. I've also had the pleasure of hearing Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA Associate Administrator Human Exploration and Operations) speak once before. Though there was not a lot of new information gleaned from the assembled team, it was still an excellent experience and helped set the stage for the next day's static firing.

And on that note, I'll end 'Part 2'. If you're interested in watching a short video about much of what our group saw, please take a look at the NASA Marshall-produced video below. Thank you again for reading, and I hope to have 'Part 3' up soon.



Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Let's light this candle! Part 1

Pano of the QM-1 Solid Rocket Booster, post-firing.
Through the graciousness of NASA, the NASA Social team, and Orbital ATK, I was invited to Utah to witness the first of two qualification firings of the solid rocket booster (SRB) slated to help launch NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) some time in 2018. This was my fourth(ish) NASA Social (you can read about two of my other experiences - Marshall Space Flight Center and SpaceX CRS-5 - on my blog), and I have met many wonderful people and had some incredible experiences. If you've ever considered applying for one, I cannot recommend it more highly.

I'd like to first apologize for the lack of photos from Day One of the two day event - security restrictions made taking pictures impossible once passing through the facility's security perimeter. In fact, we were instructed to leave all electronic devices on the bus, else we might inadvertently take a picture of something we weren't supposed to...and the NASA Social people would get in trouble. So...I had no method to take notes or disseminate information because I didn't think about bringing a pen and notepad. I'm obviously not an experienced reporter...or a reporter of any sort. So, if I get a fact or two (or all) wrong...or I miss something altogether...please accept my apologies and invitation to set the record straight.

Flying over the Grand Canyon helped salve
the pain of connecting through PHX.
My journey to this Social starts, as always, in Atlanta. Though historically a non-flyer until late 2013, I have recently become a relative regular at the mini city known as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). If you've never been to ATL, words often will not do it justice - it truly is a city unto itself: security, subway system, a multitude of dining options, etc. - and the people...holy moly, the people. It's the busiest airport IN THE WORLD! You might be thinking: "Why is he talking about the Atlanta airport in a blog entry about NASA testing a booster?" Well, that's because I have finally found an airport WORSE than ATL: Phoenix's Sky Harbor International (PHX). The terminals are far enough apart to make walking a chore, but too close to justify a train system like ATL. On top of that, even their new gates are inadequate to handle the number of people coming through. All-in-all, PHX was a terrible experience. If you can avoid connecting through there, I highly recommend it. For me, unfortunately, both my outbound and return journeys would go through PHX.

The road is at 5,500' elevation, and the mountains
are nearly 2,000' higher still.
Landing in Salt Lake City (SLC), I was greeted with an astounding sight - mountains taller than I'd ever seen. You see, I'm a Southern Boy...and though I live in the foothills of the Appalachians, there is nothing we have here in Georgia - NOTHING - that compares to the towering beauties in Utah. In fact, I believe Georgia's tallest mountain barely exceeds the altitude of the level of the valley floor of where I was staying in Logan, UT. I love mountains...LOVE THEM...and I was being treated to a visual spectacle. Utahns, you have a lovely state. However, as impressive as the sights were, the real treat would be the next couple days.

Tuesday started bright and early, with a 5:00 AM alarm to make sure I had time to get ready, eat breakfast (ever had a "spudnut"?), and drive the nearly 70 miles from my hotel to the Orbital ATK (OATK) facility in Promontory, UT, by 7:30 AM. (Sidenote: Does 'Promontory' sound familiar? It did to me, too...and once I made the trek out to OATK, I knew why: the site of the 'Golden Spike' - the joining of the East and West transcontinental rail lines - was there...and there is a National Historic Site devoted to it. Very cool.)


Some familiar faces...but many new ones!
Once the obligatory "pulling into the wrong place" item was checked-off my 'list', I immediately encountered someone I'd met at the Michoud/Stennis Social. Being a somewhat introverted person with slight social anxiety, it was nice to see a familiar face. We headed into the facility (after using the wrong entrance) to get checked-in, and there were even more fellow NASA Social alumni...though new faces far outnumbered the familiar ones. At the introduction, much later in the day, it was discovered that our group represented people from all walks of life and from a myriad of industries...among them: a school teacher, someone that works for Twitter, an illustrator that's worked on DC and Marvel projects, a representative from a non-profit in neighboring Idaho, and even someone that's worked (or is still working) for Bigelow Aerospace! A very diverse and exciting bunch.


Rocket display at the Orbital ATK entrance
Then came time for us to board our bus for the tour of the Orbital ATK facilities. We knew we were in for some pretty cool tours, filled with information and "behind-the-scenes" access...and OATK delivered. However, that'll be for the next part of the "Let's light this candle!" series. Check back in the next day or two for the continuation. Until then, thanks for reading and I hope you join me for Part 2.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 2

The Cathedral of US Spaceflight.
Sorry for the delay in getting Part 2 written - the holidays were hectic, what with family and...who am I kidding? I was kid-free for Christmas and had no responsibilities. I was simply lazy. And it was GLORIOUS! 

Where was I? Hmmm...oh, that's right - WE WERE GOING INTO THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING!!!! The last time I was at KSC (1986), the tour bus only drove by the iconic structure and did not stop. In fact, most of KSC was inaccessible in the wake of the Challenger Disaster. But even then, I knew what a special place this is. Every Saturn mission...every Skylab launch...every Space Shuttle flight...was, at some point, in this building. History flowed through this massive structure. It's been in movies, TV shows, and video games. In fact, I think even people that don't pay much attention to NASA would recognize this building. To me, it's as much a national icon as anything in Washington, D.C.,...and through the incredible efforts of Jason and the NASA Public Affairs Office, we were going to be allowed inside...AND ON THE ROOF!

The walk from the press area to the VAB wasn't that far, but it felt like it took ages to cross the expanse of asphalt. We were all chatting amongst ourselves, while periodically stopping to snap a picture or two. I can't speak for the others, but I know that I was pretty stinkin' excited. I've been a fan of NASA and the space program for as far back as I can remember, so being in the "shadow" of the VAB was a thrilling experience.


Entering the Low Bay
After passing through security, we entered the VAB through a door in the Low Bay. Of course, the term 'low' takes on a different meaning when it's connected to something the size of the VAB - the Low Bay itself was more than 200 feet tall. I'm fairly certain that my mouth was affixed in a permanent smile at this point.

The interior was both more impressive, and far different, than I'd anticipated. I don't know why, but I had assumed the interior of the VAB was basically an empty shell, with a few cranes for lifting rocket assemblies into position. Though there were cranes, the interior volume was far more filled with "stuff" than I would've thought. I wonder how much change the VAB has seen since Apollo.

At this point, the NASA PAOs started a headcount to see if we needed to split up, and how many groups we might need to split into. I was part of the first group, with Andres and Nancy (NASA PAOs) escorting us up. We were told we'd have to take three elevators to reach the roof - ground to floor 16, floor 16 to 34, and floor 34 to the roof.


Buttons...LOTS of buttons.
Remember when I said Jason asked the group if anyone was afraid of heights? No one raised their hand. No one. I will admit that I don't relish the thought of heights, but they don't particularly bother me, either. I've been skydiving several times, and I love to hike in the mountains...both of which reach heights far greater than the 526 feet of the VAB. Well, let me tell you this - the VAB impacted me in a way I did NOT expect...and that "weakness in the knees" was not purely from the excitement of being there.

Entering the first elevator, everyone started snapping pics of the control panel and its rows and rows of buttons. Once we were all packed-in, the elevator shot upwards - and I do mean "shot". That was the most rapid ascent I've ever experienced in an elevator, coupled with a gut-churning deceleration at the stop on the 16th. This elevator was definitely not cut from the same cloth as those at your neighborhood mall.

Exiting on the 16th was a bit anticlimactic. The surroundings looked much like the basement of an apartment complex - bare concrete floors and cinderblock walls. Not exactly what I expected to see on the 16th floor of the VAB. The group was then guided to the next elevator that would whisk us to the 34th floor.


High...higher...highest.
The "dullness" of the concrete and cinderblock was soon to be left behind - rounding the corner brought the group to a breathtaking sight: the open expanse of the VAB's High Bay! This is where the Saturn rockets and the Space Shuttle were stacked before heading out to the launch pad...and where, soon, SLS will join their ranks. There were banners indicating the respective heights of each program to further illustrate just how big SLS is going to be.

Also, at this point, I became acutely aware of just how high I was...and how much higher I was going. The 'weakness in the knees' began to spread. I'm certain my heart rate jumped quite a bit - it's a good thing that I wasn't wearing any sort of heart-monitoring gear as I think it might've melted down from the increased activity.

As the group made its way to the second elevator, people began to discuss the possibility that this next car might, in fact, be the open-air variety that one might find at a construction site. Cue full-on pupil dilation and a 200 bpm heart rate. Oh dear, I hoped that this next elevator wasn't open-air. Though I would most definitely "suck it up", I preferred to not have to see the girders zip by as we climbed skyward. As the car arrived, it was obvious that it WAS an open-air type...but someone had the foresight to hang heavy "curtains" inside the car so that one couldn't see out. Woo hoo!


Walkway across 34 floors of nothingness.
The second elevator was just as zippy as the first and delivered us to the 34th floor in short order. Once again, the group filed out in order to head to the next (and final) elevator in our quest for the roof. This next elevator, though, was different. It was *considerably* smaller than the other two, which meant that the group had to break into smaller groups in order to be accommodated. Oh, and did I mention that the elevator, unlike the previous two, was out "in the open"? Yeah...34 floors up, standing on a 10'x10' concrete pad, with "nothingness" all around and only chain link-like barriers to prevent us from a 9.8m/s^2 trip to the floor. ::gulp::

Raised how I was, I couldn't take a place on the elevator if a lady would miss out on a spot. Yes, I know that some people think that's an antiquated mode of thought...and some might take offense...but I'm sorry - that's how I was raised. So, while the first group ascended to the roof, I waited on that seemingly tiny pad of concrete with the rest of the group for the return of the empty car so that we can head up. When the elevator doors opened and the rest of the group started filing in, it became clear that not everyone would fit...and I was one of four people left standing on that high perch. The seconds waiting for the return of the elevator car seemed like hours. I made small talk with the NASA PAO, mainly to get my mind off the heights.


Look, Ma - I'm on top of the VAB!!!
Finally, the doors opened and the remainder of us made our way up. When the doors parted, we were greeted with the bright, late afternoon, Florida sun. Gorgeous blue skies were overhead, and we had visibility for MILES! Holy moly, we were on top of the world! Well, on top of the VAB, but it may as well have been the world at that point. The view was absolutely TREMENDOUS! We made our way to the others that had already been up for several minutes, taking the opportunity to snap pictures of the surroundings - Launch Complex 39 in the distance, along with SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the pad at LC 40 - and the Mobile Launch Platform under refurbishment for SLS. And, of course, the obligatory selfies. You know that weakness in the knees I mentioned? Gone. Completely gone. I don't know if it was because the VAB is so large that it can be mistaken for "solid ground" like a mountain...or if it's because of the overwhelming excitement...or a combination of the two...but I was in heaven. This was SOOOOO cool. 

Unfortunately, since it had taken so long for us to make it to the top, we only had a few minutes to take in the surroundings. I took some pics with the DSLR (with a nice telephoto lens in order to 'see' the Falcon 9 on the pad) and a few more with the iPhone before we had to head back down. I'm certain that, if given the opportunity, many (if not all) of the group would've bribed/cajoled a few more minutes of roof time out of the PAOs...indeed, some were fantasizing about camping up there...but there was a whole other group of people that were waiting their turn to make it to the roof. Reluctantly, the group made its way back down.


R.I.P., Columbia.
Upon reaching the floor, we had the opportunity to look around while the rest of the group took their turn on the roof. There was some construction work occurring in the VAB getting it ready for SLS...and I noticed a large "mission patch" denoting Columbia's final flight, several floors up. I took a picture of it, not understanding the gravity of its significance. I didn't know it at the time, but Columbia's remains are housed in the VAB behind that memorial. Oh. My. Even now, thinking about it, I get a tear in my eye. I'm glad I didn't know about it at the time, else I might've looked a bit undignified.

Well, that was the end of Day 1...and, at any other time, it would be hard to approach - much less, top - the awesomeness that Jason and Co. presented to us. But this wasn't "any other time". You see, Orion had just returned to KSC...and we were going to see her the next day!!! But that's a story for another blog entry. Until then, thanks for visiting, and be sure to check out Part 1 if you missed it.

Many more photos are in a Flickr album I've shared - click here to see them all.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Is there still a need for a national space program?

I was at a friend's house the other evening, and the topic of the space program came up. He asked me this: "What do you think of Obama closing down NASA and relying on the private sector to do the job?" I was about to reply, but someone else said something and the conversation moved down a different path...which is a shame, because I most definitely have thoughts on the matter. Since I didn't get the chance to talk about it then, I'll take the opportunity to do so now.

Firstly, I don't think I've heard any credible source indicating that NASA is anywhere near being closed down. In fact, in the recent 'Continuing Resolution/Omnibus Spending Bill' that was passed, NASA received more money than they'd requested, with a significant increase targeted at SLS/Orion. Certainly this should quell any notion about NASA's mission being near an end.

Secondly, the private space industry is nowhere near ready to match the capability of what NASA can provide (both in-house and through contracted services). NASA has invested billions of dollars in facilities, research, infrastructure, manpower, etc., that private industry simply cannot replicate.

Would private industry see a value in New Horizons?
Thirdly, there are a lot of space exploration tasks that are not profit-driven and would likely be considered low-priority by private space interests. While someone like SpaceX might realize a financial reward by investigating lunar/asteroid mining, I'm far less confident they'd see a fiscal benefit in exploring Pluto (New Horizons) or Europa (Europa Clipper). Expanding human knowledge, though unprofitable, is critical to understanding how the universe works.

Lastly, why does having one preclude the usefulness of the other? It doesn't. Private industry, being profit-driven, will look for the cheapest/most efficient way to accomplish a task. There's nothing wrong with that, provided safety and reliability don't suffer. Similarly, I see the need for a national space program that serves the nation's interests - security and exploration - that would make a corporate beancounter whip out their red pen.

One might argue that a national space program is inherently more expensive than a private program, and they have a point. Kind-of. One must remember that many of the private partners make use of the decades of research and experience that NASA offers, as well as the state-of-the-art testing facilities NASA has built over the years. These are costs that the private guys don't have to incur. Moreover, with competition in the private arena heating up, I believe reduced costs are inevitable in a national program, too.

I love seeing the Stars and Stripes on a spaceship.
I'm a fan of the private industry, though I must admit to not always feeling that way. I never thought there was much real push behind them other than to stroke a billionaire's ego. I was wrong, and I don't mind admitting that. I'm genuinely excited about the prospects they bring to the table. I'm also just as excited, if not more-so, about the big programs coming out of NASA.

There are many fanboys out there proudly waving the flag of their chosen "team", and are quick to deride "the other guys". These are wasted energies and detract from the absolute awesomeness that is occurring in the industry. One thing is certain, though: For a space nerd, it's an exciting time to be alive.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 1

Falcon 9 & Dragon - ready to head to the ISS...but not
today.
Many of you may know that I recently took a trip to Florida to cover SpaceX's CRS-5 launch to the International Space Station. Originally scheduled to fly on December 9, the launch was later delayed a week...then a few extra days to December 19. Through the generosity of 'The Universe' and Amy (@AstroGingerSnap on Twitter - you need to follow her. Really.), I applied for media credentials for the event...hoping to see my first in-person launch. NASA approved the request and I was to be issued my first-ever media credentials.

So, on Wednesday, December 17, I set-off from the northern Atlanta 'burbs for the 8-hour drive to Titusville, FL. With all of my requisite gear (camera, multiple smartphones, laptop, tablet...you know - the essentials) in-tow, I pondered what the sights and sounds of a launch might be like. Thinking happy thoughts, I wiled away the miles with nary a concern. Even the ubiquitous Florida toll roads didn't irritate me as much as usual. OK, maybe that last part is a stretch - those toll roads tend to make me a bit "stabby", and this trip was no different. I *hate* toll roads.

Anyway, as the final miles ticked off and I neared the hotel, the excitement grew within. This was getting real...very real. I was going to see a launch! Woo hoo!

A few minutes after checking-in and unloading my car, I received an ominous message from Amy that said (paraphrased): "Here's a link that I don't think you're going to like." 

::clicks link::

Uh oh. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the Falcon 9's static fire test didn't go as planned and the launch is being delayed until at least the 20th...but likely later. Much later. As in '2015-later'. Crap on a cracker. So, I'd driven 500+ miles for a launch that was now likely to not occur. On top of that, though NASA had invited a few dozen people to take part in their planned NASA Social agenda for the launch, the media types like myself had no such activities in which to participate. I contemplated checking out of the hotel and head home the next day.

Amy said that the briefing was still scheduled for Thursday morning, and that more information would be given then...but all signs pointed to a significant delay. I slept fitfully, dreaming of disappointment. Waking early the next morning, I set off for the badging office to sign-in and received my credentials. Though I knew there was to be no launch, my excitement level was still pretty high. At the very least, I would see the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) from close range, and that's pretty cool in-and-of itself.


Obligatory selfie w/ the VAB in the background.
Arriving far before the start of the briefing (remember, kids: "Early is 'on-time'...and on-time is 'late'."), I sat in my car for a moment to take-in the scenery...and the history. I was in space nerd heaven. The iconic VAB was just a stone's throw away...and the new clock, with Pad 39A as its backdrop, was nearby.

I strolled around outside, trying my best (but failing) to not look like a KSC-noob. Well, I wasn't really a noob - I'd been to KSC once before...all the way back in 1986. My parents had taken us to Florida to visit Disney, and we were going to take a trip to KSC to watch Challenger land. If you know your space history, you'll understand why we didn't get to see a landing, and why most of KSC was closed to visitors.

Deciding that I'd spent enough time gawking at the cool stuff, I headed into the Press Center and waited for the briefing. As people started arriving, we began chatting with one another. While I was attending on a media pass, most people were there as NASA Social invitees. It was apparent that NASA selects from a broad pool of people for these events - though there were the expected types of social media representatives present (space bloggers, enthusiasts, engineers, etc.), we also had a travel blogger, someone that works in the fashion industry, and an elementary school principal (just to name a few).

Knowing that my presence at the event was purely as a media representative, but wanting to participate in the programs offered to the NASA Social crowd, I asked Jason Townsend (NASA's Deputy Social Media Manager) if there might be room for me to tag along with the group. Luckily, he thought that it shouldn't present a problem, so I excitedly joined-in (thanks, Jason!).

FULL DISCLOSURE: It's entirely possible that I have some of the speakers listed out-of-order, or info not entirely correct. If so, please accept my apologies, and feel free to let me know and I'll rearrange as necessary.

CATS in space! No...not that kind of cat, Laurel. :-)
The briefing began with a talk from some engineers and scientists working on NASA's CATS (Cloud-Aerosol Transport System) project. Very cool, and I'd only heard small bits of info about it previously. The experiment will attach to the exterior of the Japanese module (thanks, JAXA!) on ISS, and will use different laser wavelengths to measure particulates - biological, mineral, human, etc. - in the atmosphere in order to give us more accurate atmospheric models. ISS makes for a perfect platform for this type of science due to its orbital inclination and excess resources (power, comms, etc.). In fact, the ISS was considered to be 'underutilized', and was ripe for a project like this. Be sure to check out the program's webpage for more info.

After the CATS team, another NASA scientist - Dr.Sharmilla Bhattacharya (head of the Biomedical Performance and Behavior Lab at Ames - thanks, Amy) - discussed experiments analyzing multi-generational studies of fruit flies exposed to microgravity, compared to a control group in 1g conditions on Earth. They'll also have a third group kept in 1g-like conditions on ISS in a centrifuge. This will allow the scientists to determine if any genetic changes are related to gravity, or some other space-based condition (radiation, etc.).

Next, we heard from Patrick O'Neill - Marketing and Communication Manager with CASIS (Center for the Advancement of Science In Space). CASIS manages the national laboratory on ISS, and was appointed by Congress to identify new research opportunities afforded by ISS's unique environment. I never knew about this initiative, and it was quite interesting to see how private industry is being made aware of the research capabilities available to them on ISS.


Dr. Samuel Durrance - FIT professor and two-time
astronaut.
Following CASIS was Dr. Samuel Durrance, physics and space sciences professor at the Florida Institute of Technology...and two-time astronaut...to discuss his project: Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life (SABOL). I'll be honest - I generally consider myself to be a relatively intelligent person, but a lot of this was over my head...but that's OK - Dr. Durrance and his team are the ones that need to understand it, not me. Quoted from their web site: “Through our project we seek to develop an improved understanding of the origin of life on our planet, increase our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and provide an opportunity to apply this new understanding for the betterment of humanity.”

Then, Mary Murphy from NanoRacks came to talk about the company's capability to: "...put microgravity research projects within the budgetary realm of hundreds of universities, smaller organizations and first-time commercial space research users." They operate the only commercial laboratory in space.


The 526'-tall Vehicle Assembly Building - each stripe on
the flag is big enough to drive a bus...with room to spare.
Lastly, Dr. Julie Robinson - ISS program scientist - spoke with the group about how proper diet and exercise in space could negate bone loss without the need for drugs. This holds possible groundbreaking treatment possibilities for osteoporosis.

After all this, Jason mentioned that he was attempting to arrange a couple of very cool things for the group...and, for one of them, he wanted to know if anyone was afraid of heights. Afraid. Of. Heights. Did that mean what I thought it meant - going into, and on top of, the VAB?!?

Yes...yes, it did! How cool is that?!?!? We get to go into - AND ON TOP OF - the 'Cathedral of US Spaceflight'!!! 

But, alas, that's a story for another day. Until then, thanks for visiting, and be sure to let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Can't we all just get along?

July 21, 2011 - the beginning of a pause in the capability of NASA to get astronauts to orbit from US soil. Since Atlantis's touchdown, we have had to rely on Russia's ability to do the job for us...and the price they charge per seat is indicative of the lack of meaningful competition. This was never meant to be a permanent solution, which is why NASA awarded the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts to both SpaceX and Boeing earlier in 2014. Both companies were awarded the full amount of their respective proposals to develop a ship capable of carrying astronauts to LEO (low Earth orbit), dock with ISS, act as a space lifeboat in the event of emergencies, and return crew safely to Earth.

While Boeing is considered to represent the "old guard" in US spaceflight, SpaceX is most definitely the young upstart. As with most newcomers, SpaceX feels they can do things better, faster, and cheaper than the old guys. And you know what? Maybe they can. SpaceX currently charges significantly less to get hardware to orbit, and with their cargo flights to ISS, they continue to strengthen their credibility. They've yet to have a significant launch failure since the early days of the Falcon 1 tests, and their launch manifest is getting decidedly crowded as more customers line up to use SpaceX's services. Elon Musk has certainly created a capable and innovative company.


SpaceX's final launch of 2014 slipped to early 2015
However, all is not perfect in Hawthorne. Though SpaceX doubled the number of launches from the previous year (six Falcon 9's launched in 2014, compared to three in 2013), they only completed half their manifest. In fact, their final launch of 2014 ended up being delayed until early January 2015. The company is notoriously tightlipped about their operations, only disseminating information in minuscule bits as they see fit. Moreover, there are grumblings of overworked employees, and a high turnover rate.

But, to borrow a quote (modified though it may be) from Shakespeare: "I have come here to praise SpaceX, not to bury it." I admit it - I like the company. I like that they bring a much-needed competitive aspect to the space industry, and I'm thrilled at the renewed public interest in spaceflight. Many non-enthusiasts I speak with have at least have heard of SpaceX, which contrasts sharply with the "brand recognition" of their main competitor, United Launch Alliance (ULA). Unfortunately, though the marketing prowess of SpaceX has garnered a lot of mindshare, it has had the negative consequence of opening a rift among some that follow the industry.


Public engagement done right.
Over the past few months, I have had the honor of being invited by NASA to participate in several of their NASA Social events (be sure to search the hashtag #NASASocial on Twitter to see some excellent posts from these events). Among the topics covered, SLS and Orion received the greatest amount of engagement from fans...and detractors. The naysayers state that ULA overcharges NASA...and that NASA is a rudderless and bloated governmental agency: "SpaceX could accomplish so much more if the old guys would just get out of the way!"

OK, maybe there is a bit of truth in there somewhere. Does ULA charge too much? I can see how that might be the case. However, success isn't cheap...and if one wants the highest degree of a successful outcome, I can't fathom too many other places that would warrant such a consideration than with a rocket launch. Is NASA a rudderless and bloated government agency? No...well, not in the classic sense. They might be misdirected at times...but that's the fault of our elected leaders, not of the fine people running the agency. NASA has accomplished mighty things...and I do NOT think its best days are in the past.

EDIT: A friend made mention that SpaceX is very supportive of NASA, and that any contention is generally from the company's supporters...so I've amended the section below.

To SpaceX: I love you guys...really, I do. You may hold the the future of our spacefaring species in the drive and determination of your CEO and talented engineers. I want nothing more than for you to succeed. Your success is our success. Your innovations push others to compete with, and try to outshine, you. But never forget - you stand on the shoulders of giants. The men and women that came before you have blazed a trail that has given you a boost (pun intended), and I dare say you wouldn't be half as successful as you are without NASA. 

To SpaceX's supporters: Let's stop the petty feuding and support any of the companies that are working on the important task of making us a multi-planet species.

To ULA: My goodness, you guys are good. You have some of the most capable launch vehicles on the planet. Your record is exemplary, and your name is tied to some of the most iconic missions in our nation's history. But you're losing the PR battle. The 'everyman' knows nothing about you, and in today's media-centric culture, this isn't a battle you can long afford to lose. Though you probably don't need the approval and acceptance from the average American, I think it would behoove you to step it up a bit.

I'd love to know what you think. Please join the discussion in the comments below.