Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hello, Pluto!

Artist's rendition of New Horizons at Pluto. Credit: NASA
Unless you've been living under a rock for the past couple of days, then you likely know that NASA's New Horizons probe recently accomplished its primary mission: perform a flyby of Pluto to collect data and pictures to send back to scientists on Earth. It was the culmination of 9.5 years of travel to that far-off world (so far away that it takes light approximately 4.5 hours to cover the distance), though only the beginning for the scientists who will examine the data for years to come.

Interestingly, it will take nearly 16 months (yes - MONTHS!!!) for the full payload of data to make its way back to Earth. Why? Because, at best, New Horizons can only communicate at 4,000 bits per second (bps)...and, sometimes, as slow as 1,000 bps. "But this is NASA! My home cable modem is much, MUCH faster than that! What's their problem?!?" Physics...physics is their problem. Not only is New Horizons 4.5 light-hours away (and growing), but the transmitter on the craft only operates at 12 watts. It takes NASA's largest receivers here on Earth - the massive 70m dishes located at various locations around the globe - in order to discern the meager signal from the background noise. Let that percolate in your gray matter for a moment: 12 watts - approximately 1/5 the power of a typical 60 watt household light bulb - and it's billions of miles away! NASA can perform some comms 'gymnastics' to bump up the effective speed a bit, and Emily Lakdawalla does an excellent job of going into much greater detail than I could - it's definitely worth a read.

What next?
Now that New Horizons has had its Pluto encounter, is the mission now complete? Will it be left to drift aimlessly through the cosmos? No, not by a long shot. Firstly, it must now transmit all of the science data that it collected during the flyby. Secondly, scientists have the opportunity to direct New Horizons to visit another Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) - objects inhabiting the zone of the Solar System beyond Neptune's orbit.

Though the target has not yet been selected, the list has been narrowed to a handful of objects. No spacecraft has ever visited a KPO, and doing so presents an excellent scientific opportunity to observe something that may well indicate the make-up of the early Solar System. The limiting factor is neither fuel nor technology - it's funding. NASA needs continued funding to pay for the personnel to staff the operations center and for the resources required to maintain communications with the craft. I hope that our elected leaders see the huge return on the investment from this program and continue to fund it.

Is Pluto a planet now?
As far as I'm concerned, Pluto was *always* a planet...and continues to be so. In fact, though my position was originally borne by tradition, the more we learned about Pluto from New Horizons further convinced me that it's a planet. Unfortunately, I'm not the final arbiter in making that decision. I've spoken with some people that wholeheartedly feel that planetary status is something to be reserved for larger celestial bodies, and that Pluto fails to meet this criteria. Additionally, they argue there could potentially be hundreds more 'planets' in the Solar System if we use Pluto's characteristics as an entry-level baseline. Well, what of it? "The more, the merrier!", I say. To me, if an object is gravitationally spherical and doesn't directly orbit a non-stellar body, then it's a planet.

"Ah HA! Pluto and Charon orbit a shared center of mass, which is outside Pluto's body! See? Even by your definition, it isn't a planet!" Well, no...not at all. Notice that I said "doesn't directly orbit a non-stellar body." Empty space isn't a non-stellar isn't a body at's simply empty space. At worst, this would make Pluto and Charon a binary planetary system. Further bolstering Pluto's status as a planet is that it harbors an atmosphere. "Ahhhh! Well, Titan has an atmosphere, too! In fact, it's denser than Earth's atmosphere...but it's classified as a moon. So, is Titan now a planet?" Nope. It orbits Saturn.

Other criteria used to disqualify Pluto's inclusion in the 'Planetary Club' is that its orbit is wonky (yes - that's a highly scientific term. Trust me.). Not only is its orbital plane significantly tilted in comparison to the rest of the Solar System, but its orbit is very eccentric (meaning: it's far less 'round' than the others). Well, whoop-dee-do. So what? That has to be one of the lamest criteria being used to bump Pluto to 'dwarf' status.

Do I think Pluto will now be reclassified as a planet? Maybe...but probably not. The most likely outcome is that there will be a re-write of the entire classification system (rocky planets, gas planets, ice planets, dwarf planets, etc.) so that they're all technically planets...but are each grouped according to physical properties. Honestly, I'm not necessarily opposed to that. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out, especially as the data starts flowing in from New Horizons.

Wow! I admit that the display of national pride during the flyby brought a tear to my eye. While I have always harbored a love of our national scientific/exploration endeavors, that sort of display not often seen in today's 'politically correct' environment. My country might not do everything right...and, if we're being totally honest, it does quite a lot wrong...but which other nation has come close to our record of planetary exploration? American taxpayers, I don't think you know what a gem you have in NASA. Contact your elected leaders and encourage them to give NASA more than the pittance they currently receive. Imagine how much more NASA could do with extra funding.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why Should You Apply for a NASA Social?

Part of the group from the QM-1 NASA Social
One of my first blog entries, waaaaay back in 2014, was meant to be an encouragement to those that may be thinking of applying for a NASA Social event, but - for whatever reason - were reluctant to do so. Now that I'm a 'grizzled veteran' of four NASA gatherings, I thought I would revisit the topic and share some of my insights and observations.

Prior to applying for my first NASA Social, I would frequently see tweets from many of the 'space people' I follow on Twitter discussing some super-cool NASA project, often with the #NASASocial hashtag. As I had not heard the term 'NASA Social' before, I assumed that it was an event catering to industry insiders and space journalists. Considering the 'behind-the-scenes' access that was being displayed via that simple hashtag, I thought it a reasonable assumption.  

Sidenote: you *are* following NASA on one of its many active social media accounts, right? If not, head over to the NASA social media page for links to all the 'social media goodness'. 

After a bit of research, I realized that the NASA Social wasn't intended for industry insiders; no - it was meant for the average, everyday, space enthusiast with a passion to share their experience with the world. It took but a second for me to realize: "Hey - I can do that!" I have loved the space program for as long as I can remember, and the realization that I could be a "part" of it, regardless of how minute that involvement might be, was one of the absolute coolest things I had ever considered.

Then self-doubt crept in: "Why would NASA want me there? I'm just a network engineer in a school system. I don't have nearly the amount of social media followers these other people seem to have. There's no point in even applying...I won't get picked." So I didn't apply. I would continue to see numerous tweets about events NASA was in which I had a keen interest...but I felt I had nothing special to contribute. So I wouldn't apply.

Finally, and I have no idea what sparked the initiative for me to do so, I applied for an event - the unveiling of the #WeldingWonder (or, more appropriately, the 'Vertical Assembly Center'...but, if we're being honest, #WeldingWonder does sound a bit more...awesome..right?). I reasoned that it didn't seem as "impressive" as other events (launches, rover landings, etc.), so there was a high likelihood that I might be selected. Additionally, being the engineer that I am, I was extremely interested to see this aspect of building America's next great rocket.

Though initially waitlisted, I was eventually extended the invitation to visit NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center for an incredible tour of the facilities that are critical to building SLS. I met many great people - some of which I now proudly call friend, shook hands with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and had one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Seriously.

You might say: "But Curt - I'm not an engineer. I'm just a travel blogger...or fashion writer...or nature photographer...or...insert whichever non-space vocation you want to here...why would NASA want me there?" Because there is already a bevy of space-centric journalists and industry bloggers out there that are reaching the same types of people. However, if you have an interest in space - and enjoy sharing that interest with others - then you're EXACTLY the sort of person NASA would love to have at one of their events.

So, please...if you're 'on the fence'...trying to decide whether or not to apply for one of the upcoming NASA Socials...don't let that voice of self-doubt prevent you from applying for an incredible life experience. To quote hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Summertime is Busy Time in a School System...

I know it's been a while since I've posted anything, but I'm focusing on quality over quantity...or, at least, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Actually, things have been busy at work and I didn't feel much like writing once I got home. Many people think that school system employees love the summers because students are gone; let me tell you, in the Technology Department, summer is our busy time. Many big projects are in progress and there is only a short amount of time to get them done before the teachers and students return. Couple that with the fluid access availability to the schools thanks to the 'Floor Nazis' (a.k.a. - custodians), and the best laid plan is a wreck within the first week of summer break.

The voters in our county continued their support of the district by passing a bond referendum last year. As our school system is one of the largest in Georgia, and among the fastest-growing in the country, property and sales tax revenue alone is insufficient to keep pace with the rampant growth (we add, on average, nearly 1,800 new students EVERY YEAR). This bond is to fund, among other things: technology improvements, new schools, and expansions at pre-existing schools. As soon as teachers were done with post planning, in came the construction workers, HVAC contractors, and staff from the Technology Department ready to commence on a summer full of work.

One of our (and, by 'our', I mean the Technology Department) largest summer projects is to upgrade the district's wireless networking hardware. We have been using some form of wireless technology in our system since 1998, and have been at the forefront of instructional implementation of wireless hardware. Sometimes, though, that cutting-edge nature can sometimes "backfire". Our last, large technology bond (in 2007) was to provide building-wide wireless coverage...for notebook computers. Tablets and smartphones weren't really a "thing" then (sidenote: Has it really been 8 years since the iPhone was released??? Wow.), so the design for device placement was for the more robust antennas found in laptops.

With the proliferation of handheld devices used for Internet access, the wireless design quickly became inadequate. Unfortunately, providing more coverage isn't as simple as heading to the neighborhood electronics store to pick up a new access point - there is a finite amount of usable RF (radio frequency) spectrum that can be used for wireless networking, so one must be careful when designing the layout so that the spectrum isn't made *worse* due to poor design. Additionally, security and quality of the hardware/software was a critical concern. This meant that only enterprise-grade hardware would suffice...which translates to higher cost, and since this all occurred at the height of 'The Great Recession', funding was in short supply. Therefore, we had to hobble along with an insufficient design until the budget supported augmentation/replacement.

Over the past few months, we have pored over multiple designs in an attempt to find something that strikes the right balance of client performance, cost, and manageability...all while moving to the faster, but shorter-range, 802.11ac standard. We believe we've found that 'perfect' combination and hope to be providing faster and more pervasive wireless network for our nearly 48,000 users and their nearly 60,000 unique wireless devices. Yes, those numbers are correct - we have more devices on our network than we have users, which means that some students bring more than one device with them. Supporting such a large number of devices, ranging from handheld gaming systems to full laptop computers...and everything in-between...can be a Herculean task if not properly designed and managed.

Students and teachers of Forsyth County Schools - yes, we know that wireless coverage has been a major point of complaint over the past few years. Unfortunately, there wasn't much we could do about that until the passage of this latest bond referendum. Thankfully, the voters of the county see and understand the need for us to maintain/expand our technology so that the district can continue to provide an exception instructional experience. This will be a summer-long project, and it's only one of the many important projects we'll begin when the buildings are "empty". Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Things I think I think...I think.

I know it's been a little while since I've posted anything - darn that writer's block! Of course, I just write for fun...and it's been busy at work you get what you get. I know I generally write about space-related topics, with an occasional tech tidbit thrown in...and this post will continue the trend, with some other items sprinkled-in. I welcome your input and would love to have a reasoned discussion on any/all of the items below.

Soyuz Progress M-27M Failure
Short response: I hate that the ISS won't receive this shipment of cargo and supplies. I know the astronauts aren't in dire need of supplies, but it's not as if everything that was sent was superfluous. I also hate that we have to rely on the Russians for anything. SpaceX's first successful crewed flight to the ISS can't come soon enough, and I hope OrbitalATK is able to quickly recover from the Antares failure. Couple that with ULA's reliable Atlas V and Boeing's forthcoming CST-100, and I hope we never need a scrap of anything launched from 'Mother Russia' ever again.

Long response: Probably best if I just stick with the short response.

Apple Watch
I briefly covered my preliminary thoughts about the Apple Watch in a prior blog post, but now that it's been released, have a changed my mind? No. Well...probably not. Ok...maybe. Crap. I don't know. I'm generally an early adopter, so that drives me towards wanting one. But the smugness that seems to emanate from Apple (more so than usual) over the thing makes me want to throw up in my mouth. Also, I'm still not quite sure how I'd use it. I might rather save my money for something else...maybe a GoPro. Or a new kayak. Or a replacement DSLR for my aging D50. All I know is that it's not taking a whole bunch of willpower to refrain from ordering an Apple Watch...and that might be telling me all I need to know about it.

NASA's EM Drive
Have you seen the news? NASA has designed an "impossible engine" that will open up the stars to humanity! Or so the stories would have you believe. While I'm not an engineer, I'm highly skeptical that this is what people think it is. I don't know why...but I don't believe it. I *want* to believe it...and I sincerely hope that it IS a game-changing method of propulsion...but something in my gut doesn't feel right. Well, it's either that or the refried beans I had with dinner...but I'm sticking with 'skeptical'. Hopefully we'll hear more about it soon - I'm interested to see what others, beyond a small group of "insiders", think about this.

iPhone 6 Plus
I had been using a Samsung Galaxy S4 as my work phone for a year (or so) and often complained about the unwieldy size of the phone and its cumbersome use one-handed. Once the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were released, I purchased an iPhone 6 to replace my iPhone 5 (which was handed down to my daughter) because I thought the 6 Plus would be too big and suffer from the same issues as the Galaxy S4. Fast forward a couple months and I upgraded my work phone to an iPhone 6 Plus (thanks, Dr. Stringbean!)...and I love it. Absolutely love it. I'll admit to being a bit of an Apple fan, but I'm a tech geek, in general. I wanted to like Android...but I never felt "at home" with it. Now that I'm back on iOS on my work phone, I've found my workflow is much smoother - contacting the technicians at the sites is more seamless...sharing files to other users is foolproof...and it's a more polished experience. Couple that with the exceptional display, which isn't nearly as bulky as it might appear, and the iPhone 6 Plus is a great phone. I wish I'd gotten one sooner.

Blue Origin's Test Flight
I don't know about you, but this seemed to come out of nowhere. I had heard nothing of an upcoming test, nor did I really take much stock of Blue Origin. I made the mistake once before not believing in an internet billionaire, and now I've done it again. I guess I really need to alter my perception of the capabilities of these "new space" companies and how quickly they might be relevant. I'm a huge fan of NASA and of a national space program...but maybe it's not so far-fetched to think that private space entities will soon surpass our national endeavors. I'll have to keep my eye on them...and, perhaps, not immediately dismiss the next Musk or Bezos that comes along. These are exciting times.

Our Lady of Perpetual Beta - a.k.a., 'Google'
We're testing some software that allows us to integrate Google's Cloud Print capability into our district's Active Directory infrastructure. It works far better than I expected save for one thing - a user must accept a shared printer via a full desktop browser before the Cloud Print capability will work on a mobile device. Really? That's not terribly convenient, Google. I know 'Google Cloud Print' is still in beta, but that's a pretty big stumbling block. Please fix it.

OK - that's all for tonight. I'm sure there's a bunch more I could have discussed that would bore you to tears, but I'll leave it at that. If there's something that piqued your interest or raised your ire, please leave a comment - I love a good discussion. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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 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 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 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 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.