Sunday, July 24, 2016

News and Updates!

Yes, I know it's been a couple months since I've posted anything here...but that doesn't mean I haven't been busy. Far from it, in fact. Here's an update on what's up:

This is no longer the place for space
That's right - I will no longer be posting space-related content here*. In an effort to better "brand" my space content, I'm spinning-off those to a new site: The Liftoff Report. It's still very much under construction - and there may be some more tweaking before I'm truly happy with it - but be sure to go there if you're looking for that sort of information from me. I plan to update things more frequently there, and hope to provide content that I don't see anywhere else.

In fact, I've written my first real piece for the site. Seem there may be an update on a topic about which I've covered here: a fitting name for SLS.

I'm a published writer
OK, I suppose that's not a big deal, considering that pretty much anyone can be published nowadays...but I'm pretty happy about it. I've been writing content for one of the largest names in spaceflight news: SpaceFlight Insider. If you're interested in reading my articles - and I would sincerely appreciate it if you are - all of my posts can be found here. However, the fine team at SpaceFlight Insider takes pride in putting out a quality product, so if you enjoy my work, be sure to take the time to read the other content there. You won't be disappointed.

So...what WILL this site be?
Ah - good question. This place will be where I post all my thoughts/writings that AREN'T about space*. So, pretty much everything else goes here.

*Exceptions - OK, you probably already noticed a couple of asterisks when I mentioned space content. I plan to make The Liftoff Report fairly professional, even if it's covering Op/Ed content. However, there may be times when it's not appropriate to have space content on that site, but I want to post it, anyway - such as if I attended a NASA Social and wanted to discuss that particular experience. That will be the only type of space-related content still posted here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What's in a Name?

If SLS could talk, this is what it would say...probably.
Photo credit: NASA (with my snark added)
In 'Romeo and Juliet', Shakespeare penned: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." One could take away from this that a name doesn't fundamentally change the nature of something.

Factually, that may be true...but in practice, we humans are a funny bunch. We grow attached to things and imagine them with personalities. Consider the robotic explorers we send out into the solar system: We cheer when they overcome hardware failures. We weep when they've made their last call to their handlers. We feel pain when they take their final plunge into a planet's atmosphere. We grow attached to these pieces of metal, and mourn their passing, just as if they are living, breathing things...not soulless contraptions built by man.

Names might not impact function, but they matter to us. Would we space nerds have been so attached to something called 'OV-104'? No...no we wouldn't. However, saying 'Atlantis' evokes mental images that any space enthusiast will immediately see in their mind's eye. Same goes for the the words 'Mercury'...and 'Gemini'...and 'Apollo'. Those names convey a special feeling for the programs they represented. Not only that, but the individual spacecraft were christened with meaningful...or, sometimes, playful...names which gave one a sense of personality of the inanimate object carrying our intrepid explorers across the vastness of space.

Certainly, hearing: "Houston...Tranquility Base here...LM-5 has landed." doesn't carry the same impact. It just doesn't.

So, you may be asking, "Curt - what's your point?". My point is that America's next great rocket - the launcher ostensibly meant to carry crew and machines out of low Earth orbit for the first time since the days of the Apollo program - has been stuck with a horrible, clinical-sounding name: the Space Launch System (or 'SLS' for short). Though I love the rocket, I *hate* the name. Heck, even the cancelled predecessor to SLS had a cool-ish name: Constellation.

And while the space shuttle was technically the 'Space Transportation System' (STS), at least the individual orbiters were given meaningful - and memorable - names. While our nation's spacefaring endeavors might only be a few decades old, surely we haven't run out of 'cool' names for our rockets. Come on - this is America...WE LANDED PEOPLE ON THE MOON!!!! We can do better than calling it 'SLS'.

NASA: Names matter. Make it happen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A bozo with a microphone...

A Long Time Coming
Well...I've wanted to do a podcast for a long time. I picked up a decent mic and stand a couple years ago with the intent of starting a podcast, focusing on enterprise technology. But, for some reason, I never got around to making it happen. Probably because I secretly hate computers...or I'm lazy...or maybe a combination of the two.

However, over the past couple years, I've been honored to have been invited by NASA, United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, and as a representative of several internet media groups, to cover various aspects of our nation's space program. Being a life-long space nerd, this has been one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done. And I want to do more of it...and share that enthusiasm with others.

Be Careful What You Wish For
Being a somewhat socially awkward introvert, writing about the events was a natural expression of my thoughts and feelings. The relative safety of a static medium like a blog suited me just fine. I could write words, post the link to Twitter and Facebook...and watch the readers queue up like customers at an ice cream truck...at midnight...in January...in Alaska. But I was ok with that.

Of all the social networks, I'm by far most active on Twitter. I think the brevity of the 140-character limit suits my desire for posting a quick thought...and, really, people seem to interact more freely on Twitter...people who may not normally do so (like celebrities, industry moguls, etc.) on other social platforms, treat Twitter differently. For better or worse.

But I still want to do a podcast. I don't know why, but I do. Maybe it's because I have a face for radio, and a voice suitable for sign language...and I wanted a challenge. Or I'm a glutton for punishment. Granted, I'm a glutton - the middle-age spread is a testament to that - but punishment doesn't sound like me at all.

Space Tweeps are the Best Tweeps
One of the things I've discovered that I really like about the NASA Social events are the people who attend. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I've forged a friendship with all of them...or even a large number of them...but for those with whom I "click", engagement is fairly prolific. And fun. It is through one of these "clicks" that I have been presented an opportunity to take part in a space information venture.

Rachelle Williams (@AstroAnarchy) - along with Gene Mikulka (@genejm29) and Carolina Garza (@g_cgarza167) - has asked me to contribute to a new venture of hers: The Anarchist's Guide to the Universe. Through this media organization, we hope to provide space-oriented podcasts, commentary, live launch coverage, and blogs...from a diverse - and interesting - set of viewpoints. This is out of my comfort zone. But I'm excited. And I hope you'll join us for our inaugural event on March 22, as we provide live commentary of the Orbital ATK OA-6 launch to resupply the International Space Station. I'll post updated information about our coverage as we get closer to the event - or you can follow any/all of the Twitter accounts above...and look for the #AstroAnarchy tag on Twitter - for the latest details.

While I can't say we'll be the most polished...or most knowledgeable...group to have ever covered a launch, I can guarantee you'll see three super smart people - and a bozo with a microphone (me!) - having a great time sharing something about which they're passionate. We hope that you enjoy it enough to engage us with questions/comments, and come back to our group for our future offerings.

Thank you, and I hope we see you March 22.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Song of Ice and Firing Stands

Ice cares not if you have AWD, Mr. Subaru.
I love Huntsville, Alabama. Really, I do. In fact, it's one of my favorite places to visit, and were it not for me being so far along in my career, I'd likely be looking to call 'Rocket City' home. However, the city that helped build America's manned space program hides a sinister secret - a "monster" who looks to snatch unsuspecting motorists from the apparent safety of the elevated arterial roadway and hurl them willy-nilly into the concrete barriers separating travel lanes from the near interminable drop to the ground below.

I know this monster. I've met this monster. I've *survived* this monster. On my birthday, of all days, this beast chose to rear its ugly head and attempted to add me to its collection of broken and charred victims. But not this day. My trusty steed - the venerable Forester - quickly leapt into action, deftly dodging left...then right...as we were locked in an epic battle with Huntsville's silent killer: snowy roads.

OK, perhaps it wasn't quite so dramatic...but I *did* do a bit of dodging to the left and right...mostly because I started sliding on the ice and was doing all I could to keep from hitting the wall, or the other cars sharing the road with me. I don't care how good a driver you are, or what kind of car you drive, ice is the great equalizer. With the 'pucker factor' having risen to dangerous levels after my brief, but near-catastrophic, encounter with the icy roads, I decided to get the heck off the 'skyway' and move down to the surface streets, which I hoped would be clearer.

I liked the framing of this shot. That's it.
So, what dragged me out of a safe and warm hotel room in a city nearly four hours from home? NASA was hosting a Social event at many of their Centers across the country to mark the 2016 'State of NASA' address by Administrator Bolden. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville was one of those sites, and had invited nearly twenty social media participants to visit the Center.

I know that I've visited MSFC many times - often writing about the trip here in my blog - and I almost feel like it's "my" Center. In fact, I had been to Marshall a scant two months prior to report on the near-completion of the stand meant to stress-test SLS's massive liquid hydrogen tank. Nevertheless, my passion and interest in our nation's space program is such that I could likely visit the Center weekly and not tire of it, or feel jaded about the major role Marshall has played - and continues to play - in America's space flight heritage.

Being the Center responsible for designing, testing, and validating SLS, one would expect any Social event at MSFC to focus heavily on that vehicle...and this day was no exception. Marshall's newly-appointed Center Director - Todd May - greeted the group, welcoming us to the Center and gave us a brief overview of Marshall's activities over the past year, and then took a moment to answer questions.

Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May
With the possibility Congress could direct NASA to launch the proposed 'Europa Clipper' mission on SLS, I asked May if the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) - which operates under Marshall's "umbrella" - could accommodate that need along with the tentative flight date of EM-2. According to May, though the nominal production rate for SLS will support a cadence of one flight per year, capacity at MAF will allow for a surge rate of two SLS launches per year, and a 'spike' capacity of three per year. Any cadence higher than that, or a sustained rate of two-plus vehicles per year, would require expansion at MAF.

After a few more questions, the group heard from two engineers working on the SLS program - Michelle Tillotson and Nick Case - before heading to the avionics area. There, engineers and programmers are 'tweaking' SLS's flight computers, followed by simulated launches, to gather data about how the rocket will perform throughout nominal - and off-nominal - flight profiles. Even a shortened simulated launch can generate several terabytes of data for the engineers to examine. As various components of SLS move from design to testing to qualification stages, that real-world performance data is integrated into the testing regime. In fact, shortly after the successful test of the new 5-segment booster in March 2015, Orbital ATK had delivered the raw data to the SLS engineers in Huntsville.

Yes, I took a selfie at a rocket test stand. Not ashamed.
Departing the avionics area, the group boarded the bus to travel to the test stand area at Marshall. This part of the Center has a rich history - here, von Braun and his team tested many of the rockets which would carry America's astronauts to Earth orbit...and beyond. Situated between the two SLS test stands currently under construction is the massive firing stand used to test the mighty Saturn V rocket. It's hard to imagine the sound which must've roared through the Tennessee River Valley when those engines were tested.

Though quiet this day, the stand nonetheless presented an imposing sight: its massive concrete and steel structure stood as a testament to the power it was built to restrain. With snow continuing to fall in fits and spurts, and a healthy wind chill to boot, the group was invited to take an elevator ride midway up the structure to get a view of the two SLS stands being built nearby. Once complete, those stands will push, pull, and twist the core stage's liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellant tanks, stressing them to flight limits, and beyond, to ensure SLS will be the safest vehicle to launch crew and cargo.

Les Johnson - Dep Mgr, NASA's Advanced Concepts,
compares the thickness of the sail to one's hair (or lack thereof).
Thoroughly chilled to the bone, we dutifully boarded the bus to head to the 'flat floor' facility to meet with some engineers working on secondary payloads which will fly on SLS. One of the more interesting payloads is a solar sail. This 86 square-meter sail is made out of a material the thickness of a human hair - 2.5 microns. The 'pressure' of sunlight will push on this material, accelerating the sail at a slow, but steady, pace without requiring fuel or engine. Smaller sails have been tested previously, but SLS will give these smaller secondary payloads the unprecedented opportunity to go beyond their usual "playground" of low-Earth orbit (LEO) and operate in cislunar space. Without the drag of Earth's atmosphere, thin though it may be in LEO, the sail should be able to accelerate slightly more rapidly (though 'rapid' is definitely a relative term when one is talking about the pressure of sunlight), providing more meaningful data to scientists.

Our final stop of the day was back at the US Space and Rocket Center. There, the group was given a tour of the new International Space Station (ISS) exhibit, which includes a scaled-down version of the real-life Payload Operations Center (POC) at Marshall, along with a "high fidelity" replica of many of the ISS modules. Save for the lack of cables, computers, and various clutter one many expect to find on an operational space station, the ISS mock-up is an accurate analogue to the real deal.

This is on the ISS. Really.
One of the more amusing stories came from 'Paycom Penny' (Penny Pettigrew). The astronauts on-station can speak with the ground operations not only through the expected ISS-ground radio communications, but also through more traditional means - a.k.a., a phone call. Pettigrew recounted an instance when she was heading home from a shift at the POC only to have her cellphone ring as she was on the highway. CallerID doesn't identify it as 'Space Calling' (though how awesome would *that* be?!?), so she wasn't necessarily expecting there to be an ISS-based astronaut on the other end of the call. Penny said when an astronaut calls, you'd better believe that's a situation when one pulls over to the side of the road to give the caller one's undivided attention.

Knowing that I had to take the long route back home in order to avoid the snowy conditions through the mountains, I excused myself from the last, optional bit of the day and headed home. As always, the Social was thoroughly enjoyable, and it's always nice to meet fellow space enthusiasts.

I would like to thank the people at Marshall, and at the Space and Rocket Center, for inviting the group out to take part in this NASA Social event. It's incredible to consider that a "normal person" like me has the opportunity to participate in something like this.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Another one of my interests: Astronomy

I made this. Really. Well, the picture...not the Moon.
After reading some - or all - of my previous posts, one may come to the conclusion that I only like rockets. And complaining. OK, fair enough - I guess I *do* like both (especially complaining), but that's not all - I also have quite the fondness for astronomy. In fact, the 'astronomy bug' bit me almost as early as the 'rocket bug'.

Considering the speed with which I succumbed to the "fever", I must've been highly susceptible to their infection...and, quite honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way. If one has to be bitten by something that molds their life and interests, why not something so basic - and exciting -  as exploration?

However, just as with my experience with rockets/spaceflight, my interest in astronomy did wane for a while. Must've been a time in my life when happiness was difficult to come by...and if I wanted to pay a bajillion dollars for a shrink to figure it out, I'm sure they could nail down the cause. However, since I didn't win the lottery...I'll choose to look forward rather than to the past.

My first telescope was a gift from my parents: a 60mm Bushnell refractor. It was mounted on a simple tripod, with basic alt-azimuth (up/down - left/right) controls, and had a couple of eyepieces. Though not the best telescope, and I quickly outgrew it, it's what helped foster my interest in looking at the heavens.

If my first telescope was a bicycle with training wheels, my second was a 3/4 ton truck with a manual transmission. A gentleman in my local astronomy club was selling one of his telescopes: a huge 8" Newtonian reflector on a German equatorial pier mount. Being a gainfully-employed, and very naive, teenager, I jumped at the chance to get this beast. Unfortunately, my skills and knowledge weren't nearly up to the task of making use of even a little bit of this scope's capabilities, so it sat - more often than not - in my room as a piece of decoration. A very large piece of decoration.

Rather than let it continue to languish, I sold it to someone else in the club when I went off to college. Better to let someone else love it rather than have it gather dust. And thus started my 'Astronomy Dark Ages'. I was still interested in the night sky, and I followed news and discoveries with great interest, but I was now a sidelined observer rather than actively participating.

Fast-forward about twenty years, and I began to feel the urge to get another telescope. We happened to be in a store that had their scopes on sale, so I snagged a Meade 114mm computerized reflector for a hair over $200. It's not the best scope...but at that price, from a brand like Meade, well...I couldn't pass it up. Unfortunately, living in metro Atlanta, light pollution here is a huge issue, so the scope didn't get used as much as I would've liked. After a couple seasons of taking it out to look at the Moon...and Jupiter...and Saturn...and the Orion Nebula...well, it kinda sat unused for a while. Until today.

I've taken it out of storage, dusted it off, and cleaned the cobwebs out from the tube. Now to get some batteries and hope the tracking motor isn't as bad as I remember it (I hope I was just doing a poor job of aligning it). Next clear night, I plan to take it out to reacquaint myself with the wonders of the night sky. Until then, I'm relegated to taking pics of the moon (like the one above) with my DSLR.

How do I get started? Is it expensive?
As with any hobby, astronomy can be as cheap - or as expensive - as one wants it to be. In fact, all that is required is the Mk I Eyeball. That's it. Just look up at the stars. Take it all in. Get to know the sky in your part of the world (yes - the sky can look markedly different depending on where one is located). Read online content about naked eye observations, and learn the major constellations. All of this can be had for the low, low price of 'time'.

Once you feel you're ready to progress beyond simple stargazing, you may feel the pull to get a telescope. There's nothing wrong with that...but BEWARE the siren's call of 600x zoom telescopes (and the like) from the big box retailers. If the seller's key metric is the zoom power of the telescope, run...run away.

Also, you might want to first decide what type of astronomical viewing you want to do, and let that influence what type of telescope to consider. Though all telescopes do basically the same thing - gather the light from a distant object, magnify it, and direct it to your eye - some perform better at certain tasks than do others. If you're going to only be looking at bright objects, such as the Moon...Jupiter...Saturn...etc., then a simple (but decent) refractor may be all you ever need (especially if you live in a heavily light-polluted area). Are you more interested in faint, deep-sky objects? Then you might want to invest in a "light bucket" - a.k.a., Newtonian reflector. How about a 'jack of all trades' (but kinda pricey) scope? Then a catadioptric scope (like a Schmidt-Cassegrain scope) may fit the bill. Also, you may already have something handy to extend your stargazing just a bit: binoculars. Even simple 7x35 binocs can give one an entirely new view of the night sky.

If it's still a bit murky, which is entirely understandable, I would recommend you seek out a local astronomy club to see what they have. Talk to the club members, get their advice, and take a look through their eyepieces. From my time belonging to an astronomy club in my hometown, I can readily testify that there's almost nothing more enjoyable to amateur astronomers than to share with others.

The fine people over at TMRO have produced a set of videos (Space Pods) explaining the differences (and a bit of history) between the three types of telescopes mentioned above:

Refractor

Reflector

Catadioptric

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Strike three...but still a hit. (Part 1)

She's a beaut, Clark. But will the weather cooperate?
I'm a lucky guy. I know that. I've seen the world's largest solid rocket booster test-fired in the Utah desert. I've been awestruck by the raw power from a single RS-25 engine fired for nearly nine minutes from a test stand in coastal Mississippi. I was present when Orion made it back to Kennedy Space Center (KSC), fresh from her maiden flight atop a Delta IV Heavy in December 2014. I have been in - and on top of - that iconic cathedral of space flight: the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). I've spoken to, and shared a handshake with, both the Administrator and Deputy Administrator of NASA. I have done so many things with NASA, and its space flight partners, over the past eighteen months that one could be forgiven for thinking that I've seen and done it all. While there is no doubt that I've been blessed beyond words, the fact remains that - out of three tries - I have yet to see a launch in-person. Really.

"How is that possible?!?", you may ask. "Certainly a space nerd like you has seen the Space Shuttle take flight! Or what about the numerous other launches from KSC or Wallops Island?" Sadly, no - I wasted my opportunity to see the Shuttle launch because I thought it would always be there and never made plans to see it...so I can't even count that as a missed try.

I was waitlisted for Orbital's third, and ill-fated, resupply launch from Wallops Island in October 2014. Strike one. In December of that same year, I was invited to cover SpaceX's CRS-5 launch from KSC as a media representative...and was notified of a scrub - along with a lengthy delay - of the launch just as soon as I completed the 450 mile drive to Titusville and was checking-in to my hotel. Yet another launch I was to not see - strike two.

Knowing that, it's understandable that I was exceptionally excited to receive the last-minute invite from the NASA Social team to take part in the OA-4 (Cygnus) Social - I might finally get to see a launch! I immediately booked a room for the week and started making arrangements for the trip. As soon as the long-range weather forecasts became available, I would periodically check to see how things were looking. In a nutshell: not good...but not awful. I was cautiously optimistic.

Looking for explosives...or sandwiches. But mostly
explosives.
Arriving at the KSC Press Badging Office for "Day 0" (it was a bonus, optional day for the Social), I was immediately reminded of what makes these events so much fun...and why they can sometimes be more engaging than the events that I cover as "traditional" media: the people. I don't think I've ever seen a social media attendee that wasn't genuinely excited to be there...and it shows on their face and in their conversation. How can one *not* enjoy being with such an enthusiastic bunch?

Seeing some familiar faces - but many more new ones - we all went about introducing ourselves, welcoming the newcomers as they trickled in. It's worth noting that the people selected by NASA to attend the Socials are always diverse - in age, gender, ethnicity, background, and pretty much in every other way imaginable - and this time was no exception. Tech industry? Check. Alternative music radio and media representative? Yep. Street artist? Absolutely. Professional photographer? No doubt. Amateur astronomer? Of course. Court system manager? Ditto. And the list goes on. I felt conspicuously "plain" in comparison to the interesting people around me...and that's a good thing - I'm kinda boring.

Armed with my camera, smartphones (yes, plural...don't judge me), and not-infallible memory, I departed the Press Badging Office with my fellow enthusiasts for a day filled with loads of info and cool hardware...and visits to sites awash in history...and to see the progress of NASA's commercial partners as they prepare to take on the mantle of providing human access to low Earth orbit (LEO) as NASA moves on to the next phase in its charter of being the world's preeminent home of human space exploration: the Space Launch System (SLS).

"Let the launch be the icing on the cake, not the cake
itself." NASA's Jason Townsend. Dang it, now I want
cake. I should never write when I'm hungry.
The NASA Social team - from HQ and KSC - had a full three days lined up for us, hopefully culminating in the launch of Orbital ATK's Cygnus (the S.S. Deke Slayton II), atop United Launch Alliance's (ULA) reliable Atlas V rocket, in the evening of the final day. NASA's Jason Townsend, in addressing the group, gave sage advice: hopefully the launch would be the icing on the cake, and not the cake itself, as we were going to be given access to people and areas generally unavailable to the public.

As with past Socials, the NASA team went above-and-beyond. One of our first stops was to see testing of actual hardware used to support the launch of SLS - the umbilical connections which will provide power, and other resources, to the heavy lift rocket and to the Orion spacecraft. One of the interesting things about this stop is that this is the *actual* hardware to be used for SLS, not some test article that will never be used once testing is complete.

We then had the pleasure of visiting Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41), the site of some of NASA's most famous uncrewed missions: the Viking landers (Mars), Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Juno (Jupiter), and New Horizons (Pluto)...and the future site of launches of crewed flights in Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. The construction at SLC-41, in support of these crewed missions, is well underway...with the superstructure of the crew access tower nearly complete. Here, both NASA and ULA personnel discussed the future of the launch site with the group, and allowed us quite a bit of free reign to take pictures and ask questions.

Launch Pad 39A has history. Lots and lots of history.
Departing SLC-41, the group next stopped at a place etched into my memory ever since my childhood - Pad A at Launch Complex 39. Originally used for Saturn launches, then for the Space Shuttle, the facility has since been leased to SpaceX for their Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy programs. There, we heard from Carol Scott - NASA's commercial crew liaison to SpaceX - about the construction occurring at the site and SpaceX's vision for how they'll make use of the pad. While saddened to learn that the Rotating Service Structure at the site will soon be removed, seeing the massive 'strongback' - which will be used to lift the rocket to a vertical position - was fairly exciting. That means progress is definitely being made at the site, with the launch of the Falcon Heavy (hopefully) taking place some time next year. It should be an incredible spectacle to see.

Taking a break for lunch, the group descended upon the poor, unprepared staff at the cafeteria. I'm not sure that they - or the other KSC workers - are accustomed to seeing a horde of space fans lined up, looking to consume whatever food happens to be left. I know that Sonny's BBQ ran out of just about everything well before the group made it through the line. One of the nice things about the lunch break - besides eating, that is - was having the opportunity to speak, at length, with some of the fellow attendees. Truly a fascinating bunch.

Stomachs full, but still eager for more spacey goodness, the group then headed to the NASA News Center complex where we had a chance to charge our various electronics and take care of personal business for a bit.

What was once used for the Shuttle, is now being used
for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
One of our last stops of the day was at Boeing's CST-100 processing facility, housed in the old Orbiter Processing Facility #3. There, we learned that we were the first social media group to be allowed inside the building since the refit for the CST-100. That was pretty cool to hear...but the best stuff was yet to come. In the high bay, they have the structural test article for the CST-100. This will be what's used to validate the design before building the final, crewed version. During the Q&A inside the bay, we learned that the CST-100 will return to Earth under parachute...and on land (at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico)...with six inflatable airbags used to help cushion the landing. The craft will be able to tolerate the loss of a parachute and a single airbag and still return the crew within acceptable load limits.

Our final stop of the day was at the massive Mobile Launch Platform. Situated near the VAB, this platform and tower combination will be what SLS sits on as it makes its way from the VAB out to Pad 39B. Currently, Pad 39B is being renovated with a "clean pad" architecture, meaning the platform, tower, and rocket will all come out to the launch area - devoid of any pre-existing tower structure - as an integrated unit...just like the Saturn V. I look forward to the day I see America's next great exploration vehicle make its 3.5 mile journey out to the pad.

And so drew to a close the first day of the Social. As soon as I can, I plan to recount days two and three of this excellent Social. In the meantime, why don't you go take a look at what some of the other attendees had to say about their experience:

Paula Kiger - Perspicacity
Marty McGuire (Backyard Astronomy Guy) - YouTube Channel and website

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What Should You Expect from a NASA Social?

So...you've been selected for your first NASA Social event. Congratulations! Are you excited? Is your inner (or outer, depending on your personality) 'space nerd' jumping for joy? You're soon to take part in something that, traditionally, members of the general public have not been able to witness from such a privileged vantage point. Maybe it's an engine test...or a planetary encounter...or a 'crown jewel' of Socials - a launch! Whatever the occasion, you're sure to be both impressed, and overwhelmed, during the event. 

Through the graciousness of NASA and their Social Media team - both at NASA HQ and at Marshall Space Flight Center, I've been lucky enough to have been selected for several Social events, among which were: the unveiling of the 'Welding Wonder', the world's largest rocket-building tool that will help build America's next great launcher - the Space Launch System (SLS)...to witness the awesome fury of the firing of the upgraded solid-fuel booster at the QM-1 Social, which will help power SLS to orbit...and the incredible sight and sound of a full-duration test of the RS-25 engine, four of which will continue to power SLS to space as part of SLS's core stage. Hopefully my experience can help you maximize your enjoyment of this special event.

What Should I Bring?

Don't let this happen to you...
Everything! Or nothing! Well, not 'nothing'. Considering that it *is* a social-media based event, I would suggest you bring whichever portable tools are necessary in order for you to chronicle your experience and share it with your followers. Some Socials include tours of restricted-access areas where photography is prohibited...and there are even some where no electronic devices (not even key fobs) are allowed. Unless you have a photographic memory, it may be worthwhile to bring along a notebook and pen/pencil for taking notes. Trust me.

Also, unless you have some super-special devices, you're likely to be looking for a power outlet to top-up the charge on your various and sundry gadgets about halfway through the day...if not sooner. You'd be well-advised to bring along a portable charging device (no RTGs, please) as outlets are habitually in short-supply. I've seen many 'Socialeers' use, and swear by, the portable charging systems. If you have one, bring it. Since I often tote around my laptop, I use its battery to provide a charge to my phone(s) and camera(s).


What Should I Wear?

Clothes, please. Oh...you were looking for something a bit more helpful than that? Fine. Often, NASA will give a basic outline about clothing requirements - no shorts or dresses, no open-toed shoes or flip-flops, etc. Even though an event may be occurring in coastal Mississippi during the dead of summer, if NASA says 'no shorts', they mean it. Really.

I generally wear a hat - not just to cover my thinning hair...but I like hats - and have generally had no problem with that. I recall there being one high-security place that disallowed head coverings, so I had to leave it on the bus...but that's a rare occurrence.

With NASA having a myriad of locations across the country, and with weather being somewhat unpredictable at times, it may make sense to layer clothing and/or bring a light jacket...or something heavier as necessary. Oh - definitely wear comfortable shoes...you'll be walking. A lot.

Since many of the events have an outdoor component, things like sunglasses, bug repellant, water, or even light snacks might be worthwhile to consider. No one knows you better than you do - so bring what you think you may need.


Who Will Be There?
Is that NASA Administrator Bolden? Yes...yes, it is.
One of the coolest things about a NASA Social, other than the subject of the social itself, is the broad variety of people attending the event with you. I've met so many people: an engineer from Bigelow Aerospace, a Twitter employee, a fashion designer, and a WWE Diva just to name a few. Add the prospect of meeting astronauts, NASA engineers, research scientists, and maybe even NASA's Administrator - Charles Bolden, and I believe it's possible that you might have almost as good a time learning about your fellow attendees and speakers as you will seeing all the cool NASA stuff at the Social.

I've made many friends and acquaintances at the Socials...some of whom I've come to call very close friends. While your "mileage" may vary, rest assured you'll be in the company of people with an interest and passion for NASA and its various missions/directives. Make the most of it. Really, if a diehard introvert like me can do it, so can you.

What Else?
I cannot over-stress simply taking the opportunity to observe...to sit and watch what's going on...especially if this is your first event. I still have to remind myself of that occasionally. For instance, at the QM-1 booster Social in Utah, I was so busy taking pictures and videos of the two-minute test that I actually don't remember it as vividly as I should. Sure, I snapped some cool pictures and impressive video, but I do regret not taking the opportunity to simply watch the spectacle happening before me. Don't make the mistake of not fully appreciating the moment - you'll have plenty of time to tweet, text, blog, etc., later.

Did I miss something? If there's anything else you'd like to know, feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for reading, and congratulations on being selected!