Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 1

Falcon 9 & Dragon - ready to head to the ISS...but not
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, 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
Following CASIS was Dr. Samuel Durrance, physics and space sciences professor at the Florida Institute of Technology...and two-time 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.