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.