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.