Sunday, January 4, 2015

Turning Disappointment Into Bliss - Part 2

The Cathedral of US Spaceflight.
Sorry for the delay in getting Part 2 written - the holidays were hectic, what with family and...who am I kidding? I was kid-free for Christmas and had no responsibilities. I was simply lazy. And it was GLORIOUS! 

Where was I? Hmmm...oh, that's right - WE WERE GOING INTO THE VEHICLE ASSEMBLY BUILDING!!!! The last time I was at KSC (1986), the tour bus only drove by the iconic structure and did not stop. In fact, most of KSC was inaccessible in the wake of the Challenger Disaster. But even then, I knew what a special place this is. Every Saturn mission...every Skylab launch...every Space Shuttle flight...was, at some point, in this building. History flowed through this massive structure. It's been in movies, TV shows, and video games. In fact, I think even people that don't pay much attention to NASA would recognize this building. To me, it's as much a national icon as anything in Washington, D.C.,...and through the incredible efforts of Jason and the NASA Public Affairs Office, we were going to be allowed inside...AND ON THE ROOF!

The walk from the press area to the VAB wasn't that far, but it felt like it took ages to cross the expanse of asphalt. We were all chatting amongst ourselves, while periodically stopping to snap a picture or two. I can't speak for the others, but I know that I was pretty stinkin' excited. I've been a fan of NASA and the space program for as far back as I can remember, so being in the "shadow" of the VAB was a thrilling experience.

Entering the Low Bay
After passing through security, we entered the VAB through a door in the Low Bay. Of course, the term 'low' takes on a different meaning when it's connected to something the size of the VAB - the Low Bay itself was more than 200 feet tall. I'm fairly certain that my mouth was affixed in a permanent smile at this point.

The interior was both more impressive, and far different, than I'd anticipated. I don't know why, but I had assumed the interior of the VAB was basically an empty shell, with a few cranes for lifting rocket assemblies into position. Though there were cranes, the interior volume was far more filled with "stuff" than I would've thought. I wonder how much change the VAB has seen since Apollo.

At this point, the NASA PAOs started a headcount to see if we needed to split up, and how many groups we might need to split into. I was part of the first group, with Andres and Nancy (NASA PAOs) escorting us up. We were told we'd have to take three elevators to reach the roof - ground to floor 16, floor 16 to 34, and floor 34 to the roof.

Buttons...LOTS of buttons.
Remember when I said Jason asked the group if anyone was afraid of heights? No one raised their hand. No one. I will admit that I don't relish the thought of heights, but they don't particularly bother me, either. I've been skydiving several times, and I love to hike in the mountains...both of which reach heights far greater than the 526 feet of the VAB. Well, let me tell you this - the VAB impacted me in a way I did NOT expect...and that "weakness in the knees" was not purely from the excitement of being there.

Entering the first elevator, everyone started snapping pics of the control panel and its rows and rows of buttons. Once we were all packed-in, the elevator shot upwards - and I do mean "shot". That was the most rapid ascent I've ever experienced in an elevator, coupled with a gut-churning deceleration at the stop on the 16th. This elevator was definitely not cut from the same cloth as those at your neighborhood mall.

Exiting on the 16th was a bit anticlimactic. The surroundings looked much like the basement of an apartment complex - bare concrete floors and cinderblock walls. Not exactly what I expected to see on the 16th floor of the VAB. The group was then guided to the next elevator that would whisk us to the 34th floor.

The "dullness" of the concrete and cinderblock was soon to be left behind - rounding the corner brought the group to a breathtaking sight: the open expanse of the VAB's High Bay! This is where the Saturn rockets and the Space Shuttle were stacked before heading out to the launch pad...and where, soon, SLS will join their ranks. There were banners indicating the respective heights of each program to further illustrate just how big SLS is going to be.

Also, at this point, I became acutely aware of just how high I was...and how much higher I was going. The 'weakness in the knees' began to spread. I'm certain my heart rate jumped quite a bit - it's a good thing that I wasn't wearing any sort of heart-monitoring gear as I think it might've melted down from the increased activity.

As the group made its way to the second elevator, people began to discuss the possibility that this next car might, in fact, be the open-air variety that one might find at a construction site. Cue full-on pupil dilation and a 200 bpm heart rate. Oh dear, I hoped that this next elevator wasn't open-air. Though I would most definitely "suck it up", I preferred to not have to see the girders zip by as we climbed skyward. As the car arrived, it was obvious that it WAS an open-air type...but someone had the foresight to hang heavy "curtains" inside the car so that one couldn't see out. Woo hoo!

Walkway across 34 floors of nothingness.
The second elevator was just as zippy as the first and delivered us to the 34th floor in short order. Once again, the group filed out in order to head to the next (and final) elevator in our quest for the roof. This next elevator, though, was different. It was *considerably* smaller than the other two, which meant that the group had to break into smaller groups in order to be accommodated. Oh, and did I mention that the elevator, unlike the previous two, was out "in the open"? Yeah...34 floors up, standing on a 10'x10' concrete pad, with "nothingness" all around and only chain link-like barriers to prevent us from a 9.8m/s^2 trip to the floor. ::gulp::

Raised how I was, I couldn't take a place on the elevator if a lady would miss out on a spot. Yes, I know that some people think that's an antiquated mode of thought...and some might take offense...but I'm sorry - that's how I was raised. So, while the first group ascended to the roof, I waited on that seemingly tiny pad of concrete with the rest of the group for the return of the empty car so that we can head up. When the elevator doors opened and the rest of the group started filing in, it became clear that not everyone would fit...and I was one of four people left standing on that high perch. The seconds waiting for the return of the elevator car seemed like hours. I made small talk with the NASA PAO, mainly to get my mind off the heights.

Look, Ma - I'm on top of the VAB!!!
Finally, the doors opened and the remainder of us made our way up. When the doors parted, we were greeted with the bright, late afternoon, Florida sun. Gorgeous blue skies were overhead, and we had visibility for MILES! Holy moly, we were on top of the world! Well, on top of the VAB, but it may as well have been the world at that point. The view was absolutely TREMENDOUS! We made our way to the others that had already been up for several minutes, taking the opportunity to snap pictures of the surroundings - Launch Complex 39 in the distance, along with SpaceX's Falcon 9 on the pad at LC 40 - and the Mobile Launch Platform under refurbishment for SLS. And, of course, the obligatory selfies. You know that weakness in the knees I mentioned? Gone. Completely gone. I don't know if it was because the VAB is so large that it can be mistaken for "solid ground" like a mountain...or if it's because of the overwhelming excitement...or a combination of the two...but I was in heaven. This was SOOOOO cool. 

Unfortunately, since it had taken so long for us to make it to the top, we only had a few minutes to take in the surroundings. I took some pics with the DSLR (with a nice telephoto lens in order to 'see' the Falcon 9 on the pad) and a few more with the iPhone before we had to head back down. I'm certain that, if given the opportunity, many (if not all) of the group would've bribed/cajoled a few more minutes of roof time out of the PAOs...indeed, some were fantasizing about camping up there...but there was a whole other group of people that were waiting their turn to make it to the roof. Reluctantly, the group made its way back down.

R.I.P., Columbia.
Upon reaching the floor, we had the opportunity to look around while the rest of the group took their turn on the roof. There was some construction work occurring in the VAB getting it ready for SLS...and I noticed a large "mission patch" denoting Columbia's final flight, several floors up. I took a picture of it, not understanding the gravity of its significance. I didn't know it at the time, but Columbia's remains are housed in the VAB behind that memorial. Oh. My. Even now, thinking about it, I get a tear in my eye. I'm glad I didn't know about it at the time, else I might've looked a bit undignified.

Well, that was the end of Day 1...and, at any other time, it would be hard to approach - much less, top - the awesomeness that Jason and Co. presented to us. But this wasn't "any other time". You see, Orion had just returned to KSC...and we were going to see her the next day!!! But that's a story for another blog entry. Until then, thanks for visiting, and be sure to check out Part 1 if you missed it.

Many more photos are in a Flickr album I've shared - click here to see them all.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Is there still a need for a national space program?

I was at a friend's house the other evening, and the topic of the space program came up. He asked me this: "What do you think of Obama closing down NASA and relying on the private sector to do the job?" I was about to reply, but someone else said something and the conversation moved down a different path...which is a shame, because I most definitely have thoughts on the matter. Since I didn't get the chance to talk about it then, I'll take the opportunity to do so now.

Firstly, I don't think I've heard any credible source indicating that NASA is anywhere near being closed down. In fact, in the recent 'Continuing Resolution/Omnibus Spending Bill' that was passed, NASA received more money than they'd requested, with a significant increase targeted at SLS/Orion. Certainly this should quell any notion about NASA's mission being near an end.

Secondly, the private space industry is nowhere near ready to match the capability of what NASA can provide (both in-house and through contracted services). NASA has invested billions of dollars in facilities, research, infrastructure, manpower, etc., that private industry simply cannot replicate.

Would private industry see a value in New Horizons?
Thirdly, there are a lot of space exploration tasks that are not profit-driven and would likely be considered low-priority by private space interests. While someone like SpaceX might realize a financial reward by investigating lunar/asteroid mining, I'm far less confident they'd see a fiscal benefit in exploring Pluto (New Horizons) or Europa (Europa Clipper). Expanding human knowledge, though unprofitable, is critical to understanding how the universe works.

Lastly, why does having one preclude the usefulness of the other? It doesn't. Private industry, being profit-driven, will look for the cheapest/most efficient way to accomplish a task. There's nothing wrong with that, provided safety and reliability don't suffer. Similarly, I see the need for a national space program that serves the nation's interests - security and exploration - that would make a corporate beancounter whip out their red pen.

One might argue that a national space program is inherently more expensive than a private program, and they have a point. Kind-of. One must remember that many of the private partners make use of the decades of research and experience that NASA offers, as well as the state-of-the-art testing facilities NASA has built over the years. These are costs that the private guys don't have to incur. Moreover, with competition in the private arena heating up, I believe reduced costs are inevitable in a national program, too.

I love seeing the Stars and Stripes on a spaceship.
I'm a fan of the private industry, though I must admit to not always feeling that way. I never thought there was much real push behind them other than to stroke a billionaire's ego. I was wrong, and I don't mind admitting that. I'm genuinely excited about the prospects they bring to the table. I'm also just as excited, if not more-so, about the big programs coming out of NASA.

There are many fanboys out there proudly waving the flag of their chosen "team", and are quick to deride "the other guys". These are wasted energies and detract from the absolute awesomeness that is occurring in the industry. One thing is certain, though: For a space nerd, it's an exciting time to be alive.