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 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
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