Woo-hoo!!! I’ve been accepted to cover the first launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft on December 3rd! The event is a NASA Social – much like the one I attended last year to cover the LADEE launch from Wallops Island, VA. This time the spacecraft is Orion and it will be launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, but the good folks at NASA have arranged meetups at NASA centers around the country to get an inside preview.
Lucky for me, I’ve been selected to cover the event at my old stomping grounds at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD. It will be cool to get back there and see what’s new, tour the facilities, and hopefully get a good look at the James Webb Space Telescope under assembly.
But the main event is the maiden flight of the Orion spacecraft itself, which actually won’t be until early the following morning. As you probably know, the United States has been hitching rides to the International Space Station aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft ever since the retirement of the Space Shuttles in 2011. NASA has been developing a new manned spacecraft – Orion, which looks an awful lot like the Apollo spacecraft last flown nearly 40 years ago.
But whereas Apollo was designed to take astronauts to the Moon, Orion is designed to take astronauts to the Moon, an asteroid, Mars, or anywhere Congress decides to pony up the dough for. But like any new vehicle, it eventually has to be tested in actual spaceflight, and that’s where the Exploration Flight Test 1, or EFT-1, mission comes in.
EFT-1 will launch Orion atop a Delta-IV Heavy launch vehicle, boost it an altitude 15 times higher than the International Space Station, return to Earth in a high-speed re-entry, and parachute to a splashdown landing in the Pacific ocean. To give you a better idea of the mission, check out this video:
The mission is pretty ambitious for a first outing. Not only will the spacecraft’s re-entry and thermal protection systems be tested, but it will do so from a much higher altitude and at a far steeper angle than current spacecraft. The Space Shuttle and Soyuz return from the International Space Station from low-Earth orbit at the relatively “low” speed of 17,500 miles per hour. Orion will eventually be returning from the Moon (or beyond) at much higher speeds. To simulate that, EFT-1 will send Orion much higher up to re-enter at a considerably higher speed.
I’m sure I’ll be getting more into the weeds on this later, but for now I’m jazzed about visiting Goddard again and attending the NASA Social. Hopefully we’ll wake up the next morning and see Orion liftoff for the first time. Go Orion!
With two solid days of briefings and tours under our belt, it suddenly began to feel very real. There was going to be a launch tonight, and we were going to see it. After dinner, we returned to the NASA Visitors Center at Wallops. It was early in the evening and VIP guests were starting to come in. With four hours to go before launch, it felt like the calm before a storm.
What might have seemed like an eternal wait was pleasantly shortened for me when I ran into Dana Berry, an old friend from the Space Telescope Science Institute days. If you don’t know who Dana is, I can guarantee you’ve seen his work. Dana is a highly sought-after digital artist whose work has been used to visualize many of NASA’s missions, including Hubble, Chandra, and now LADEE.
At 7:45, we returned to the press room to get ready to head out to the viewing area. By this time, it was becoming less of a calm and more of a storm.
But we had one more briefing to go, by none other than the NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden!
Bolen thanked us for coming to the launch and for spreading the word. He told us that for all of NASA’s public outreach assets, they still don’t communicate with the public very well. But NASA Social allows NASA to enlist the public as citizen journalists to spread the word in a personal way that no amount of media power can do.
You all are now part of the NASA team, whether you like it or not.
Then he did something that was incredibly amazing. He asked for Kim Alix, a K-5th-grade science lab teacher from North Carolina. After her selection to come to the NASA launch, she sent Bolen an email thanking him for the opportunity. He was so moved by her message that he wanted to thank her personally in the only way he knew how:
Bolden told us that as the son of two teachers, he laments the lack of respect (and compensation) teachers get from the public. As luck would have it, there were several teachers in our group who were particularly appreciative of his comments. As the son of a teacher myself, I thanked him in return.
With our final pre-launch briefing out of the way, it was time to board the bus and head out to the viewing area. Escorted by police, we were taken to a location just 2 miles from the launch pad, adjacent to the VIP viewing area. There in the distance, but plain as day, stood the Minotaur V rocket. My iPhone’s camera hardly does the view justice, but you might be able to get an idea just of how close we were to the launch pad:
The next 2 hours may as well have seemed like two minutes. The excitement, and nervousness, were palpable. But there was one more surprise left. Jessica from NASA Ames asked me if I would like to appear on NASA Edge’s coverage of the launch. Um, okay…
Jessica took Kimberly Knight and myself to the VIP viewing area. There we met up with fellow NASA Social members Kim Alix and iVy Deliz who themselves were getting ready to be interviewed on NASA Edge.
NASA Edge is an unscripted video podcast that has all of the production values of a proper TV show. Best of all, these guys get paid to cover launches!
In between interviews, they’d cut to a pre-recorded segment, or the live feed of the launch pad, giving the next interview a chance to set up. Kim and iVy went next, and they knocked right out of the park:
Now, by this point, we were in the final 1/2 hour before launch. My excitement and nervous energy were already pretty high, and this is what I saw next:
With just a few minutes to go before launch, we were quickly driven back to the viewing area. And then this happened:
I mean, how cool is that? The cheers following the initial launch were for the successful ignitions of the Minotaur’s second and third stages. The vehicle was right on the money!
Afterward, we got back on the bus to return to the visitors center for the last time. The bus was filled with the glow of cell phones showing their pictures, the sounds of videos, and shouts of “My friend saw it from New Jersey!”, “My buddy posted an amazing picture from Brooklyn!“, and so-on.
It was a party bus.
We got back to the Visitors center and by this point, most of our group had gone home. But a few of us die-hards stuck around for the post-launch briefing at 2:30 am.
The briefing ended, we said our goodbyes, and headed back to our hotels.
LADEE was on its way to the Moon.
The two days of our NASA Social flew by in a blink. I met some really great people there, and if I have one regret it’s not getting a chance to meet every single one of them.
I did get to meet several of the hard working people behind the scenes at NASA Social. It takes a lot of work to organize and run these events, and their professionalism was exceeded only by their enthusiasm.
I’m extremely grateful for those whose videos and images I used, especially to Tom Wolf who makes my camera phone images look like, well, camera phone images. Thanks man.
LADEE is on its way to the Moon to study the lunar atmosphere, for no other reason than because we are curious. A lot of brilliant people worked together to pull off this launch, and will continue to do so to make this mission a success. Yes, there was a big ol’ American flag and a NASA meatball on the side of the rocket, and I’m certainly proud of that. But this doesn’t just represent what NASA can do, or what the United States can do, but what we as human beings can do when we really want to explore our universe.
Day two of our NASA Social Meetup began with lunch at the cafeteria, which was a good thing since that meant we didn’t have to begin until 11:30 on Friday. Afterward, we began a tour of Wallops Flight Facility which was super cool. Wallops does a lot more than launch rockets and all of them are cool in their own unique way.
Our first stop was to the Scientific Balloon Shop. The balloons made here can stay aloft from days to months at a time at altitudes of 100,000+ feet – right at the edge of space itself. And these things are huge, sometimes inflating to be the size of the Superdome!
Best of all, balloon teams launch all over the world, including Antarctica. Good work if you can get it!
Balloons will take you all the way up to the top of Earth’s atmosphere, but if your science requires you to be in space, you may need to fit your payload into one of these babies:
Suffice to say, this bit was pretty cool, and we had a lot of fun taking pictures of this particular rocket.
Here I am doing my best impression of a Steely-Eyed Missile Man.
Our tour continued to the shop where science payloads are assembled, integrated, and tested. Following that, we went into what at first looks like a machine shop, except it’s one where they turn stuff like this:
…into stuff like this!
The whole time people were taking selfies, and Jim Way decided to go all meta on me:
By this point, we were starting to run a little late so we made a quick stop at the Launch Control Center
Our final stop on today’s tour was to a hangar that were housing both of NASA’s Global Hawk aircraft. If you’re not familiar with NASA uses these two vehicles for their Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel missions.
Unlike traditional manned Hurricane Hunters, these aircraft are capable of flying well above the storm and can take data of the entire atmospheric column all the way through to the ground.
It takes two crews to fly the Hawks, one stationed at wherever they are based from (in this case, Wallops) to handle takeoff and landing. Once aloft, control is transferred to the science team in Ohio who fly the mission from there. Very impressive stuff!
With our tour complete, it was time to head back to the Visitor’s Center for a series of briefings from the instrument scientists, engineers, range safety officers, and all sort of people we would have loved to have heard from if it wasn’t so late in the day and we were getting hungry.
After our morning briefing, we took a break for lunch. When we came back, we went in for the Pre-Launch briefing:
Afterward, we were treated to a presentation on our understanding of the Moon by LADEE Project Scientist Dr. Sarah Noble. The presentation was conducted at the NASA Visitors’ Center at Wallops Flight Facility in a Science on a Sphere exhibit. This was my first experience with one of these devices and it is really quite amazing. Essentially, a sphere is suspended from the ceiling in the middle of a room. A projector in each corner displays 1/4 of the image onto the sphere, combining to create a full “3D” image of whatever sphere-shaped object you’re looking at, in our case, the Moon:
Even better, the system was able to demonstrate LRO topography data:
We then took a break and I did a little shopping in the gift shop. As it turned out, they were giving away free LADEE-branded Moon Pies:
And during the break, I got to say hello once again to well-known Hubble Hugger John Grunsfeld:
Then it was back to the briefing room, this time for the science briefing:
Mom alert: At the 18:00 mark, I ask a question about the predicted count rate.
With the briefings concluded, it was time for a trip to the launch pad itself. The team from Orbital Sciences were finishing up some Hazardous Operations (HazOps) when we arrived. All rockets have explosives on board to blow up the vehicle in case something goes wrong. However, the crews install inhibitors to prevent an accidental detonation of the vehicle while they’re working on it. At L-1 days, these inhibitors are removed and the vehicle is fully armed. The crew were completing this process just as we arrived. As a result, we had to keep our cell phones in Airplane mode so we wouldn’t set the thing off and incinerate the vehicle (and ourselves along with it.)
So much happened during the two days of our NASA Social Meetup at the LADEE launch, a single blog post of any substantive detail is a post that may never get published, let alone read. So instead, I’ll try to break it up into smaller bits to have a play in the weeds a little. Since much has been written about the launch by others far more capable than I, I’ll try to stick to how things went from my own personal perspective.
Over the course of the two days, we attended several briefings, including the official press briefings which were broadcast on NASA TV. But this first one for NASA’s educational channel turned out to be far and away the most comprehensive. If you have the time, watch the whole thing and you’ll learn about the spacecraft, the science objectives, and the launch operations. Also, I’ll put our level of questions against the traditional media any day.
In the interest of brevity, and of my mom, I’ll quickly highlight the bits where I pose some questions.
Our first speaker was John M. Grunsfeld, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. He welcomed us and talked about how excited he was to see us returning to the Moon with LADEE and exploring a part of the lunar environment that is largely unknown to us. Grunsfeld is one of my heroes because as an astronaut, he flew on three servicing missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. As an astronomer himself, NASA couldn’t have asked for a better person to run the space science side of the NASA house.
At the 18:00 mark, I asked Dr. Grunsfeld what it was like to be the last person to touch the Hubble Space Telescope. He gave a response that was as accurate as it was humble: he didn’t actually touch Hubble directly since he was wearing the thick rubber gloves in his EVA spacesuit. In fact, every technician who ever touched Hubble wore gloves of some kind. But he quickly pivoted to suggest that tens of thousands of people actually touched Hubble over the last 24 years since its launch, and during the 15 years of its development before it was launched. A humble answer indeed.
Grunsfeld also spoke about what it was like to ride the Space Shuttle into orbit. He’s a great storyteller and if you don’t have time to watch the whole video, just watch the first segment with Grunsfeld.
Up next was Dr. Sarah Noble, program scientist for LADEE. At the 36:00 mark, I ask her about what overlap LADEE might have with other lunar missions currently in progress. She points out that there are currently three other lunar missions in progress right now: the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which is currently making detailed measurements and imagery of the lunar surface, ARTEMIS, which is monitoring the Sun / Earth / Moon environment. The LRO and LADEE teams are currently working to figure out how they might be able to work together, while the ARTEMIS team will most likely be able to give the LADEE team weather reports based on solar activity hitting the Moon.
Next was Bob Barber, the LADEE Spacecraft Systems Engineer from NASA Ames in California. LADEE is Ames’ baby – it was designed and built there and will even be flown from there as well. A big first for LADEE is the use of the Common Spacecraft Bus (CSB) architecture. CSB is an attempt to make spacecraft easier (and therefore cheaper) to build for a given range of missions. LADEE is the first spacecraft to use the CSB approach:
LADEE looks eerily similar to the Apollo Command and Service Module, but there’s no way the tapered shape at the top has anything to do with aerodynamics or even fitting into the fairing of the Minotaur V, so I asked what was up with that at 56:04. It turns out that the tapered angle gives them a way to get extra solar power in case they ever find themselves tipped away from the Sun for some reason.
Like I said, the whole thing is well worth your time watching if you really want to learn about LADEE. It’s also a great way for us space geeks to watch and go “HEY! I know that guy/girl!!!” every time the camera points to the audience.