This past weekend, I had the honor of being invited on a behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. This was the third time I’ve had the privilege of getting access to parts of NASA facilities that are normally restricted to us civilians (with the other two being the TESS launch last April from KSC and OA-9 launch from Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia). I’ll be doing my fourth NASA social next Monday at the Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio!
First off, if you’re reading this, let me say how incredibly grateful I am for your continued support. I wouldn’t be able to have these truly amazing experiences without you. I feel honored that both you and the amazing people at NASA trust me to be able to share experiences like this with you and help tell their story. Five years ago, if you told me I’d be doing things like this today, I would have laughed until I passed out. I’m extremely grateful for opportunities like this and can’t wait to see what happens next!
Now, the good stuff:
I was invited to tour the facilities and view the launch from close-up after applying for the NASA Social program. They have events like these all over the country from time to time. The only requirement is that you actively post on social media and have some kind of following. People I’ve met at these events have been people who do things similar to what I do, but also school teachers, YouTubers, people who work at museums, and even a producer of the Today Show on NBC. I encourage anyone who is interested to check the NASA Social website and apply if you’re interested – the worst thing that will happen is they tell you to try again next time, after all!
In my experience, the events have lasted two days, and this most recent social was no exception. The event was being held for SpaceX’s DM-1 launch. It is a demonstration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which (hopefully) will launch NASA astronauts to space from US soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in August of 2011. Since that time, NASA has relied on Russia to put astronauts in orbit using the Soyuz capsule. Soyuz has stood the test of time and has shown to be an extremely reliable launch system for decades, until recently when they experienced a host of issues (a hole intentionally drilled into the capsule while it was on the ground that resulted in a leak on the ISS last fall, a launch failure with crew aboard last fall, and … whatever happened just a couple of weeks ago with Soyuz 2-1b).
We’ll go into the significance of this launch and what it means for our security as a nation later in this post.
We arrived at KSC Thursday morning, and went to the Operations and Control Mission Briefing Room. This is the same room where NASA staff conducts things like launch readiness reviews.
You know, no big deal.
We asked questions during a 90 minute press conference (embedded below). In my opinion, the secondish half of the conference was the more interesting part. The speakers we saw discussed what their role is within the agency and how SpaceX’s Demo launch affects them, and the future of the agency as a whole.
In the afternoon session (which wasn’t aired on NASA TV) consisted of different NASA staff speaking to us about their personal experiences, and the paths that led them to being employed by the best space agency in the Solar System.
Besides what you saw in the video above, we didn’t see much else the first day (note: I’m *not* complaining!).
We assembled again in what felt like a fairly random parking lot near KSC in Titusville. You know, like normal people do before jumping on a bus and spending a day inside restricted areas at KSC.
And after a brief bus ride we arrived at the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF).
Inside the Space Station Processing Facility
I would *love* to show you pictures from inside the SSPF. I would love for you to see the shell for the upper stage of NASA’s Space Launch System. I would love to show you the airlock from Space Shuttle Atlantis. I would love to show you the “extra” International Space Station (ISS) module that has actually flown as part of the ISS and returned on a shuttle mission. I would love to do all these things.
NASA didn’t let us take pictures or video from inside the SSPF. The only hope we have for me to visibly show you what we saw while in there would be to go to a police station, find the guy who does the drawings based on descriptions, and try to tell them what the airlock from a space shuttle looks like. (And then promptly get arrested for wasting their time.)
Anything that went up to the ISS on the Space Shuttle was processed in the SSPF. It’s a really weird feeling to occupy the same space where the ISS was.
Something they noted was that while the building we were in was not necessarily a “clean room,” they maintain positive air pressure in the building so that the air is always moving out of the building, preventing any excess bacteria/dirt from getting inside.
After a short time in the SPPF, we moved into the Deep Space Food Production Lab. This is where they’re doing experiments on plant growth in preparation of experiments in microgravity.
It’s expensive to launch things into space. It costs about $10,000 per pound to put something into low Earth orbit. So if you can grow plants in space (and recycle waste), you can lighten your load.
Ralph Fritsche of NASA’s Vegetable Production System explains in detail what they do in this research lab, and the challenges in space they’re investigating.
I think it’s fair to think of Fritsche’s area like an ‘idea lab’ of sorts where proof-of-concept experiments are done. Next door to his lab was the full Veggie lab (a much larger area), where experiments are being done on plants before they make their way into orbit.
One of the other attendees, who goes by SciStrike, made this video that includes the Veggie lab (starting at 11:00):
The Veggie lab is working on growing plants in orbit that astronauts can pick and eat without any additional preparation (imagine what it would be like to try to shuck corn in microgravity).
Something interesting that I hadn’t thought about is while inside the ISS, you have to have fans to move air around. Otherwise, you would create a bubble of CO2 around you (which would be bad for your longevity, just FYI). Plants would create a bubble of O2, which sounds great (breathable air without needing to filter it is pretty nice!), however that creates a substantial risk of explosion on the ISS (which would not be desirable).
Next, we went to go see a ramp.
Big deal, right?
Well, this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill exit ramp. This is the ramp outside the Operations & Control building at KSC that astronauts walked down before they boarded the Astrovan that took them to the launchpad. So yeah, kind of a big deal.
Not missing a beat, comedian and fellow attendee Jordan Eichenblatt understood the significance of the location:
— jordanosaur (@JEichenblatt) March 1, 2019
For any crewed mission, crew members are sequestered in the building for two weeks prior to launch. This is done to ensure that they aren’t sick (and won’t get sick in space).
This is also where astronauts park their cars – one of the things you don’t really think about astronauts needing to do.
After lunch at the NASA Headquarters building (again, no big deal, just eating lunch at NASA HQ, as one does), we went to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) is one of the largest buildings in the world. It was originally built for assembly of Apollo/Saturn vehicles and was later modified to support Space Shuttle operations. High Bays 1 and 3 are used for integration and stacking of the complete Space Shuttle vehicle. High Bay 2 is used for external tank (ET) checkout and storage and as a contingency storage area for orbiters. High Bay 4 is also used for ET checkout and storage, as well as for payload canister operations and solid rocket booster (SRB) contingency handling.
The Low Bay area contains Space Shuttle main engine maintenance and overhaul shops, and serves as a holding area for SRB forward assemblies and aft skirts.
The Low Bay area contains Space Shuttle main engine maintenance and overhaul shops, and serves as a holding area for SRB forward assemblies and aft skirts.
During Space shuttle build-up operations inside the VAB, integrated SRB segments are transfered from nearbay SRB assembly and checkout facilities, hoisted onto a Mobile Launcher Platform in High Bays 1 or 3 and mated together to form two complete SRBs. The ET, after arrival by barge, is inspected and checked out in High Bays 2 or 4 and then transfered to High Bay’s 1 or 3 to be attached to the SRBs already in place. The orbiter is then towed over from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the VAB transfer aisle, raised to a vertical position, lowered onto the Mobile Launcher Platform and then mated to the rest of the stack. When assembly and checkout is complete, the crawler-transporter enters the High Bay, picks up the platform and assembled shuttle vehicle and carries them to the launch pad.
The VAB covers 3.25 hectares (8 acres). It is 160 meters (525 ft 10 in) tall, 218 meters (716 ft 6 in) long and 158 meters (518 ft) wide. It encloses 3,664,883 cubic meters (129,428,000 cubic feet) of space. The space is divided into a Low Bay and a High Bay. The Low Bay is 64 meters (210ft) high, 83.5 meters (274 ft) long and 134.7 meters (442ft) wide. The High Bay is 160 meters (525 ft 10 in) tall, 134.7 meters (442ft) long and 158 meters (518 ft) wide).
We didn’t have much time inside the VAB, and the shots I tried to get ended up not being all that great, but here’s a shot I took last year when I was inside the VAB that gives you a sense of the massive scale we’re talking about.
I also snapped this shot of my colleagues as we were leaving the VAB. I thought the silhouettes looked cool as they walked out the door, sort of like astronauts heading to the launchpad.
They had a mock-up of the Orion capsule, as well as a segment for the SRBs. After all, they have to practice moving these things around before they’re actually loaded with highly explosive fuel!
What’s cool is they have equipment inside that’s from the days of Apollo. The explanation for keeping it was essentially “well, we didn’t need to move it, and moving it costs money.” It makes sense, and it’s a completely surreal experience to see the hardware that built the rockets that took humanity to the moon.
One of the side bays appeared to be under construction (visible from the outside), however you couldn’t really see much from our vantage point on the inside.
This is where NASA’s Space Launch System will be constructed. They will start with the mobile launch platform, and build the rocket up from inside the VAB. Once the rocket is finished being built, they will bring in the crawler which will go underneath it, jack it up, and carry it out to launchpad 39B (where many Shuttle missions launched from).
Weighing in at 6.6 million pounds (about 3 million kg), the crawler moves at a blistering pace of 1 mile per hour (1.6 km per hour), but can carry 18 *million* pounds (about 8.2 million kg).
They told us that we could take one of the treads home with us if we wanted, but the caveat was we’d have to pick it up by ourselves without any assistance. Each tread weighs in at about 1 ton.
The path the crawler moves on is actually made of river stones on the surface, with larger rocks underneath it, and a bed of compacted sand. Criss-crossing the crawler’s path are a handful of access roads, and when the crawler reaches these roads, they have to put down large sheets of plywood so that the crawler’s immense weight doesn’t damage the roads (and so the crawler itself isn’t damaged, too).
Historic Launchpad 39A
Our next stop was the main event (Part I) – seeing the Crew Dragon capsule on top of a Falcon 9 at Launchpad 39A. As far as seeing rockets sitting on historic launchpads goes, it was pretty okay, I guess.
Oh, and we met astronaut Kjell Lindgren at 39A, So I guess you can call it a pretty average day, you know?
Lindgren is currently working as a backup astronaut for Crew Dragon for Demo-2, which will have human people aboard, launching no earlier than (NET) July 2019. (If you’re interested in tracking launches, I encourage you to download the Next Spaceflight app created by Michael Baylor [Android only, for now], or you can check out the launch schedule on Spaceflight Now.)
Lindgren also was on the ISS back in 2015. You might remember him as the astronaut who brought up a set of bagpipes (which I’m sure his companions very much appreciated).
If you’re wondering how much it cost to bring those up, Business Insider estimated it cost about $250,000 (based on weight).
Personally, this was the moment in our tour where I had to just kind of stop and take everything in to make sure that this is actually happening in real life. I’m still not sure it really happened. I mean, there are pictures and video of all this happening, but I’m not totally convinced.
We’re at Kennedy Space Center. The history here has its own history. Then we get access to all sorts of restricted areas. In the background of the picture of myself and Lindgren above is our gateway to low Earth orbit, the moon, and beyond. Sitting right there, the teeny tiny speck on top of the 158 foot (48 meter) rocket is history. It’s our return to space from United States soil. It’s the end of our reliance on Russia – with whom our current relationship could be classified as “beyond strained” – to put humans in space. Not only that, but it’s a commercially-built rocket and capsule… And the capsule can carry up to 7 people. If you’re wondering if I cried a little bit at this point of our tour, the answer is yes. The entirety of the situation is just overwhelming. Words fail to describe it.
Lindgren also gave a speech and answered some questions (sorry about the wind):
— A Science Enthusiast 🚀 (@aSciEnthusiast) March 7, 2019
(Video via _SpaceGal_ on Periscope – I couldn’t figure out how to embed Periscope videos, so I tweeted it out.)
I took this panorama of 39A just before we left:
After 39A, we went to the countdown clock (which, despite its name, was *not* counting down) for a surprise speech by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Countdown Clock Speech
As I’ve posted about before, my thoughts on Bridenstine are… mixed. Before being the NASA admin, he was a republican congressman. He does not have a background in science. His managerial experience consists of running an air and space museum in Tulsa, which he ran into debt. He’s also said some concerning things about climate change, and as Vox reports, during his confirmation hearing he refused to state that humans are the driving force behind climate change (NASA does a considerable amount of work in researching climate change).
Bridenstine has also spoken against LGBTQ rights in the past, saying that the SCOTUS ruling in favor of marriage equality was a “disappointment,” and said that the Boy Scouts allowing LGBTQ members in their ranks was part of democrats’ plan to “reshape organizations like the Boy Scouts into instruments for social change.”
To his credit, he’s since strengthened his acknowledgement of climate change (he mentions it in the video below) and I’m unaware of any other anti-LGTBQ rhetoric since he’s taken the position. I’ve also not heard rumbles of anything going on internally at NASA regarding him. I feel like he’s also done a good job at promoting NASA and carrying the excitement we all feel, so I’m cautiously optimistic about the job he’ll do.
In his speech to us, he discussed the DM-1 launch, and laid out his vision for NASA in the future, with commercial missions putting humans in low Earth orbit, and also the Gateway mission (an outpost in orbit around the moon to serve as a “base camp” for missions to the surface).
As I commented during the speech, I’m not totally sold on the Gateway plan. I’ll have another piece next week about Gateway, as I’ll be attending NASA’s Moon to Mars event at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio (on 3/11/19).
After the speech, we went to 39B, where SLS will launch from. We were told that SLS will fly next year. But last year when I was at 39B, we were told that SLS would fly this year. But just a few days after we left KSC, NASA said that they are “reassessing” the launch 2020 date of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first SLS mission. I will be surprised if SLS launches with humans on board before 2023.
But that’s not meant to be a slam against SLS. I know that many people are rather critical of the SLS program, and their criticism is pretty valid. $2.15 billion has been allocated for SLS. It’s using the exact same type of engines (RS-25) from the Space Shuttle (in fact, they’ve taken engines from the Shuttles to use), and the same exact SRBs from the Shuttle. So it’s not really innovative or new, it’s just re-used hardware. And don’t get me wrong – the RS-25 engine is a beast. But the SRBs were designed for re-use, but refurbishing them costs more than just making new ones. So we’re still dealing with an entirely expendable launch system.
Then there’s the cost. It’s estimated that SLS will cost anywhere between $1.5 and $2.5 billion (with a “B”) to launch. Compare that to the advertised $90 million (with an “M”) of Falcon Heavy on SpaceX’s website, and you could launch 27 Falcon Heavies for the high-end cost of an SLS launch.
But I think there’s something to be said for NASA having its own launch system. There’s a level of security in controlling their own destiny that can’t be matched with a commercial partner. Yes, SpaceX and ULA (the two main launch providers in my opinion) are around today, but there’s always the small possibility of these private companies failing. While I believe that the government would likely bail them out if they start to go under (some would argue that this is already happening with ULA), there’s always that small possibility of being back in the same situation where we’re relying on a country like Russia to send astronauts up to space. It’s important that your backup options have backup options.
And now that I’m off my soapbox, here’s the view from 39B:
As I explained in the video, the pad is currently being built to support SLS launches. This includes renovating the flame trench (all that rocket exhaust has to go somewhere, and you don’t want that place to be back at your launch vehicle) and the sound suppression system, which consists of…. water. As a couple of the other attendees explained:
This tank is part of the acoustic suppression system, which is extremely important. The amount of sound reverberation that happens in a launch, if not suppressed, can be catastrophic. Seems important! @NASASocial #NASASocial @SpaceX #CrewDragon #launchamerica @NASA pic.twitter.com/G7M4L99F8M
— Paul Seibert (@PSeibertphoto) March 1, 2019
— Christopher Layton 🏳️🌈🚀☕️ (@CMLayton88) March 1, 2019
Again, the sound suppression system isn’t to dampen the sound for people living on Florida’s Space Coast. It’s to protect the launch vehicle from the enormous vibrations of sound waves.
We had time for a quick group picture at 39B:
And after I snapped a #RocketSelfie of 39A while standing on 39B:
Our tour was over.
Sadly, they didn’t show us where they filmed the moon landing.
The Demo-1 Launch
After dinner and a few drinks with the fantastic people we attended with:
… and about 8 hours, we reconvened in the same parking lot a little after midnight. We boarded the buses and went to the NASA Causeway viewing area, about 7 miles from 39A.
The best descriptor of viewing a launch live is that it’s extremely surreal. We’ve all seen countless launches on TV or YouTube, and it looks exactly like you’d expect in person. The speed, the cloud of steam, the (long) delay before you hear the roar of the engines, the cackling as the sound waves fight against the atmosphere, and then after just a few minutes, it’s all over. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
Thankfully, just prior to launch, Elon himself announced that a super high-tech zero-G sensor was added to the Crew Dragon capsule (and you’ll also see Ripley, a sensor pack inside the SpaceX suit, in the capsule):
You can watch the launch as covered by SpaceX:
I took a long exposure shot of the launch (but made the rookie mistake of forgetting to take my filter off, so there’s a reflection):
View this post on Instagram
My long exposure of @spacex #DM1 #CrewDragon launch! If you look in the upper right hand corner, you’ll see a meteor (I think?)!⠀ .⠀ This launch was a major landmark in the return to sending humans back to space from US soil. The capsule successfully docked with @iss earlier this morning and will return to Earth in 5 days to complete the demonstration. Assuming the in-flight abort test goes well in a couple months, #DM2 is scheduled to launch no earlier than July 2019 with human people on board!⠀ .⠀ I made the rookie mistake of forgetting to clean my lens beforehand and forgetting to remove the filter I had on it. ⠀ .⠀ ISO 100, F/22, 7 minute exposure
Others had objectively better shots, though:
As seen from the wilderness outside LC-39A, Falcon 9 takes to the skies at 2:49 A.M. this morning, launching Crew Dragon toward the International Space Station for the first time. I was happy to utilize plant life as natural framing for this shot! pic.twitter.com/0sWzb11vpG
— John Kraus (@johnkrausphotos) March 2, 2019
Pick up a print of my Space Lazer photo, engine shot, and more from SpaceX’s DM-1 mission! Canvas, metal and paper prints available along with digital downloads.https://t.co/FXeZqXts4l
International shipping available, all profits fund trips to photograph these launches! pic.twitter.com/qIq5btVbWV
— Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist) March 2, 2019
(I will be buying at least one print from Brady, because wow!)
I think that looks so cool. Although I am no Photoshop pro, please forgive me if its not all perfect. pic.twitter.com/3oGRp23YZ9
— Dr.DahaNoob (@Mimikry_) March 2, 2019
And the shots of Crew Dragon docking autonomously are breathtaking, too.
Crew Dragon docked with the ISS, as opposed to the typical resupply missions that are berthed. Docking means that the craft controls itself until it is attached to the ISS. Berthing is when the crew uses the Candarm to reach out, grab the capsule, and bring it in to the port. This was the first time a commercial capsule autonomously docked with the ISS.
And what good is a booster if you can’t cut costs by re-using it? One of the fellow attendees made this timelapse of the booster being brought back to Port Canaveral aboard the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.
The next big hurdle will be Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort test, which should occur in about two months. The rocket will launch just like DM-1 did, however once it has reached maximum dynamic pressure (Max Q) – the point in which the vehicle experiences the most pressure on it due to the atmosphere being thick and soupy – Crew Dragon will separate from the launch booster, the 8 Super Draco engines (concealed in the 4 large pods seen on the outside) will fire for 5 seconds, and if all goes well, Crew Dragon will be well clear of the still full-throttle booster, and it will land in the Atlantic Ocean. This is done at Max Q because this is the hardest point in the launch for the Launch Abort System to activate, and if it can work during Max Q, it’ll work at any other point in time during the launch.
If the in-flight abort test goes well, we’ll see NASA put humans back into space for the first time since the Shuttle program ended in 2011. Demo-2 (DM-2) is currently set for NET July 2019 (though I’ve heard it’s slipped to August already). I’m sure that NASA will have a social for DM-2, and I’m going to apply for it, but even if I don’t get selected, I’ll more than likely make my way down to Cape Canaveral for the launch… Hopefully with my wife and kids!
It goes without saying that this was an incredible weekend for all of us, and that it’s truly a privilege to be able to share this story with you. And like I said at the beginning, it’s all because of people like you who have been supporting my work for the past few years. I never thought I’d be doing things like this, and I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had thanks to my fans, but also the truly fantastic people at NASA.
Again, thank you for your support, and I can’t wait to see the next launch!
Cover images via SpaceX