October 11, 2012 8:11 pm
Our guest blogger today is Stacey Severn, a StarTalk Radio fan. You may remember her as the author of the blog post, “From the Audience at StarTalk Live: 9-14-12.” Stacey recently had the opportunity to be one of the volunteer social media reps for NASA covering last week’s SpaceX launch.
On Sunday night, October 7, SpaceX’s CRS-1 mission successfully launched its Dragon capsule, carried by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, to the International Space Station for the first commercial resupply mission. I’m now back from my time spent at the Kennedy Space Center, where I joined the “real” press inside of NASA to witness and report on an exciting piece of history. Everything I’m about to tell you about led up to that single spectacular moment, which was filled with adrenaline, bright light, and a wall of powerful sound.
Two weeks ago, I read on Twitter that NASA was looking for volunteer social media reps for the SpaceX CRS-1 launch and submitted an application. Knowing there would only be 50 slots, I hit ‘send’ and filed the experience away on my mental bucket list for “someday.” I received the acceptance email on my mobile phone one night at a friend’s house, and was so excited that I pounded the table as I read it, shouting “Oh my God, Oh my God!”
Fast forward to last Saturday, on location at the Kennedy Space Center. My press pass brought me past the guards to NASA’s inner sanctum. The VAB looked very big and very close, and its presence is everywhere. Like the Empire State Building, I kept thinking I was near it when I wasn’t, but when I reached the press building, it was right across the street – bigger than life! I noticed the trailer outside that was used to carry the fuel tank for the space shuttle, parked right near the river. I was actually THERE, where it had all happened.
Meeting my fellow NASA Social media reps was a thrill. We’re all geeks and space freaks, some affiliated with informal organizations, others official. It was a great mix of fun people, and I felt right at home.
One of the first orders of business was to attend the pre-launch science briefing. There we learned about the science experiments being sent up as part of Dragon’s 1000 pounds of cargo. They included experiments from San Jose State Tech Ed students who competed to have their projects sent to the ISS. They are delivered in mix sticks (think neon glow-sticks) that the astronauts open and mix in a special container to perform the experiments in space.
One of the more attention-getting pieces of payload was a freezer which will carry about 500 frozen samples of astronaut blood and urine back to Earth for analysis in conjunction with a bone and nutrition study. At the science briefing, Dr. Timothy Yateman, Interim Chief Scientist, Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, spoke enthusiastically about these samples saying, “It may be urine to you, but it’s gold to us!” He even displayed one of the urine collection devices to the auditorium of press representatives.
That evening we attended a pre-launch news conference, where urine and the freezer were still getting plenty of attention. If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory you’ll relate to this next part. Dragon’s payload includes a small pump for the urine processor to replace one that failed. When I heard this, I could only think of Howard Wolowitz and the episode with the faulty toilet part. The good news is that now, with our own US delivery vehicle, we have the ability to replace faulty parts and bring hardware home for failure analysis more quickly and efficiently than current means allow.
Regarding the freezer, there was speculation that instead of delivering an empty freezer, Dragon should deliver one filled with surprises. I’m happy to report that I posed a follow-up question on this topic to Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, at the post-launch news conference. She confirmed, with a smile, that Blue Bell vanilla ice cream with chocolate swirl was indeed in that freezer.
On Sunday we visited the launch pad, where we watched the rocket being raised into an upright position. We returned to the press site Sunday night. The place was buzzing with excitement. With countdown clocks located on almost every wall, we were keenly aware of the passage of time, and wondering what the weather officer would say. (During my brief stay in Florida, I’d seen spontaneous showers and lightning storms on at least eight occasions in one day, and as of two hours prior to launch, “go” was at 60%.)
In our little NASA Social building we were treated to question and answer sessions with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. One of the more touching responses I remember was a resounding “yes” from Charlie Bolden, when asked if he thought a participant’s young son would have a shot to travel to space. When asked her favorite part of launch, Lori Garver told us that she prefers the quiet of the touchdown to the noise of the launch.
Piling onto buses out to the causeway, the mood was anything but quiet. We arrived there and stood at the edge of the water by the media farm, with its huge poles, bright lights, and loud generators. Dragon was glistening atop the Falcon 9 rocket across the water, and the voice over the loudspeaker eventually told us that the weather officer had improved chances of “go” to 80%. After this, the remaining clouds lifted, and we were 10 minutes, then 10 seconds away.
I counted down loudly and was rewarded with the most spectacular display of light and power imaginable. The Falcon 9 ignited and seemed to pull up off the pad in sort of a slow, suspended animation before it shot into the air. I kept my eyes trained on its bright light, and I remember hearing the announcer say we were already 2 ½ minutes into flight, which didn’t seem possible. It was glorious!
We filed back onto the buses and departed the press site to go our separate ways, our lives changed forever by a singular weekend. With the launch and docking successfully accomplished, and my feet back on the ground at home, I understood first-hand what Lori Garver enjoys about the quiet of touchdown. Thank you, NASA, for allowing me to be there and share this experience with the world!
For those of you reading this and interested in applying to attend one of these events, follow @NASASocial on Twitter.