Behind The Scenes of My NASA GRAIL Experience – Day One (AM)
This may end up being one of the longest, if not the longest blog posted I’ve ever composed here on Keefer Madness — partially because the events took place over multiple days, but also because of the unique access, and honestly, the pure thrill I got out of it all.
I’ve been a fan of technology, NASA and space as long as I can remember. I grew up in the era where in elementary school, we still paused, and rolled a television in to watch the space shuttle launches.
I’ve loved going to the Smithsonian Air & Space museum in Washington D.C., watching television documentaries, along with a more recent trip to the Kennedy Space Center prior to getting married.
Technology has been a part of my life as well— BBSes in middle school, and an Internet user since near its earliest inception (Mosaic and HTML in its near earliest forms. Remember SLIP and PPP connections?), along with a gadget freak.
I’ve been a user of Twitter since the early days of the service, but it wasn’t until the last month or so that I really benefitted greatly from it. Sure, there have been great moments of crowd-sourcing, and stumbling across great links I’d have otherwise missed. But nothing like my recent experience.
NASA, as a public relations move started doing Tweetups, giving a group of Twitter-using people unprecedented access to a launch, and an insider’s VIP treatment before and during. NASA describes it as:
…an informal meeting of people who use the social messaging medium Twitter. NASA Tweetups provide @NASA followers with the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at NASA facilities and events and speak with scientists, engineers, astronauts and managers. NASA Tweetups range from two hours to two days in length and include a “meet and greet” session to allow participants to mingle with fellow Tweeps and the people behind NASA’s Twitter feeds.
I first heard about the events from a co-worker at Centerline, and applied for multiple of the final space shuttle launches. Sadly, I never was selected, and while I attempted to see a few earlier launches, they got scrubbed every time I had an opportunity to view it from Florida. Such is the nature of launching vehicles into space, as I’d experience multiple times.
With the 30-year space shuttle come to a close, NASA is still far from a dead organization, just yesterday announcing their new heavy lift vehicle. Sure, its exact future, and the future of manned flight are in question, but they’re far from gone with the remaining three shuttles now being processed to be museum exhibit pieces.
The NASA Tweetup series are far from mothballed though. I applied for one of the post-shuttle era launches — this one for an unmanned rocket launch to send two craft to the moon — The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL for short.
Fewer people applied to this Tweetup, with not as much interest as the manned shuttle launches before. This obviously helped me in the selection process. I didn’t consider this when applying, but I’m OK with it regardless.
I got the email August 3rd that I had been selected to attend the events surrounding the GRAIL launch on September 7th and 8th. As it turned out, these dates were almost perfect. We had already booked a flight for the following week to be in Orlando, Florida to celebrate Tyler’s second birthday.
Attending the Tweetup for GRAIL was only going to necessitate going down a few days early. Both Amanda and my work were both completely understanding and gracious to allow us those few extra days, and it literally cost less than $7 to change our tickets.
Fast forward about a month later. After a hectic final day of working from home, last minute packing, and prepping to be away from work for a week and half, we were on our way to Florida, packed with enough Apple tech that would make any Apple Store employee grin.
The Tweetup events included two days of events and activities: the first being an inside look at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station through a morning tour, and then an afternoon of guest speakers at the Kennedy Space Center Vistors Complex’s on-site conference center. The second day was a closer vantage point to see the rocket launch than most of the public gets.
The first day started out early, me getting into my inlaws’ car in Winter Park Florida (outside of Orlando), and heading about an hour east to the KSC Vistors Center complex. I had to show my identification and register to get my badge.
A few hours later, all 150 Tweetup members are filed into the KSC Visitors Center conference center, where we all get introduced to NASA, JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) and others related to social media within the organization. We then pass around a microphone, and all 150 introduce ourselves, where we live, an interesting fact about ourselves and our Twitter handle. That took a bit of time, and put us slightly behind schedule for the morning tour.
We piled onto four of the old-school Kennedy Space Center buses, all hitting several tour destinations in a different order, and the whole tour agenda was freaking awesome. I had done the KSC standard bus tour in the past, and was thoroughly impressed with that. This one was head and shoulders above the standard tour — a true V.I.P. treatment.
Our bus’ first destination was on the the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Pad 41, the current United Launch Alliance location for Atlas V launches. Previously, it had been used by the Air Force for Titan III and Titan IV launches.
The bus ride up to the Launch Pad 41 complex required a bumpy and fairly lengthy bus ride — a common theme for the whole morning’s tour destinations. This first destination sent the bus nort down a road, straddling two set of train tracks. These tracks are what take the assembled rockets from the Vertical Integration Facility all the way down to the launch pad — quite a distance. This is an a near exact parallel to the huge tracked vehicle called the Crawler-Transporter that took the stacked shuttle (orbiter, solid rocket booster and external tank) to its launch pad, though these ones are train based transport.
Two guys from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) met us at the fence line of the 41 complex, their Hummer parked to the side, complete with a bummer sticker that read, “My other truck is an Atlas V.” Too funny.
They did a quick rundown of the complex, explaining the lightning towers around the launchpad, along with the various fuel tanks, buildings and equipment surrounding the launch pad that was used historically for the Titan rockets, and for the last nearly 10 years, the behemoth Atlas V.
It’s a very Florida/beach looking building — the only structure around, nestled in the foliage and sand, close to the waves of the beach.
We next got another rare opportunity — one that the normal tours don’t get. We got to walk through the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (or VAB). It’s hard to describe absolutely how huge the building is, both deep, but also the huge height of it. They have special systems in place to keep clouds from forming in the upper levels of the building.
This building has a huge amount of history, from 1968 through 2011, it housed the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo program, and subsequently every single shuttle before they’re rolled out to the launch pad.
Walking from the entrance to the back left hand corner, we had another surprise — the Endeavor space shuttle orbiter in all its glory, recently brought over from one of the orbiter processing facilities in preparation for becoming a museum exhibit. The Endeavor is soon destined to go to the west coast at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
We ended up taking a bunch of time in the VAB, getting closer to the orbiter than I would have ever dreamed. There was literally a chain link fence and a few feet of equipment between us and the decommissioned orbiter. The VAB and getting see see an orbiter up, close and personal was so awesome — a one time deal.
Sadly, our extended walk around the VAB and visit with Endeavor, shooting tons of pictures put us fairly far behind schedule, meaning our next stop had to get dropped. Originally, we were going to get a photo opportunity with the large countdown clock — disappointing, but I’d trade some time with Endeavor over the press-area countdown clock any day. Plus, Endeavor is getting ready to no longer be at KSC, while that countdown clock will continue to stay put, though I’m not sure I’ll ever have another opportunity to check that out either.
We all got herded onto the bus, straggling as much as we could in the depths of the VAB, and headed to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s SLC-37B, where GRAIL was sitting atop a Delta II Heavy rocket. The “heavy” part means it has extra power, which the GRAIL mission needed to send it hurtling toward the moon. It has a total of 9 GEM-46 boosters, originally designed for the Delta III.
Pulling up in the bus, we got a good view of both pads, the unused 37A, and 37B, where the Delta II rocket sat. While it was hidden behind its service structure, the blue and white rocket was clearly visible. They setup a flatbed truck at the fence line so we could get a better vantage point to see the soon-to-be launched rocket.
Again, we had two gentlemen to describe the preparation and launch of the rocket.
SLC-37B was our last stop of the packed morning. I haven’t described too much about what the GRAIL mission is all about, but will go more into that in the next post. Stay tuned for that in a few days.
Stay tuned for the post of the first day’s afternoon activities post and then the launch-day post shortly. This already ended up way too long for a single blog post.
View my entire photo gallery of the multi-day GRAIL events below.
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