I represented Pinehead as a part of a recent NASA Social event which allowed social media users access on the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) to cover the SpaceX CRS-2 launch on Friday, March 1. The day before the launch we were shown the Vehicle Assembly Building, launch pads, attended press conferences and science briefings, and had Q&A time with NASA officials.
If you think about space travel in the United States today, the outlook can seem dismal. The most recent major news about NASA has been the Shuttle retirement and the $726 million NASA will lose to sequestration. It’s no wonder people think NASA is closing down. What I discovered during my time KCS is, while budgets and active programs may be reduced, momentum at NASA has not been shaken.
I first witnessed this momentum at the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). In the last four decades, this facility has housed the construction of the Apollo, Saturn, and Shuttle vehicles. On the outside, the VAB seems like it is sitting vacant on its way to being a relic of the glory days of space travel. The inside the building tells a different story. Once you are able to soak in the 129.4-million-cubic-square-feet of the 525-feet-tall single story building (insert jaw drop here) you see and hear the sounds of construction. The 47-year-old building is getting outfitted for 40 more years of action. The upgrades are making the facility ready to host a variety of vehicles the for the commercial and space launch services programs. The circa 1960s, 6-million-pound, Crawler has had 45 upgrades completed in the last year including its car-sized, dual-tip mufflers, and its locomotive engines. The upgrades are focused on making Crawler more flexible to transport a variety of vehicles and increases the load capability by 50 percent.
After the VAB visit we attended the International Space Station (ISS) Science Briefing. It was during this briefing I witnessed NASA’s significance in fostering the scientific research community. The briefing was held in the KSC press auditorium a small room with chairs, a newsroom type desk with an ISS backdrop, and an audio-video control room enclosed with mirrored glass. The room was small and the science was awesomely smaller. The briefing focused on two research projects going up in the Dragon capsule’s Glacier freezer.
One project is studying stress signals of the Arabidopsis plant. The plants in the study have been engineered to better deal with stress. Studying plant stress signals may lead to solutions in helping oxygen starved plants on earth, for instance, in flooded areas. The crystal protein growth project, containing 10,000 sample conditions, is also aboard Dragon. This project focuses on crystal protein growth in microgravity. There are also a dozen school projects including a lettuce growing experiment by the Hawaiian Girl Scouts and one that studies how paint adheres and dries in orbit. The ripple effect of the research represented in one launch to the space station is inspiring. NASA is the key to coordinating the advancement of this commercial and educational research.
Another area that resonated with me was unexpected. It was the current and former NASA employees I encountered on my trip. The first NASA person was Don, my airport shuttle driver, a former NASA contract employee. He seemed delighted I was in town for the SpaceX launch instead of for a cruise. For the next hour I got to hear him talk about his glory days of working at NASA on the anti-corrosion team. In the midst of the fondness of his memories was sadness. Don is 55 and knows even when NASA is able to hire more people, he’ll be considered too old to get back in the action.
I felt a similar pride of service as we interacted with NASA engineers and officials at KSC. It was the way Mike Canicatti could tell you about the significance of every upgrade to the VAB down to the fiber optic lines that will run through the walls. And Russell Stoewe would have happily talked about all 45 Crawler upgrade projects if we had the time. There was excitement in Deputy Administrator Lori Garver’s voice as she spoke about the significance and challenge of NASA’s asteroid belt missions. Deputy Chief Technologist, Jim Adams, had a heartfelt tone to his voice as he talked about how he thinks we are transitioning into a second space age and the possibilities that are in store.
The last event the social media correspondents attended was at the KSC Visitor Center for a hard hat tour of the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit that will be opening in June. It was there I met Gregory an interview subject for a documentary, I Want To Be An Astronaut, currently being filmed by David Ruck, a fellow NASA Social attendee. Gregory was a contract technician and spoke of his days at NASA with a similar tone to Don, fondness of the memories and a sadness he was no longer working at NASA due to the Shuttle program being retired. Gregory became emotional during the tour when we came around a corner that revealed the Atlantis suspended from the ceiling. Gregory said the seeing the Atlantis was like seeing a long lost love.
I can’t think of the the last time I heard so many people talk pridefully about their job. All of the NASA people I met seemed to know, undoubtedly, that no matter how basic the tasks of their job they were, and are, a part of something greater than themselves. That is not what I think of when I envision a government employee. It seems NASA Administrator, and former astronaut, Charlie Bolden had it right when he referred to NASA as a family in his letter to Congress about the impending budget cuts.
So while sequestration will have an impact on a NASA, a program many think is already underfunded, I’m left with a sense that the hard working people at NASA will find a way to keep things going. That’s the benefit of having an organization largely comprised of hard working engineers and technicians, they know how to solve problems and tend to be at their most creative when under constraint. And if the Commercial Crew program is drastically cut, I get a sense that SpaceX will not skip a beat making progress for manned missions and will want to find a way to continue their symbiotic relationship with NASA.