As I mentioned yesterday, shortly after dawn in Florida tomorrow morning (4:05am Pacific), NASA is scheduled to launch a Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the first Orion spacecraft. This flight will be uncrewed, but it will be a critical test flight for multiple key systems on Orion.
Today I was privileged to attend my second NASA Social. For Orion’s launch, NASA held nine simultaneous Socials at sites all around the country. The primary one was at Kennedy Space Center in Florida where Orion will be launched, but eight other NASA Centers also participated. I was at the Social at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
There were a LOT of tweets (see the sidebar on the right, or check out my Twitter feed @momdude56) but I think all of the photos below are different. (Some might be similar, i.e., same person giving same talk, but hey, what ‘cha gonna do?)
Von Karman Auditorium at JPL has a full-sized replica of the Voyager spacecraft, two of which are now our first starships, having passed out of the boundaries of the solar system and into interstellar space last year. Each of them carry a golden disk, with a diagram on one side that would (hopefully) tell any intelligent, space-faring species that finds it who we were and where Voyager came from. On the other side is engraved a phonograph record with hundreds of sounds from Earth. This is a duplicate of that disk.
On the other side of the auditorium is a half-scale replica of the Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens lander. Cassini is now in its tenth year successfully orbiting Saturn, while the Huygens lander successfully landed on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, in 2005.
This is a half-scale replica of the MAVEN probe, launched last year and currently orbiting Mars to research the Martian atmosphere.
In the visitor’s gallery next door to the Von Karman Auditorium, here are full scale models of a Mars Exploration Rover (MER = Spirit or Opportunity) and the earlier Sojourner rover, which was the first rover landed successfully on another planet.
The visitor’s gallery has many, many shiny displays and models and neat things. I believe all of the clear cases are there to prevent the models from being covered in drool from people like me.
Inside the visitor’s center is this full-sized replica of the Galileo probe to Jupiter, faithful down to the duplication of the incorrectly deployed high-gain antenna on top. Despite that flaw, Galileo gave years of outstanding data from Jupiter. Now, a new Jupiter orbiter is on its way — Juno will arrive in July, 2016.
The morning was centered around the two-hour NASA-TV special about the nine simultaneous NASA Socials. I was here, the stage and the microphone for our segments of the show were to the left of this view, and the big, scary television camera is right there!
We got the opportunity to ask two questions over the course of the program. I was not chosen to ask a question (this is probably a good thing) since I have a “face for radio.”
The final question of the show came from this lady at NASA Stennis. We follow each other on Twitter and she’s a huge fan of the space program. Having been to many, many science fiction conventions, I didn’t see what the fuss was about…
Somewhere in the middle of the NASA-TV show, one of my tweets got retweeted by @NASA. Not one of the smaller NASA divisions or sites or projects. THE @NASA. The one with 8,117,824 followers.
Let me tell you, if that doesn’t light up your Twitter feed like a freakin’ pinball machine, I don’t know what will!
After the NASA-TV broadcast and lunch were over, we got a special, unscheduled guest. Rob Manning was the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL = Curiosity) Chief Engineer. He’s now the Chief Engineer on the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project. The LDSD is designed to create a heat shield or atmospheric deceleration surface much larger than the vehicle itself by inflating a ring or rings of material from around the edge. That’s cool, but as the #1 guy in charge of building our nuclear-powered, laser-shooting, hold-drilling, SUV-sized, one-ton, fully-equipped mobile science lab on Mars, he’s a bit of a superstar to folks (i.e., “space cadets”) like me.
Next was Garry Burdick, talking about the role JPL has played in tomorrow’s Orion launch. (That’s the aforementioned full-sized Voyager model in back of him.)
Brent Cobleigh from NASA Armstrong (the place I was two weeks ago for my first NASA Social) told us about the launch abort and escape system on Orion. In a pinch, it bugs out with the crew capsule at twelve and a half Gs. That will glue your eyeballs to the back of your skull, but if the rocket’s going “BOOM!” it’s a much better fate than the alternative.
Tomorrow a crew of pilots from NASA Armstrong will be piloting the IKHANA remote-controlled unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) off of Baja to try to see Orion re-entering and deploying its parachutes. (IKHANA is one of the UAVs we saw two weeks ago, pictures are there.) Mark Pestana is a pilot for IKHANA, although not one on tomorrow’s team. They were all sleeping so they could get up for tomorrow’s launch.
Brian Muirhead is JPL’s Chief Scientist. He spoke about NASA’s planning for a mission to use robots to go snare an asteroid, haul it into orbit around the moon, and then use Orion to take astronauts out to examine it and bring back samples.
Then we started hiking around the (large!) JPL campus. Of course, after all of those months and years of drought, it was raining pretty good. (It’s okay, we need the rain. I’m drip-dry.)
For those who doubt that there are deer on the JPL campus and in the hills around Los Angeles, here’s a ram lamb that was calmly grazing on the lawn in the rain. I saw a huge buck and two doe blocking a lane of traffic on the way in, also in broad daylight, and none of them seemed too bothered by us being ten feet away.
Out of the rain in the indoor “Mars Yard” we see this test version of the next Mars Lander, “InSight.” It will launch in March, 2016 and be very similar to the Phoenix spacecraft that landed near Mars’ north pole in May, 2008. InSight is a lander, not a rover, and will look for tectonic activity and “Mars-quakes.”
Jennifer Trosper (another Mars rover superstar) was our guide at the indoor Mars Yard. (The much bigger outdoor Mars Yard, where we were supposed to see a couple of the Curiosity replicas trundling about, was under several inches of water. If only the Mars Yard that’s ON MARS could be so lucky!) Dr. Trosper told us stories of the Spirit rover and how it had a tough life, being the trailblazer for Opportunity which landed a few weeks later (and is now in the 3,784th day of it’s 90-day mission).
Next stop was the clean room assembly complex, where we saw the next LDSD test vehicle being assembled for a test next summer.
Ian Clarke is the LDSD Principal Investigator and gave us all the detail we wanted on LDSD. This last summer’s LDSD test went perfectly – right up until the point where the parachute shredded instantly on deployment. They’re still trying to figure that out, since that point was thought to actually be a time of fairly moderate stress levels. It’s really good that this happened in the sense that they wouldn’t have learned much new if everything went perfectly. On the other hand…
Next stop was the heart of JPL’s robot spaceship operations, the Mission Control Center. This room and these two guys might be familiar – Bobak Ferdowsi and Steve Collins were two of the lead flight controllers for the Curiosity landing (“Seven Minutes Of Terror“) and this is the room that you see them working in for that legendary bit of space history. (Things go crazy at the 8:15 mark.) Talk about getting to meet two more JPL superstars! (And both are two of the nicest guys in the world.)
As they say, “But wait — THERE’s MORE!” Then we actually got to go onto the main floor of JPL Mission Control. These are the consoles where spacecraft all over the solar system are being controlled and talked to as we speak. The phrase “hallowed ground” came to mind immediately.
At the board in the upper left you can see which antennae are talking to which spacecraft right at the moment, along with tracking data for other dishes in NASA’s Deep Space Network. (I got to visit one of the three stations, Goldstone, with my son a couple years back.) The board in the center right, black with white lettering, is keeping track of the current Mission Elapsed Time (MET) for all of the currently active spacecraft on and orbiting Mars.
Finally, as we were heading out (quickly, since some JPL choral group had booked the auditorium for practice tonight), we saw the full-sized replica of Curiosity. The lady in the pink shirt, for scale, is about my size, maybe 5’6″ or 5’7″. That’s a honkin’ big rover!
As I said — WOW!
And now, Orion’s going to launch. The launch window opens tonight at 7:05 am ET (4:05 am PT) for about two and a half hours. Weather at this time looks 70% favorable. If all goes off well, Orion will orbit the Earth twice, for four and a half hours, with the second orbit taking it up to 3,600 miles, before slamming it down into the atmosphere at 85% of the speed it would have if coming back from the moon. It will land in the Pacific Ocean off of Baja California and be picked up by a Navy ship.
NASA-TV’s coverage starts at 4:30 am ET (1:30 am PT), which is a mere three hours away. I was up early early (5:00 am) this morning in order to get to JPL on time — guess who’s going to look and feel his best tomorrow?