By Michael Zeiler
Last week, I was privileged to attend the launch of the Orion capsule atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. I was selected by the NASA Social program which invites persons influential in social media to help communicate NASA's mission and activities to the public. I joined about 130 of my peers and we received amazing access to NASA facilities and personnel. There is a NASA Social event for every significant launch and if you have a social media presence, you can apply for future events. Follow @NASASocial on Twitter to keep informed of upcoming events.
The community of launch watchers has similarities to the community of eclipse chasers. Both events are a peak moment in your life and remarkable phenomena, one natural and one man-made. One difference: launches have frequent delays, but eclipses do not! It's worth traveling far to see both.
This was an exhilarating event and surpassed my expectations. I was astonished that we were admitted to such important and historic facilities that no public tour will ever visit. It was truly an amazing experience and I highly recommend the NASA Social program to anyone fortunate to be selected.
NASA's message is clear: This EFT-1 (experimental flight test) mission is the first step in the journey to Mars. The excitement of the NASA managers and astronauts we met was palpable. This is the beginning of mankind's venture into deep space beyond the Moon. This architecture comprising the Orion capsule and the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket will be the foundation of our first forays into the rest of the solar system. Commercial space ventures such as SpaceX and Boeing will take over the job of ferrying astronauts and supplies to the ISS (International Space Station) and NASA will move on to doing the big things as it did in the glory days of Apollo.
Some cynics may note that the Orion capsule and SLS rocket bear a resemblance to the Apollo capsule and Saturn V rocket. We learned that the designs are outwardly similar because the laws of physics have not changed in the past half-century but that they are completely different inside. For example, the Orion capsule is rated to carry four astronauts for 21 days and this mission can be extended by attaching to a habitat module. We also learned about the preliminary goals for the next unmanned launch of Orion on top of the first SLS rocket and the following manned launch. An idea on the table is that this first manned launch may visit a small captured asteroid brought by an automated space mission to the orbit of the Moon. All these activities are focused on the penultimate goal of reaching Mars, perhaps in the 2030's.
These were some of the highlights of our tour:
- We first met in an auditorium across the street from the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building). We were introduced to the program and had an opportunity for each of us to make a brief statement of who we were.
- We then boarded buses and visited a location near the Orion launch pad. We had a photo opportunity and met the director of the United Launch Alliance, the builders of the Delta IV Heavy rocket.
- Next, we travelled to the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building. This was a highlight of our tour as we received rare access to the large clean room in which both the Apollo and Orion capsules were built. We saw the assembly platforms, vacuum chambers, high-pressure room, and the first hardware being assembled for the next Orion launch. Because of the sensitive technology that we saw, we were not allowed to take photographs inside. But we did see and photograph a striking sight just inside the entrance; the original suit worn by Neil Armstrong on the Moon!
- Our last stop on the bus was the building where the segments of the solid rocket boosters of the SLS rocket are being processed. To control the costs being borne by the American taxpayer, NASA is re-using booster segments flown on the Space Shuttle program for SLS.
- We then engaged in a two-hour television conference back in the auditorium. We met NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and several astronauts and program managers. After that, we drove ourselves to the visitor center of the Kennedy Space Center for another talk and the opportunity to see the shuttle Atlantis on display.
- The next morning, we were bussed to our viewing location for the launch. This was on the causeway with a clear view of the launch pad from about three miles away. Because of a confluence of factors - a stray boat, wind gusts, and sticky valves on the rocket - the launch was aborted for that day. Afterwards, we visited the VAB and saw the crawler from the Shuttle era being refurbished to carry the larger SLS rocket. Regrettably, I could not stay for the next day when the launch was successful. But I consoled myself with the idea that I would return with my wife to see the first launch of Orion on SLS.
These are photographs from our event: