I was fortunate and honored to be given special access to the historic SpaceX CRS-10 launch mission from the Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station on February 19th. I did this through the NASA Social program, which "includes both special in-person events and social media credentials for individuals who share the news in a significant way." I had to apply, and they apparently check applicants' social media presence before selecting participants. I was accepted once before back in 2013 for an Antares launch from Wallops Island, VA, but the launch got rescheduled on top of a class that I teach. But I saw this opportunity, was able to jam it into my crazy schedule, and I'm really glad I did. It was an amazing and incredibly hopeful experience in these tumultuous times.
The CRS-10 mission was based around the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft on a resupply mission; CRS stands for "Commercial Resupply Services". This launch was notable for a number of reasons. First, the rocket took off from the historic Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, which was used for the Apollo program, and eventually modified to support space shuttle launches. In 2014, SpaceX leased 39A for a 20 year period; work on launches from this pad was apparently accelerated after the catastrophic failure of the SpaceX rocket during the CRS-7 mission.
We had to show up stupid early on Friday February 17, and after a bus ride and a brief introduction we were shuffled into a media event with the amazing scientists who had experiments on the CRS-10 mission.
All the experiments were fascinating, but as a storm chaser, of particular interest to me was the Lightning Imaging Sensor. I asked principal investigator Richard Blakeslee about the difference in capabilities between this ISS-mounted sensing system and the system on the recently launched GOES-16 weather satellite (formerly GOES-R), which I was lucky enough to catch in November on an unrelated trip to Florida (video here). It turns out that the main benefit to having the sensor on the space station is that it covers the entire globe, while the GOES satellite is in a fixed geosynchronous orbit mostly focused on North America. Very cool stuff.
Next up, we got to visit the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. This is the building where the shuttles were put together, and now it's being retrofitted for the NASA Space Launch System, which is the massive rocket system made to get to Mars. Work on platforms you can see in the photo was just completed last month.
After this we headed over to Boeing's facilities, where they are constructing the Starliner capsule for manned space missions. We got an amazing tour with space shuttle astronaut Chris Ferguson, and saw a mock up capsule with a "Colbert One" sticker-it turns out that Stephen Colbert had been there before us, and they just aired a segment about this capsule just this past week.
Next on our whirlwind tour was a presentation from the management of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), detailing the facility's recent transformation from a place for government-funded missions to a public-private partnership, with multiple commercial tenants all sharing the services of the spaceport. Things were looking bleak for the KSC after the termination of the shuttle program, but under the leadership of KSC director Robert D. Cabana and President Obama, the center has been transformed from what could have been an abandoned government facility into a thriving spaceport with multiple commercial and government space launch efforts all underway in one place. You could feel the energy in the air.
We then got to go to historic launch pad 39B, which is in the process of being upgraded to accommodate modern launches, with some of the old infrastructure removed. The scale of these facilities is simply breathtaking.
After this, we hurried over to the SpaceX press conference, featuring SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell and KSC director Cabana. From this location, we got a pretty good look at the Falcon 9 rocket, which had been lowered down so technicians could work on a leak that had been discovered in the upper stage.
We closed out our whirlwind day with a presentation by Florida Power and Light on a partnership with NASA to save energy by making cold water during cheaper off peak times, storing it in a giant tank, and then using it when needed for air conditioning.
After a nap back at the hotel, we returned at midnight for an opportunity to see the Falcon 9 in the dark.
We returned again early the next morning for the launch, which ended up being delayed due to a leak issue. After this, we got to visit the Ground Systems Development Operations facility where several of the ISS experiments are prepared. They run a duplicate experiment as a control on earth, and we actually got some seeds that have traveled in space! I will be planting these this spring.
We returned again the next morning for the launch. It was raining, but the clouds stayed within acceptable parameters and we got a launch! It was amazing. My only regret is that I didn't bring my high quality sound recorder, because the sound was simply incredible.
We couldn't see the rocket land, but we sure did hear the sonic booms! The video below to me feels like we are finally getting the future we were promised when I was a kid. It's just remarkable, and the rocket is doing this completely autonomously:
A Bright Future
The trip was inspiring in many ways and simultaneously illustrative of the current divides and tensions in our country. Our amazing NASA Social group and the fantastic NASA employees and retirees we spent our weekend with make their living in the booming, high-tech economies: several people on the trip actually make their living from Youtube revenues; others work for high-tech companies; and still others are educators. But Titusville, the nearest town to the KSC and where I stayed, has not fared so well in recent years. I watched a guy attempt to pass off a third party check at a store, and afterwards the clerk told me that counterfeit bills were very common in the area. "There's a lot going on here", she said, an impression backed up with fact: Titusville gets a "F" for crime from Areavibes.
After the first launch was postponed, I went (as I often do) driving around backroads looking to see what I could see. I ended up down a dirt road near a bridge that was shut down for repair over the Haulover canal. It seemed a bit sketchy, but I wanted to see the canal since manatees reportedly hang out there. Walking in, I saw an older SUV parked; all its windows were darkly tinted, but I could see that a large Hispanic family was sitting inside. The driver's side rear window was rolled down, and as I walked by a young kid in the back seat said to/at me, "Donald Trump!" I wasn't sure what to make of this; it could have been meant as a threat, an accusation or a caution. Feeling a bit isolated, I laughed it off and didn't engage. I've been to 49 states and have spent a lot of time in sketchy places, but this had to be one of the most surreal encounters I've ever had.
However, I finished this trip feeling very hopeful. The revitalization of the KSC and the amazing work by SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Orbital, NASA and many others will benefit not only the immediate area on the Florida space coast but to the whole country. Half awake after the delayed launch, I had lunch at Steve's Family Diner in Titusville. It's a great place, and while many of the clientele have obviously had pretty rough lives and are just making ends meet, all around me people were talking about the launch. And after I returned home, I was talking about the trip to one of my students who grew up in a poor area deep in Queens. He said to me, "I don't have many heroes but [SpaceX founder] Elon Musk is one." In the tumultuous times in which we live, this rocket launch was a literal beacon of hope for a bright future.