This is Part II of my three-part series on my participation in the MSL NASA Tweetup in November, 2011 (You can read Part I here.)
My First NASA Tweetup
Friday, November 25th was the first official day of the MSL NASA Tweetup and our chance to visit hallowed ground: the Kennedy Space Center Press Site. There, we would learn about the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover from the scientists that conceived and designed the mission those who would manage it after its launch.
The press site would also be the location from which we would witness the launch (if all went well) on Saturday. I had seen this area so many times before on TV so it felt incredibly familiar. I made sure that I continually reminded myself “hey, Andrew, you’re actually here in person. This is incredible!”
In the distance across the river, I could see one of the former Space Shuttle launch pads:
When I first arrived on site, the massive Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was to my left. We would get the chance to go inside that building (the fourth-largest building in the world by volume) later in the day to see first hand where the Apollo Saturn V rockets and all of the Space Shuttles were assembled and readied for launch.
To my right was the Tweetup tent, called the “Twent”. This was an air-conditioned, electrified and wi-fi-enabled tent that would allow us to tweet the events of the morning in comfort.
Many of the tables were already full by the time I’d finished taking photos outside, so I settled into a seat near the back. I still had a decent view of the main podium:
After the Tweetup officially kicked off, one of the many TV cameras in the Twent caught me tweeting!
Over the course of the morning, we heard from real-life rocket scientists and were able to ask them questions. Speakers included:
- Jim Green, director, Planetary Science, NASA HQ
- Doug McCuistion, director, Mars Exploration program, NASA HQ
- Allen Chen and Betina Pavri, systems engineers, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
- Ryan Bechtel, Department of Energy
- Ashwin Vasavada, MSL deputy project scientist and Pan Conrad, deputy principal investigator, SAM Instrument, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
- Rex Engelhardt, Launch Services mission manager (@NASA_LSP)
I, like all of the other space tweeps, “live tweeted” the talks. Here are a few of my tweets from early that morning:
In addition to hearing from experts, we got to see some nifty artifacts/models, including life-size models of the wheels used on the MSL Curiosity rover that would launch on Saturday (far left), the Mars Exploration Rovers, which landed in 2003 (middle), and the Pathfinder Sojourner rover, which touched down on Mars in 1997 (right).
There was even a Martian globe on hand and a mini model of the MSL Curiosity rover hard at work:
At the back of the tent was one of the BEST set of 3D photographs I’d ever seen. We were given red and blue glasses and the view through them was incredible. If you have some at home (and if you don’t, I’m not sure that we can still be friends) put them on and look at this picture! You won’t be disappointed:
The morning flew by and after a quick lunch break, we shuffled into three NASA tour buses for a tour like no other.
We started at the Apollo Saturn V Center, a special museum dedicated to the Apollo missions that visited the Moon. After watching a decent video about the events that led to the American/Russian space race, we were ushered into a theater to watch footage of the launch of the incredible Saturn V rocket: the largest rocket ever built, and the one that took men to the Moon between 1968 and 1972. Our vantage point was just above the *actual*
mission launch control center used to launch the missions to the Moon – it’s been preserved and turned into an exhibit of sorts.
Nothing, though, can really prepare you for how BIG the actual Saturn V rocket is. Lying sideways is a restored Saturn V launch vehicle built from test components and parts of planned Apollo mission (Apollo 19) that never flew.
The rocket is on its side, allowing you to walk around it and see all sections up close:
Hanging from the ceiling is an actual Lunar Module (a lunar lander) that never flew to the Moon. This one was originally scheduled to fly on Apollo 15, but was replaced with an updated J-Series lander that was built for a more extended stay (the later Apollo missions spent 2-3 days on the moon, whereas the Apollo 11 astronauts spent less than 24 hours on the surface.)
There was also a display of the interior of the Lunar Module:
We also got to see an unused Command/Service Module. While two astronauts worked on the Moon, another orbited above them in this type of craft. This was also the spacecraft used to bring the astronauts back home.
Some of the best exhibits, however, were tucked away in a side room that could have been easily missed! This room housed equipment that *actually* made a trip to and from the Moon:
The Vehicle Assembly Building
Once our rapid-fire tour of the Saturn V Center was done (we had a tight schedule to keep) we boarded the bus to visit the Vehicle Assembly Building:
Our tour guide was a former Space Shuttle worker named Kim who lost her job when the shuttle program ended. She volunteers her time on tours like the one we took because she believes so strongly in the space program and the legacy of the shuttle. When she was 8 years old, she decided that she would either fly on a shuttle or work on one, and she made her dream come true!
We were all moved when she described how she traveled to Texas in 2003 to be part of the team that recovered debris from the Space Shuttle Columbia after it disintegrated on re-entry. The remnants that were recovered (about 60% of the vehicle, I believe she said) are currently stored in an upper level of the VAB, and Kim pointed out their approximate location to us.
One of the amazing moments in the tour was when we were able to see an “old friend” up close! The Space Shuttle Endeavour is currently being prepared for a move to its permanent home as a museum piece at the California Science Center. All of the toxic components need to be removed and replaced, so it was getting a bit of a facelift when we saw it.
Trip to the Launch Pad
As if we hadn’t seen enough, we were soon taken to see something that was even new to our guide – a visit to the rocket that would launch the MSL Curiosity rover to Mars the following day!
As our bus approached the launch pad, I took a quick video with my phone:
When we first saw the rocket, it was practically silhouetted against the Sun:
At our next stop around the corner, however, we saw it in all its glory:
Here’s a closeup shot I took of the top of the rocket, in which the rover was housed:
Someone was smart enough to get us all to pose for a pic!
Not only was it incredible to be THAT close to a rocket headed for Mars, it was amazing to realize that the rover we had been talking about all day was actually tucked away in there, just a few hundred feet from where we stood.
I also tried to absorb the historic nature of this site. This area, Launch Complex 41, was the same complex that launched the Voyager probes that flew past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the 70s and 80s, and the Viking landers, which were the first successful Mars landers.
The rocket was perfectly still and completely quiet, but we knew that was only temporary. Tomorrow, this site would (hopefully) be filled with the sound, fire, and fury of a launch!
Launch Complex 34
Despite dwindling daylight, Kim and our driver let us make one final, unanticipated stop.
Space travel is obviously not easy, and it is also not risk-free. Our bus stopped at the location of the American space program’s first tragedy: the site of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White.
The launch complex itself has been left to the elements, adding to its eerie feel. Off to the side is a simple tribute: three granite benches – one for each astronaut lost.
Dinner and An Early Bedtime
The bus returned us to the press site where we said our goodbyes for the day. I headed out to meet a group of space tweeps for dinner at Fishlips, a local seafood restaurant. There, we enjoyed more space-y conversation and shared our excitement about what we’d seen. I tweeted:
We also shared our excitement about what we all hoped to see the following day: the launch of “our” rocket bound for Mars!
I was facing a 4:30AM wake-up call to ensure that I would make it to the launch site in time for Saturday’s activities, so I returned to the hotel, posted a few photos to Twitter & Facebook and tried to get some sleep…
In Part III of this blog series, I recount the events of Saturday, November 26th – the LAUNCH!!!