Saturday, March 2, 2013

NASA Social for SpaceX Dragon Launch: Day 1

I am the world's most directionally challenged traveler.  You'd think I would have picked up some ability to find my way, having visited and lived in multiple states and countries, but no.  I have become very good at finding my way with GPS-enabled nav apps, but if the nav doesn't work, I am completely lost.  Such was the case Thursday morning in Florida, as I attempted to get around at the Kennedy Space Center.  I had done just fine the night before getting to the hotel, but now I was attempting to navigate areas that aren't very well known to the general public and perhaps protected under some government veil.  I was trying to follow the directions provided to us, but since I didn't actually know the roads the directions were talking about, and couldn't find them on my nav or in real life, they really didn't help.  I had left early, in anticipation of getting lost, so I had plenty of time, but the clock was ticking.  

When I found the NASA Media Accreditation Building, it was by complete accident.  I was driving down some random road hoping to intersect with another to get my bearings, and caught the verbiage on the sign just in time to slam on my brakes and turn in.  Once there, I had no idea what I was doing, but did manage to find the right place to check in at.  I got my badge and my paperwork, and was sent on my way.  My way to where?  The next navigational challenge would be to drive myself to the NASA Press Site, which was inside the gates, thus requiring the badge.  Luckily, they had provided a map to get us from here to there, and I followed it religiously, not wanting to get lost again.  

The map got me to the right vicinity, but I wasn't very clear where we were to park and which building we were really supposed to be in.  I drove around and parked in various places, feeling uneasy and looking for other people who might be in the same boat - there was no one.  The itinerary mentioned something with letters like LC and I was at JK buildings or something of that sort, and none of it made sense to me.  Finally, I parked in a large lot near the Press Site and was then relieved to see a few other people with orange badges like mine; I assumed this was a good sign, and I turned out to be correct.  I followed them in to complex and into a smaller building called the NASA News Center Annex, and immediately recognized that this was the right place.  

As promised, there were outlets on all the tables so we could charge our various media devices.  Someone had brought in donuts which were laid out in the back.  I didn't necessarily want to take a spot in the front, but the front had one of the few remaining forward-facing seats left, the rest of the people coming in after me would have to sit the other direction and turn to see the speakers.  

I introduced myself to the wild-looking girl to my left; she had an accent and was very "chill" like you'd expect from someone tripping on acid.  She's an artist, or was there representing an artist, and showed me some of the most hideously terrible creations I've ever seen.  I tried to stay positive, though, and took an interest in how she contributed to social media and whatnot.   When I felt like I had exhausted every nicety with her, I introduced myself to the guy on my right.  He seemed a little hesitant to talk, but was friendly and very knowledgeable.  He, too had an accent, and pointed out that he was from the UK and had moved to Florida to be closer to the launches.  He said something to the effect of how these NASA Social events attract all kinds, and I had a feeling I knew exactly what he meant.  

Before long, we got started and we went around the room introducing ourselves and giving everyone our Twitter handle; not that that helped because I am not sure anyone caught anyone else's.  What did work well was everyone used #NASASocial with their tweets and so we started following each other and putting the handle to the face as we went throughout our adventure together.  Oh brave new world!

I first learned about Google Glass from such a tweeter who was commenting that one of our fellow attendees was wearing them.  Naturally, I googled it real quick just to get a better understanding of what it was.  Then I replied back to the tweeter who brought it up to show my appreciation for pointing that out.  Then I posted something about it to my facebook, which got instant likes and replies there, including the suggestion to steal them.  All this during introductions.  

The group was an interesting mix.  There was an older gentleman who had worked on the Apollo program decades ago, a couple teachers, some videographers making documentaries, space and science journalists, social media experts, NASA Social alumni, a guy that used to skate for Disney on Ice, and a lot of "space geeks", and I say that as a term of endearment and utter admiration.  Most of the people here knew A LOT about what was going on, which sharply contrasted with my complete lack of knowledge about anything NASA.  

One of the insights I caught early on was the idea that the media isn't covering NASA like they used to.  The space race is a thing of the past, and we learned in one of the Q&A sessions that some people aren't aware that NASA is even still operating.  So my first thought was that this is why we're here; this is NASA's way of getting the word out that they are alive and well and to inspire future generations of scientists.  My second thought was, I don't know if that's enough.  
Lisa Malone was our first speaker and she showed us a cool video about what NASA is working on now.  Truth be told, the goals shown I'm sure our complex in nature and really exciting for the superfan, but they didn't really get me excited.  For example, it says testing Orion in 2014, but I don't even know what Orion is, so why is testing it cool?  Then it says "Entirely new missions" which sounds to me like an advertisement for a new video game, not a government funded program to help all of humanity.  Then it just says "Mars", and I'm thinking, "What about it?"  I could probably go on with a ton of criticism for the video; I mean, the graphics were great, the music was inspiring, but the message was dull, lifeless and confusing at best.  (Vid can be found here:

It was during Lisa's talk that we got the first glimpse of the craziness to come sputtering out of the art-girl's mouth.  She admitted that she was nervous about colonizing Mars, but would be convinced to go if the trees would sway more due to the planet having less gravity.  Lisa, as all the NASA experts proved to be, was very diplomatic in her response.  I, meanwhile, was struggling not to laugh or give the girl dirty looks for wasting the time of a NASA official.  You'd think she would have stopped there, but she pressed Lisa for answers to questions like, "Is NASA working on creating portals to other dimensions through meditation?  Because I totally believe in transporting to other planets in minutes and I want to go see Alpha Centurion..." and nonsense like that.  Lisa asserted "NASA is not currently looking into transporting the human spirit via meditation," although they are studying how black holes work in space. 

There was a lot of talk about going to the VAB, and had we ever been there before, and how it's changing for the future.  Not knowing what the VAB even was, I had no context to understand the conversations.  Our next stop was the VAB, so I figured I'd learn what it was soon enough.  We boarded a KSC-official bus, and I stopped to admire that I was not the only one obsessed with taking pictures of everything, including the bus-boarding process.  Being with the NASA Social-ites was a paradigm shift; I'm used to being the annoying one always taking pictures, but here, I was in good company and everyone understood the need to capture every moment and get the unique perspective and all that jazz.  I think my favorite comment about boarding the bus was "The NASA geek equivalent of a party bus."  It was inspiring and uplifting.

I should mention that there was some tomfoolery among a few of us.  In addition to posting insights and pictures with the #NASASocial, a funny guy named Corey had started poking fun at our activities using #NASASocialHumor.  His first post was from NASA saying, "The rocket gets erect at night," which was the beginning of a number of sexual innuendos we'd laugh about throughout our time at KSC.  He also tweeted that bit about Lisa diplomatically denying research on portals.  

The ride was very short, we hardly needed the bus realistically, but it may have been more of a security thing than anything else.  Before going in, people without full-length pants on had to put on bunny suits; NASA does not like ankles!  We pulled up to the large building you and I have probably seen 1000 times before.  Indeed, without every actually knowing its purpose or name, I had photographed it from afar and as I got closer, knowing it was significant from its iconic place in my memory.  The Vehicle Assembly Building was the full name.  As big as it in on the outside, it feels infinitely bigger on the inside.  I think it's one of those things you cannot comprehend until you see it in person; photographs hardly do it justice to show the immense height and space of the building.  Something like vertigo creeped up my spine every time I looked up.  We were told the VAB is so big it has its own weather, as in cloud formations occur inside the building from time to time.  Wild!

The NASA people guiding us around the tour were clearly very knowledgeable and good at their jobs, but they were already talking over my head, so I focused on taking novel pictures (especially panoramas) and just enjoying the experience.  At one point, a large garage-like door started to close near us, and it made such a racket that the speakers had to stop and wait because nobody could hear over it.  After it was closed, some NASA guys came out and questioned who had taken pictures inside that room, and ensured that the pictures were deleted.  After the incident, a few of us chatted nervously, asking what was in there.  Even the people who had taken pictures didn't know what the pictures showed.  I made the joke that that was where they were making black holes to other dimensions, and got several laughs and props for my quick wit (after all, I think I am hilarious).  I took a picture of the closed door and tweeted it to the #NASASocialHumor with my joke.  

I got right up front to hear the guy from The Crawler Team talk about whatever was known as the Crawler, which I soon learned was like a ginormous tank that transported the shuttles or rockets to the launch pads from the VAB.  It looked like something out of a Transformers movie, and he mentioned that it actually had made an appearance in one.  I didn't understand much else, but there was definitely some geeking out going on.  In addition to the term Crawler, I also learned the term high-bay, referencing the areas with the highest ceilings I presume.  

We passed a few other things I take to be of significance: a massive crane which I took a cool picture of, and what I later learned to be the model of the Orion.  Then we walked out the back of the VAB and got to take pictures of the remote launch pad.  The bus took us to a few other highlights, including the astronaut transporter.  Then it was lunch time, and the majority of us hopped off at the cafeteria for some spacey Subway and salads and whatnot.  Somehow, even eating at a pretty blah cafeteria was made spectacular by the novelty that it was on NASA territory, with NASA employees, near NASA official stuff.

We walked back to the press site from the cafeteria, and on the way we got some great pictures of each of us in front of the various buildings and signs we adored.  My favorite was of Mike, the guy that loves dinosaurs, jumping near the NASA Social sign, which I swear wasn't there this morning when I was trying to find my way.  

The afternoon had a lot of official business in store for us.  First, the science news conference, where the experiments going up on Dragon and coming back were discussed.  Most of the panel were dressed in suits and were clean cut, but there was one really uber-geeked out guy with long hair and a crazy Hawaiian shirt on named Simon.  The press conference was a little intense, to say the least; some of the members of the media grilling the scientists on live NASA TV.  Even our group offered up some tough questions.  Simon talked about how plants would react in space, and I learned the new term "microgravity".  I guess there's an interesting phenomenon where the gases don't mix the same, so even in an oxygen-rich environment, the oxygen might not reach the plant and could thus suffocate the plant as if there was no oxygen at all.  There are also 10000 sample conditions of protein crystals going up to the ISS on Dragon via a glacier freezer (a term I still haven't reconciled), for what was described as a "matrix" analysis, which made me wonder if they've ever heard of ANOVA.  It seems that statistically speaking there is no need to study all 10000 cases, but they are surely the experts.  There are also sponsors of sorts, one being Valspar, which is sending paint up in the Dragon to see how paint behaves and dries in orbit.  Start the "watching paint dry" jokes now.
A lot of interesting stuff for geeks, nothing too extraordinary from my perspective.  I was far more interested in the dynamics and logistics of conducting the press conference: while a panelist was answering the previous question, the guy on the far left would spot a question in the audience, acknowledge the questioner with a nod or a finger point, and direct his video and microphone crews to that person.  The video feed would seamlessly flip to that person once the panelist was done speaking, show the questioner with perfect sound, and then flip back to the appropriate panelist to answer the question, and the process would start all over again.  I could see on the screen when my head was on TV, and started to anticipate it based on where the camera guy was setting up and who had the question.  I was on TV quite a bit, but never in the spotlight because I had no idea what to ask.

Video here: 

We had an hour which was technically booked but felt more like a break, because the itinerary basically directed us to watch the heliophysics program on NASA TV, and the sound wasn't working in the conference room so most of us just chatted and took pictures as if we were on the panel.  

The second press conference followed, this was more about the mission itself, and involved the President of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell, as well as a technical person and a weather guy from NASA.  Something strange happened just before it started; the SpaceX logo went from a square to a circle, no idea why.  Somebody mentioned it and I checked my photos to be sure, and she was right.  The room filled up much more, with lots of journalists standing on the sides and in the back.  I felt a little bad taking a seat to something of such little significance to my life and work, but I didn't really feel like standing.  Again, I enjoyed the dynamics of the moderator controlling the show, and anticipating when I'd be on TV.  

The questions were much more brutal in this conference, and most were directed at Gwynn or about how much NASA trusted SpaceX.  I was impressed with Gwynn's performance, and admired her leadership as a strong, brilliant woman.  Some of the questions were about the engine failures on the previous launch, which SpaceX and NASA were quick to point out that they had recovered from, meaning the vehicle did exactly what it was supposed to do in the face of a major failure, and that they had done everything possible to investigate the cause and would be releasing that information once it was approved.  

There were several questions about the weight Dragon was carrying, whether it was enough per an agreement I think.  I didn't really understand the question, but it kept coming up so it was obviously of some importance to the spacegeeks.  Gwynne answered the first few questions indirectly, trying to sound reassuring that it was as advertised, and finally was pressed into a more firm answer.  She detailed out some payloads and the numbers associated with them, added them up and then multiplied them by some factor to get the conversion, and stated that that was far above the minimum and that's as much math as she'll do in public.  I think the most important thing that came out of the press conference for me was that the weather guy said we had an 80% chance of favorable conditions for launch tomorrow.  

After the press conference, we returned to the News Annex with Gwynne for a short meet 'n greet.  She predicted we'll have people flying to Mars on SpaceX vehicles within 40 years (or sooner), and talked a lot about the importance of getting kids excited about science.  (Some great soundbites from Gwynn in this vid:  Lots of great quotes came out of the session with her.  Then Jim Adams, NASA's Deputy Chief Technologist, came to talk for a bit.  He talked about three comets to watch for, and that we'll have an awesome view with our eyes on Mars.  We also got some swag from SpaceX: a USB drive, bug spray, a hat and a neat pen.

The itinerary says we then loaded buses for SLC-40 and traveled to CCAFS.  I have no idea what any of that means, and I was there.  What I most remember at this point was going to see the launch pad with the SpaceX Dragon and Falcon.  The sun was right in our view, so most of the pictures are pretty poor, but some of the better photographers got good ones.  

As a special treat, the bus took us to the launch pad of the last shuttle, Launch Pad 39A, and we were told to specifically notice the rocks that had been crushed by The Crawler.  On our way back, I noted the Crawler's tracks alongside the road; they were so expansive I thought they were two sets of tracks, and then I remembered how big the Crawler was and realized that each track was for one side of the Crawler, and the half football field between the tracks represented the distance between each side.  

We had a quick debriefing back at the Annex, and were released for the night.  A large group of us planned to met at Dixie Crossroads, a local seafood restaurant, coordinated by a local named Laurel.  Being an out-of-towner with nothing else to do, I joined them.  We caravaned over to the restaurant and parked.  As would be expected with a large group, there was a wait, so we were sitting in the waiting area, almost everyone on their phones texting or tweeting or facebooking or emailing; very few people were talking.  I think part of it was overwhelming mental exhaustion, and part of it was that the day moved so quickly we scarcely had time to do our normal activities.  

Then, there was suddenly a rush to go outside. As usual, I had no idea what was going on, but one of my fellow NASA Social-ites informed me.  As if the day hadn't been filled with enough space geek information and exciting moments, the International Space Station was just becoming visible in the night sky, like a very bright and fast moving star blazing overhead.  With so many of us out there, looking up, it's no wonder that the other patrons knew something was "up" (pun intended), and our group was more than happy to fill them in and make sure they could see it.  How spoiled Floridians are, I thought.  Not only do they get to see launches all the time, but they can see the ISS making a pass in the night sky.  Still, it was pretty incredible to be there watching it, especially in the context of seeing the rocket that would soon be attaching to that shooting star. 

All in all, a very exciting, informative and interesting day.  I was so energized by the geekiness and the excitement that even though I was exhausted after dinner, I couldn't sleep for hours on end!  

For more information, photos and videos, check out the storify page:

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