I was really giddy at being selected by NASA to participate in the agency’s innovative “NASA Social” program, where social-media personalities are credentialed and allowed to cover NASA rocket launches. Launch is scheduled for Sunday June 28 at 10:21 AM EDT – fingers crossed for good weather :).
I’ll be updating every couple hours or so over the weekend, and will definitely take good advantage of the tweets and photos of my colleague attendees (with credit of course!). The items follow in chronological order:
6/26/2015 / 8:30AM: Showed up, got my credentials, and parked in front of a great landmark: the easily-recognizable Vehicle Assembly Building. NASA staffers begin by giving us – the two dozen #NASASocial attendees for the launch – an overview of the NASA “social media universe,” including their 490+ Twitter accounts, including their flagship @NASA and right down to the individual lander accounts for all the spacecraft in flight. Over 1,000 people applied for social-media credentials to cover this launch event, and the choices (we are told) were deliberate and non-random – so I was fortunate and very grateful for the awesomely fun opportunity!
6/26/2015 / 9:12AM: Getting an intro briefing from Dava Newman, the newly appointed Deputy Administrator (bio here, with details on her background, most recently teaching/researching at MIT). She acknowledges with a smile that she only joined Twitter yesterday (@DavaExplorer), but she’s been doing big-data research on tweets and online engagement about the topic of human space flight for several years. She answers a question about the role of science fiction in educating young kids in STEM: “I wouldn’t call myself a fiction _buff_ per se, but I have my favorites, certainly Jules Verne and Asimov,” and endorses sci-fi use in schools.
6/26/2015 / 9:48AM: Talk about a small world: We’re going around the room introducing ourselves, and just as one woman was saying hello, I got a Facebook message from a DC friend – “My wife Angelica is attending the SpaceX social as well. She’s wearing a Yankees cap and black & white checked overalls…Say hello!” Indeed we did – she’s Angelica Ferreir.
6/26/2015 / 4:25 PM: Got to tour the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, with its four enormous 450-feet-tall doors, the largest doors of any type in the world. NASA officials showed us precisely how the building has been reconfigured and confitted to handle successive generations of progressively larger rockets, from the Saturn-V era to the next-gen Space Launch System (SLS), the post-Space-Shuttle heavy expendable launch vehicle.
6/26/2015 / 4:15 PM: We’ve had excellent tours during the day: scientifically the most interesting was the Thermal Protection System Facility, where the protective heat-resisting tiles are fabricated to cover spacecraft, particularly to withstand the enormous heat of atmospheric re-entry. I was able to hold an element of tile material immediately after it was heated to 2200 degrees F, and the exterior was cool to the touch – though it was still glowing red-hot inside. Neat.
6/26/2015 / 4:45PM: Below is the view of an approaching storm which I just snapped, walking from the VAB area and News Annex over to the media center for the afternoon news conference – which is now focusing on weather. While we were inside the cavernous VAB, we heard several loud “Lightning Warnings,” which is not unusual for Florida afternoons. I’m now sitting in the news conference, listening to the prediction of only a “10 percent chance of violating weather constraints at launch time, Sunday morning.” Fortunately the launch is scheduled for 10:21 AM, before the afternoon heat typically cooks up storms.
6/26/2015 / 4:45PM: The closing discussion at the news conference is focusing on the central mission of CRS-7: the potentially historic delivery of the first of two International Docking Adapters to enable future commercial crew spacecraft, including the SpaceX Crew Dragon, to dock to the ISS. The IDA’s bring “androgyny” or the ability to be internationally common – as well as the capability to dock autonomously if necessary. I notice that the NASA officials seem to value the autonomous-docking capability very highly….
6/27/2015 / 7:45AM: At yesterday afternoon’s news conference onsite, I asked a question about the pacing and priorities of the experiment pipeline for the International Space Station. The SpaceX CRS-7 resupply mission is carrying three dozen scientific experiments up to ISS, and according to NASA’s program manager for ISS Research Dr. Julie Robinson, there is developing a bit of a backlog of proposed experiments. She outlined in response the priorities used in the selection process: Congress has actually dictated that NASA prioritize 50% of the experiments to benefit earth uses – those can be in a variety of biomedical uses, agricultural/horticultural research, zero- or low-gravity industrial processes, chemical compound experimentation… the list is potentially infinite. NASA uses the other half for its own spaceflight priorities, particularly in examining new frontiers of human performance in space and zero-gravity at extended lengths – for use in future extraplanetary exploration. Dr. Robinson not only gave a great answer but also noted that there’s an emerging cohort of young graduate students and new scientists who are specializing in space experimentation, which is great to see.
6/27/2015 / 8:15AM: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk just tweeted this morning in anticipation of tomorrow’s launch – and the rocket landing as well. Since an important part of the SpaceX commercial rationale is the reuse of the launch vehicle, the company prioritizes the safe return to earth of not just the Dragon capsule but the Falcon 9 rocket itself. Last time, the rocket landing just barely missed landing on the droneship successfully – I blogged the nail-biting video of it here. So it’s no surprise that the SpaceX droneship crew is pulling out all stops to present a welcoming environment for Falcon 9 this time; check out this photo of the beckoning “Of Course I Still Love You” message for the rocket tomorrow:
Trying for another rocket landing tmrw. This time on the droneship “Of Course I Still Love You”. https://t.co/6LGnzhWLLr
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 27, 2015
6/27/2015 / 8:45AM: I had a chance after yesterday afternoon’s press conference to chat with former Microsoft colleague Alex Kipman about the Microsoft Hololens holographic device which is being carried aboard the CRS-7 tomorrow, for astronaut Scott Kelley to use during his year-long expedition aboard the International Space Station. (I wrote about my experience using Hololens during its development earlier.) Alex and his NASA JPL partner Dr. Jeff Norris described the experiments they’ll do with Hololens – “Project Sidekick,” focusing on collaboration and shared-vision experiences with other astronauts and earthbound NASA folks.
Though it isn’t anticipated for this set of experiments, I think one of the ancillary uses of Hololens and mixed-reality or virtual-reality immersion in space might be for emulation of simple earthbound environments for homesick astronauts on multiyear extraplanetary journeys. After all, Scott Kelly must get tired of the extraordinary space views he tweets regularly (see below for one from this week), and periodically want to put on a headset to immerse himself in a cornfield or coffeehouse or comfy living room…
6/27/2015 / 9:50AM: Just received an email that made me laugh out loud, from friend Scott Large, who had a stellar (pun intended) intelligence-community/space-community science & technology career at CIA and the Pentagon, capped by service as Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the intelligence community’s leading purveyor of astounding space systems. He says he’s jealous that I’m at the CRS-7 launch! Made me laugh; Scott’s overseen many launches and other unbelievably cool stuff in his excellent career – read Scott’s rich bio here.
6/27/2015 / 11:20AM: Have been touring the large International Space Station Processing Facility, several miles distant from the large Vehicle Assembly Building but still within KSC. Lots of cool elements to the facility, not the least is the very large “hangar” where the entire ISS was engineered and finished before launch.
on floor of International Space Station hangar: “From this spot to the East wall =361 ft, total length of the ISS” pic.twitter.com/ZNE4BoVSCM
— Lewis Shepherd (@lewisshepherd) June 27, 2015
One reason tomorrow’s CRS-7 launch is a big deal for NASA is the largest single item in its cargo, and I saw it sitting on the floor of the Space Station Processing Facility: the revolutionary IDA, or international docking adapter. With IDA, future commercial crew vehicles can attach themselves to the station in a much simpler fashion and across multiple manufacturers from multiple countries.
The photo (right) is actually of IDA-2, planned to be launched in December 2015. IDA-1 goes up with the SpaceX CRS-7 tomorrow and is already aboard. Though delivered by SpaceX, the IDA is a Boeing design, engineered by Boeing with NASA.
— Dr. Corbett Moran (@corbett) June 27, 2015
6/27/2015 / 12:15PM: Walking around the different mission-engineering sections of the Space Station Processing Facility, I notice that not everything in the world of 21st-century NASA spaceflight is digital. I’ve seen many banks of analog gauges, along with some dated PC’s/monitors.
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is probably a pretty solid mantra around here.
6/27/2015 / 2:45PM: We’ve had excellent successive news conferences this afternoon. I’m particularly enjoying the one-two Boeing-SpaceX appearances. First up was the last astronaut to command the Space Shuttle – Chris Ferguson, who retired from NASA in 2011 and is now with Boeing as Director of Crew and Mission Operations. Chris comes across as a phenomenal guy, from the classic “Right Stuff” era of astronaut-cool… he’s obviously whip-smart, self-assured, but laid-back and approachable. During the news conference Chris has been asked several times, in several ways, about the “rivalry” and competition in commercial spaceflight between Boeing and SpaceX. Because his counterpart was in the front row, awaiting his turn, Chris was tactful and positive: “On the competition, I think the best way to answer that is just in terms of redundancy. We learned a very important lesson after the loss of Columbia. Having redundancy within our own shores is a fantastic thing. It provides flexibility, and it’s a win-win thing. I think you’ll see competition going forward, and partnering as well.” And asked about Boeing having to rely on SpaceX to deliver Boeing’s own IDA to the ISS (see earlier item above), Chris was nonplussed and got a laugh by addressing his counterpart in the front row, “Hans, take good care of our baby.”
Next up was indeed that SpaceX counterpart, Dr. Hans Koenigsmann, VP of Mission Assurance. Hans has the advantage, among space buffs of a certain age, of having that great Werner von Braun accent, from his native Germany. He focused on upcoming mission goals, and pointed confidently toward “manned missions” as taking really central focus for the company. “Crewed missions were on the table very much from the very founding of SpaceX.” When asked about when the astronauts for those flights will be chosen, Hans deferred to NASA – which will do the actual astronaut selection has not yet published a timetable.
A permanent memorial, “Forever Remembered,” is unveiled June 27. More: http://t.co/J9w83rX7wv
— NASA Kennedy / KSC (@NASAKennedy) June 27, 2015
6/28/2015 / 12:30AM: Launch Day! I can’t say “Launch Day dawns,” because we’re hours away from that, but my day begins now, as I’m heading over to KSC for a final launch-pad tour a few hours before the 10:21AM launch itself. The time window for being at the pad is scheduled by backing up from all the actual essential pre-launch checklist work which SpaceX engineers and mission managers will be performing. Then we’ll back away and have several more briefings and observe the final preparations for lighting the candle.
6/28/2015 / 3:51AM: We are now at T-minus 6 hours, 30 minutes before CRS-7 scheduled launch. All signs look good. Just got back from launch-pad visit, and will be back at the KSC media center in a few hours for the final briefings before liftoff, which I’ll watch from the official media site. You can view the launch and the attempted Falcon 9 landing at NASA Public Affairs’ HD live-stream, or at the SpaceX streaming site.
6/28/2015 / 7:15AM: Coming up on T-minus 3 hours for CRS-7 launch. NASA and SpaceX report all systems go, including weather. Final fueling with liquid oxygen – an automated process – has begun for the Falcon 9 rocket.
— Lewis Shepherd (@lewisshepherd) June 28, 2015
6/28/2015 / 8:45AM: T-minus 96 minutes. Many people don’t know that the US portion of the International Space Station is actually designated a U.S. National Laboratory. Getting a great briefing from CASIS, which manages the National Lab on ISS. From the CASIS website:
In 2011, NASA chose the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to be the sole manager of the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory. The mission of CASIS is to maximize use of this unparalleled platform for innovation, which can benefit all humankind and inspire a new generation to look to the stars. The organization has been awarded by NASA the responsibility of inciting the imagination of entrepreneurs and scientists alike, accelerating and facilitating space-based research as well as creating public awareness of National Lab research and making space science more accessible to the world. By carefully selecting research and funding projects, by connecting investors looking for opportunity to scientists with great ideas, and by making access to the station faster and easier, CASIS will drive scientific inquiry toward developing groundbreaking new technologies and products that will tangibly affect our lives.
The mission launching today on the SpaceX Falcon 9 is carrying aloft dozens of experiments, including student experiments. Cost per experiment: $50K – $250K. CASIS and the ISS National Lab are allocated fully 50% of the astronauts’ time in space – a Congressional mandate to ensure that American participation in the ISS has a strong scientific/research benefit. The research that’s been done in the ISS National Lab breaks down to a 50/50 split between commercial/non-commercial sponsors. Companies range widely from large pharmaceuticals to sports-hardware manufacturers; non-commercial users are STEM-focused schools, universities, medical non-profit research organizations, etc. Sponsors have the option to open-source their research performed on the ISS National Lab, and many have.
6/28/2015 11:01AM, T-plus 40 minutes: I’m back in the NASA press center after the launch and explosion. There’ll be a press conference here at 12:30pm EDT, which I’m attending.
After days of scientific and technical background buildup, I just had a front-row seat to three extraordinary minutes of mighty drama. All of us in the media viewing from the beach were entirely silent as the final 10-second countdown erupted in the Falcon 9 rocket BOOMING after ignition. It is one hell of an aural and visual experience.
At T+2 minutes cheers erupted on the beach, as we heard the NASA Range announcement: “Power and propulsion systems nominal, 13 km downrange, 1km/sec” …
Almost immediately after, we saw the explosion. Silence again, a very ominous silence.
The loudspeaker finally crackled with the Range announcer: “Range confirms we have had a non-nominal flight. The vehicle has broken up.” NASA and SpaceX already have begun assembling “the anomaly team” to investigate; I should hear more at the press conference this afternoon.
Among the losses: all the science experiments (including a STEM class’s red composting worms); the Microsoft Hololens device that astronaut Scott Kelly was looking forward to using; and, most expensively, the IDA-1 International Docking Adapter. I saw the only other one (IDA-2) here at Kennedy yesterday. The Space Station needs those adapters installed to begin the era of commercial crewed-spaceflights. My emotional reaction is surprisingly strong – heartbreaking failure! But my mind and mood are actually already turning – as I presume Elon Musk’s are, and NASA’s engineers and mission managers – to deciphering the data to discover what went wrong, and how to fix it. There will be a next time. Man will continue to explore space.
Science! I thought of Teddy Roosevelt’s great summary of the Man in the Arena: “At the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
Here is the countdown and three minutes of flight as captured by NASA’s cameras:
6/28/2015 1:20PM [Final entry for this post] From the official post-launch press conference at NASA Kennedy (video is here).
Up first is SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, “What we can tell so far is, the first stage remained nominal, we do not expect this to be a first-stage issue.” Asked about impact on future SpaceX operations, she said “This doesn’t change our plans. Our customers have always been loyal, they’re very comfortable in our plans. It’s a hiccup.”
— Lewis Shepherd (@lewisshepherd) June 28, 2015
NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier: “This is a tough day…Spaceflight is not easy. This mission was not easy and it was not routine.”
FAA’s Pam Underwood on the phone from Washington into the press conference: FAA is responsible for licensing spaceflight and in its oversight role has officially classified this explosion event as “a mishap.” Yes, that’s the official term used, with administrative / bureaucratic meaning. There will be an official FAA “mishap report” relying on the data and analysis from SpaceX and, secondarily, NASA.
A New York Times reporter pressed Shotwell on more data behind Elon Musk’s tweet post-“mishap” identifying “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank.” Shotwell wouldn’t elaborate, saying that “Elon tweeted it, that’s all I know… I’ve got teams of folks looking at every possible telemetry and data.” Also, a WESH-TV reporter asked Shotwell whether a “self-destruct signal was sent to the vehicle or received by the vehicle.” Shotwell: “I don’t believe that there was a destruct signal sent, but I will follow up on that. I haven’t heard that there was.”
One of the final questions was from “Anya of RT America,” the state-funded Russia Today network known for its propagandistic or nationalist slant. Not surprisingly, she asked a question aimed at promoting US continued reliance on Russian launch vehicles – a lucrative source of hard-currency for Russia. The NASA reps didn’t take the bait. (My hunch is that President Putin will be displeased at the missed opportunity, and this may not be the last we’ll hear of Russian opportunism at the SpaceX CRS-7 mishap….)
— Lewis Shepherd (@lewisshepherd) June 28, 2015