“It’s gonna be a BFD,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden last week during a live broadcast on NASA TV, regarding the then-imminent launch of the Orion spacecraft. And it certainly was a “BFD” – to NASA and its partners, to the nation, and especially to the 150 participants of the EFT-1 NASA Social who were seated around the Administrator in a packed conference room inside Kennedy Space Center’s Operations Support Building II, located just a few hundred yards from its enormous and iconic VAB. If you read my earlier posts you already know that I was lucky enough to be a part of this group, and once again NASA created an incredibly memorable event for its space fan guests – which included me!
If you’re not familiar with them, NASA Socials are group events focused around a particular place or mission at any of the administration’s facilities around the country. Participants are invited through online social media channels – Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. – and chosen based on their ability and willingness to share their individual experiences with the rest of the world. Socials can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and while attendees must pay their own way in terms of travel, lodging, and transportation, chances to witness once-in-a-lifetime events (such as the Orion launch) and get an intimate look at places otherwise off-limits to the general public (like the high bay facility where Orion was assembled) are well worth the cost.
As Socials go this was a big one. 150 attendees over three days, we were given tours of several working facilities at and around Kennedy Space Center, were bussed to and from the viewing site on the initial launch day of Thursday, Dec. 4 and the actual launch day on Friday the fifth, and had the opportunity to speak with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, KSC Director Bob Cabana, and several members of the Orion mission team and other lead scientists for NASA.
We even got a chance on Wednesday before launch to see the ULA Delta IV rocket with the Orion spacecraft mounted atop it inside the service facility at CCAFS’ Launch Complex 37. Standing an incredible 243 feet tall, the Delta IV Heavy configuration is the most powerful launch vehicle in the world today… and as the Sun rose on Friday morning at 7:05 a.m. we and the world bore witness to that from just under 2 miles away along the grass-lined Causeway connecting KSC to the Air Force Station.
The original launch date was set for Thursday Dec. 4. We had all met at 5 a.m. at a parking lot near the Astronaut Hall of Fame, bleary-eyed and yawning but nevertheless excited for the long-awaited launch. We piled into two coaches and were driven to the Causeway, where our viewing site was located. As the Moon set and dark skies turned a dim dusky blue and then red with dawn the opening of the launch window got closer and closer… but unfortunately it wasn’t in the stars that day. A ship within the range box halted the countdown, and then the morning winds picked up and forced further holds. Then a series of problems with valves on the liquid oxygen tanks on the rocket pushed the launch out of its 2-hour 39-minute launch window; Orion would not go to space that day.
So back to the buses it was. 150 hearts a bit sunken, we nevertheless enjoyed the camaraderie of our fellow space fans for the rest of the day and looked forward to doing it all again the next morning.
Which didn’t disappoint.
Friday was a replay of Thursday morning, except somehow it all felt… different. Better. More assured that yes, this time it would happen. The skies held the same large clouds on the horizon, the winds still blew across the river, but the feeling along the Causeway seemed right for a launch. And as 7:05 neared, and the polls were all a “go”, and without a ship in sight, our pulses raced and our breath stopped while the launch pad across the water erupted with a fiery glow that bloomed into a cloud of flame, a new sunrise out of which rose the triple-tubed, towering Delta IV Heavy like a building with three jets of fire. Cameras snapped furiously and the roar of the rocket rolled over us, a constant, long thunder that was soon nearly matched by the cheers and shouts of excitement from everyone up and down the shore.
That day, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, Orion was going to space – on a four-and-a-half-hour, two-orbit test flight that would be the beginning of its journey to bring humans back to the Moon, to an asteroid, and one day even to Mars.
For an idea of what the launch looked and sounded like for us, watch the video below by Social attendee John Christian:
Viewing a launch live on TV or on the internet is an exciting thing for any space fan. Seeing a launch in person is incredibly more so, but sharing a launch event with 149 other people who have come together from all over the world is – and pardon the non-scientific term – magical. NASA Socials make these gatherings possible in a way that nothing else I can imagine can, and the enthusiasm and excitement of the participants spreads like wildfire across the internet… which, of course, is exactly why NASA loves these events so much.
My local WPRI news station even wanted to do an interview after the launch, connecting this “Warwick man” to the national news of the Orion liftoff.
Of course a NASA Social is even more than NASA. Participants gather for dinners and events outside of the “official” activities (we all visited the KSC Visitor Complex several times during the week), carpools are organized, and new friends are made – friendships that can last much longer than the missions during which they were begun. I ran into quite a few people (hi Denny, Gene, Nate, Emily, Gabby and Lisa) who were at the STS-135 Social (back then it was called a Tweetup) in July 2011, and there was that instant connection of “remember when?” that vets of such things will always share.
EFT-1 was my fourth NASA Social, and in some ways it was my favorite. Not just because of the people I met or the mission it was held around, but also because of the emotion of the event. Orion is a step into the future for NASA and our country, a step toward sending humans farther into space than ever before. Where Atlantis STS-135 was the bittersweet end of the Shuttle era (and also the end of a lot of jobs at KSC), Juno was a beautiful (but minimally-covered) science mission launch, and the DSN Goldstone Social felt like an almost covert operation to a remote radio base in the desert, Orion’s launch held a unique feeling of hopefulness for the future that concluded with a picture-perfect bullseye splashdown in the Pacific and flawless operation of the craft itself.
There are those who have their doubts and concerns about the Orion program and the SLS vehicles that will launch it into space beginning in 2018, and many rightly so – development has been expensive, over timeline and wrapped up in a lot of red tape. (Read what Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has to say about it here.) But while we can’t do all the things have to do something, and setting our sights on Mars and back on the Moon is definitely something. It would be nice if the administration could do everything that everyone wants, but that just isn’t going to happen – not with the 0.5% of the federal budget that gets allotted to them yearly. If citizens are willing to support it, and help make sure that it doesn’t become an easy target for future budget cuts, Orion will be America’s next spacecraft and it will take astronauts to another planet. (I may have even met one of them last week!)
Plus in meeting many of the people that have been working so hard to make Orion and SLS a success, I realized that there is a LOT of talent and technology invested in the program; the Orion team involves not only the best and the brightest, but also the most experienced players in the industry. These people eat, drink, and breathe spaceflight and rocket engineering.
All in all it was an amazing time, and I am honored to have been able to witness in person both history and our future… and make some great friends in the process. Thanks NASA Social!
For a great photojournal of the events of the EFT-1 NASA Social, check out fellow attendee Ryan Harvey’s Flickr set here.
Want to order a canvas print of the historic Orion launch seen above? Visit my Zazzle shop here.
A special thanks to Jason Townsend and John Yembrick from NASA HQ for setting up the Social; Andre at KSC for organizing all the events and transportation on site, Amy and Angela for setting up the dinners and such, Lisa for the beer and Denny for picking up the pizza, John C. for the battery charger, and Ailyn and Gene for driving me around (when I wasn’t doing the driving!) And of course, to all the visiting NASA and Orion team members who offered their time to speak with us.