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Wishing on Stars: A Dream Behind-the-Scenes Tour with NASA Social

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When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. I also wanted to be a veterinarian, a teacher, the editor of a magazine and a singer. I was a very ambitious child. But man, an astronaut! Getting to float! Getting to see Earth from above! Walking on the moon! That was the job for me. I remember spending warm nights lying in the grass in the dark, looking up at the sky, searching for shooting stars and UFOs, wondering what it was like on distant planets. Someday I would find out.

Of course, childhood dreams often go unfulfilled. I am not an astronaut. I’ve never been to space, and I still haven’t seen aliens. But I did get an email from a friend telling me to apply for a program called NASA Social. They were accepting applications for a 3 day event in early December, touring the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and culminating in the launch of the Atlas V rocket that would resupply the International Space Station. I applied, then promptly forgot about it. I didn’t think I had even the slightest chance of getting picked.

Until I got the email informing me I was chosen to attend the NASA Social event Dec 1-3, 2015.

What!? Is this real life? Did I really get chosen out of over 1,000 applicants to get a behind the scenes tour of the Kennedy Space Center with NASA Social?

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Yes, this happened!! I literally just pinched myself to see if this is just a long, extended dream, but it’s not. I just spent 3 days eating, sleeping, breathing NASA, and it was awesome.

Dec 1, 2015

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This day was optional, but I decided to go because, well, why wouldn’t I?

Space X, Kennedy Space Center

Space X!

We got off to an early start, packing in a visit to the Launch Equipment Testing Facility, the Space X hangar (although we didn’t get to go inside), and the chance to walk on Launch Pad 41, where the Atlas V rocket would be blasting off from in a few days. That was a pretty surreal experience, walking around on a launch pad. It was one of those moments you have to treasure because how many chances does one get in life to hang out on a launch pad? I felt bad for the people in our group who didn’t come on the optional day, they missed out!

Launch Pad 41, Kennedy Space Center

Not a typical Tuesday morning

The coolest part about NASA Social was that we had behind the scenes access to many places that are off limits for tours, and even for people employed at the Kennedy Space Center. We visited Boeing’s hangar and were allowed to see the finished product of their new space capsule that will be taking NASA astronauts into space from America in just another year or two.

Boeing, Kennedy Space Center

Boeing’s new space capsule

Anyone who knows anything about the state of America’s space program knows that we have not sent astronauts into space from American soil in several years. Federal funding for NASA was cut, the Space Shuttle program retired, and we have been sending our astronauts up from Russia ever since. Because of this, NASA has partnered with private companies to develop new technology, design new rockets and capsules, and to get our astronauts into space from America again. This is the capsule that will take them there.

We were also excited because we were told that this was the first time anyone in the media had ever been allowed in Boeing’s hangar to see the new space capsule. It felt like a huge honor to be allowed to see it first.

Dec 2, 2015

The second morning began early, with a 7:30 am start time. The first item on the agenda was attending a broadcast event for NASA TV featuring meteorologists, engineers, scientists, all brilliant people who are making big contributions to the space program. We had a presentation about the CubeSats, tiny little satellites that were going up to the International Space Station with the Atlas V launch. These satellites are super small and are built mostly out of products you can find on shelves in hardware stores.

Those yellow antennae? Metal rulers from a hardware store!

Those yellow antennae? Metal rulers from a hardware store!

Fun fact #1: The CubeSats use Android technology.

We also had the privilege of hearing from the director of the Kennedy Space Center and former astronaut, Bob Cabana. What was most interesting about his talk was his answer to an audience question, asking What was the most epic moment of your life?

Out of all of the pictures I took of Bob Cabana, this was the best one. Not one of them caught him with his eyes open!

Out of all of the pictures I took of Bob Cabana, this was the best one. Not one of them caught him with his eyes open!

His response had the whole room’s attention. He said that the most epic moment of his life was his first launch into space, the force his body experienced as the rockets hurtled him through the atmosphere, and then the quiet as the rocket boosters detached from the shuttle and he saw that everything is floating and he realized ‘I’m in space!’

He went on, saying that a former astronaut told him to look out the window as much as possible while in space, so he did just that. Anytime he had a few minutes, he would find a window and gaze out at Earth. He said it never got old, seeing the earth like a deep blue gem set against the deep blackness of space. He said he never took any pictures because he wanted to remember everything clearly, and live in the moment. I kid you not, I had chills. You could hear the emotion in his voice, and you knew that NASA was not just his employer, but his passion.

Fun Fact #2: When the International Space Station gets resupplied, the thing astronauts look forward to most is fresh fruit and vegetables.

After the morning session, we had the opportunity to go inside the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, as they call it at the Kennedy Space Center.

Vehicle Assembly Building

Vehicle Assembly Building

Fun Fact #3: This building is MASSIVE! See the American flag on the left hand side? Each stripe is wide enough to drive a bus down, and each star is over 6 feet tall.

The VAB is where the large space vessels are assembled. The Saturn V rocket and the Space Shuttles were all assembled here.

Pictures of the Space Shuttle in the VAB

Pictures of the Space Shuttle in the VAB

Pictures of the Saturn V in the Vehicle Assembly Building

Pictures of the Saturn V in the Vehicle Assembly Building

This place was huge and it’s impossible to really show the scale of just how big it is. It’s 36 stories tall and you can’t get the whole place in one shot. I mean, it’s tall enough for a huge rocket to stand upright, so just trust me when i say it’s huge.

Fun Fact #4: The VAB is the largest single story building in the world!

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There weren’t any rockets currently in the VAB, but they were hard at work in one of the bays and we found out why-they are getting ready for assembly for the first manned mission to Mars in the 2030s!

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Helping them work!

Next stop was to the Swamp Works engineering and developing lab.

Fun Fact #5: This building used to be used for astronaut training. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin both trained here. I felt very humbled standing in the footsteps of greatness. 

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Swamp Works aims to improve technology that goes into not just rockets, but also anything else that goes up into space with the rockets and astronauts. Right now they are working on an awesome project to improve the glass that goes into astronaut helmets.

Dust mitigation project

Dust mitigation project

The surface of Mars is similar to that of the moon, so dust is going to be an issue when the first astronauts arrive. When dust gets onto the visor of the helmet, it sticks and, since there’s no wind, it doesn’t blow off. The dust is similar to that of broken glass, so if the astronaut tries to wipe it off, it will scratch the glass. Swamp Works is developing a magnetic type of glass. When the glass pulses, it automatically begins to repel the dirt. You have to watch the video to see for yourself.

The next stop on the tour was a visit to the control room of United Launch Alliance. They are the company who launch all of the rockets now. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, but rest assured, the control rooms are just as cool in real life as they are in the movies!

The grand finale of the day was being taken back to the launch pad to see the Atlas V rocket up close, ready for the next day’s launch. While we couldn’t actually go onto the launch pad like the previous day, it’s still the closest anyone will ever get to a rocket on a pad if you don’t work there.

Atlas V rocket on the launch pad

Atlas V rocket on the launch pad

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Fun Fact #6: Notice how only the top half is white and the rest is a gold color? When the rocket is readied for launch, it will be white all the way down to the bottom quarter as the cryogenics freeze the outside of the rocket for its journey through the atmosphere. 

Dec 3, 2015-LAUNCH DAY!!!

I woke up early and was too excited to get back to sleep. Today was the big day, the day that the Atlas V would be blasted into space. It was due to arrive at the International Space Station 3 days later. The launch was scheduled for 5:55 pm, with a 30 minute window. A cold front had rolled in the night before, the sky no longer blue. But there was still hope, a 60% chance that the launch would happen.

Dava Newman, NASA Deputy Administrator. Another terrible picture. I was off my game!

Dava Newman, NASA Deputy Administrator. Another terrible picture. I was off my game!

Our first stop on Day 3 was at an auditorium where we had the privilege of meeting with Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator of NASA aka the 2nd highest person in the entire organization. As a woman, it was very exciting to see another woman who is so high up in a male dominated industry Not only was she smart, brilliant in fact, but she was so down to earth and approachable. In addition to being 2nd in charge at NASA, she’s also Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at MIT.

A lot of the Q & A focused on the future Mars missions, as well as the fact that NASA is relying on private companies to send our astronauts to space and build rockets. Before hearing from Dava Newman, I thought it was a bit depressing that NASA couldn’t do these things anymore, but what she said about it made total sense. In her opinion, she thinks the commercialization of the space program is great because now NASA can spend their money focusing on scientific experiments instead of maintaining space crafts and equipment.

She was also asked what she would say to people who think tax money is being wasted on the space program. Dava explained how much research NASA does regarding medical issues and developing materials for space that eventually make their way to the general public. One such project they are working on is the year long twin study with Mark and Scott Kelly. Scott Kelly is currently in the midst of a yearlong mission at the ISS. His twin brother, Mark, is here on Earth. Both twins are participating in numerous medical experiments to study the effects of space on the human body. Space ages a person, and so NASA is looking at the differences in their bodies, their bones, their eyes, and their overall health. It will be one of the most comprehensive, in depth genome projects ever undertaken, which will hopefully lead to advancements in treatment of many diseases such as deteriorating eye sight and bone density loss.

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After our session with Dava Newman, we walked past this nondescript door with a bunch of stickers above it. It is in this building that every astronaut that has ever gone to space through the Kennedy Space Center gets ready, and it is this door that they walk out of to get into the vehicle that takes them to their launch pad. The stickers are from all of the different missions that the astronauts who walked out this door have been a part of.

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Next we went to a gift store at the Space Station Processing Facility. It closed at 4, and we arrived at approx. 3:50 pm. Thankfully a friend was standing nearby to help me pay for my purchase….

Fun Fact #7: The gift store at the Space Station Processing Facility does not take American Express. 

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The plaque reads ‘From this spot to the East Wall-381 Feet. The total length of the ISS’

We toured the ISS Processing Facility, feeling a bit antsy. It was past 4 pm, the launch was just around the corner and the weather was deteriorating. We did have fun meeting with Gioia Massa and Trent Smith, scientists with NASA’s project called Veggie, which researches and develops fruits, vegetables, and flowers that can be grown in space.

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The end goal is to find plant life that could grow on board during a mission to Mars. The Mars missions will last approx. 2 and a half years each, so being able to grow food during that time is vital to the health and survival of the astronauts.

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There are currently several types of vegetation being grown on the International Space Station, which the astronauts love because the plants are fragrant and fresh. They were recently able to eat red romaine lettuce and they currently are growing zinia flowers, which seem to thrive up there.

Atlas V prepared for launch

Atlas V prepared for launch

Finally, it was launch time. The weather was terrible. You could barely see across the bay with all the rain that was coming down, the wind whipping it into our faces and onto our cameras. The rocket couldn’t launch in the rain, through the clouds. But as our NASA Social tour leaders kept saying, all they need is one hole in the clouds and the rocket is able to launch.

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The radar did not look promising. The rain was heading northeast, directly over us. There was a small patch of clear weather coming, but would it get to us in time? There were 5 launch windows, each one 6 minutes long. All we needed was one. Just one. We waited on the bus, shivering from the cold rain, crossing our fingers and praying that the weather cleared briefly enough to watch the launch.

It didn’t. The launch was scrubbed.

Me and another Katrina, blogger at inRandom, sad to not get to see the Atlas V launch

Me and another Katrina, blogger at inRandom, sad to not get to see the Atlas V launch

I can’t sugarcoat it-it was pretty devastating. NASA Social invited us back the next day, when ULA would attempt to launch again, but I was unable to attend (it ended up launching Sunday 12/6). I might have cried a little when I got back in my car and headed home. But after the initial grief, I only felt happiness. Happiness that I was chosen to attend this NASA Social event out of over 1,000 applicants, happy that I made incredible friends and memories, and honored to have spent 3 days behind the scenes at the Kennedy Space Center, seeing and doing things very few people ever have the opportunity to see and experience.

I’ve traveled a lot and I’m a bit jaded these days because I’ve seen and done so much, but NASA Social was so different than anything I’ve done before. It’s definitely one of my favorite experiences and I hope to be chosen to do it again.

Want to experience NASA Social too? They do these meetups fairly often. Check back here to see when the next one is open for applications. Hope to see you there!

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4 comments

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  1. mabel

    This is a great article. Cool photos

    1. Katrina H.

      Thanks 🙂 You would have loved it!

  2. Victoria@ The British Berliner

    What a great amazing opportunity! I would go for it too. Well done!
    p.s. ‘Love the pictures as how often do you get to read a normal person’s view without all the technical jargon lol!
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted…How to spend 48 hours in Berlin – DAY TWO and WIN 2 Berlin WelcomeCard packages! – #bestofBerlinMy Profile

    1. Katrina H.

      Haha! Yeah a lot of the stuff we learned was super over my head so I tried to break it down into really easy information here. It was awesome though! I learned so much! But don’t ask me what materials comprise the Boeing space capsule or the science behind that magnetic glass!

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