On a crisp 40 degree Florida morning, I headed up to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to get a special tour of what the facility is working on and is planning on achieving in the upcoming years. Although waking up at 3:45 am is not my cup of tea, I had been looking forward to this trip all weekend and by the end of this post you will understand why.
After getting our security clearance we all shuffled onto a heated bus (THANK THE HEAVENS) and headed to NASA’s Space Station Processing Facility. Before we got to walk the floor and see all the cool equipment, we got to hear from NASA’s director, former astronaut, Bob Cabana. He is actually the first American to enter the ISS. He and Sergei Krikalev, a Russian Cosmonaut, entered the station simultaneously to represent the combined effort involved in making the ISS. So there are two first people on the ISS.
Stepping into the processing facility, I was thinking “hey I have been through this before, another manufacturing floor”. But I was so wrong, you truly get an appreciation for the amount of history that was made there from walking among the artifacts of the shuttle days (including the docking system for Discovery and the cargo containers for the shuttles, Donatello and Raffaello) to the amazing innovations happening now on the space station floor (like the IDA, commercial crews docking station, and the Cygnus spacecraft). Although the ISS has been completed, there is so much maintenance involved in keeping the ISS going that this group has plenty to do here. We were really fortunate to see Cygnus being packed up with essential cargo for its launch March 22nd. The Atlas V rocket it will be sitting on top of was also one of our tour stops. We got a chance to see ULA’s Atlas V facility; we didn’t get to take pictures though but here is one of theirs!
The bus ride to each of the facilities was a tour in and of itself; on our way to see the Space Launch System’s SLS Launch Pad we passed ULA’s launch pads and SpaceX’s launch pads where humans will be launching from as soon as next year! Later, we got to hear the whole reason why NASA was chauffeuring us around to all these cool places: Administrator Bolden’s State of NASA speech. Bolden talked about not only the technical advances of NASA, with aviation and research being done on the ISS, but also the sociological advances of the new astronaut class of half women.
The prospective plan I am most excited about, however, is the commercial crew. That fall 2017 date for the first launch feels like it is just around the corner. We were so lucky to get a tour of the facility for the spacecraft they will be traveling in: Boeing’s CST 100 Starliner. It was undergoing some structural test so we couldn’t take pictures but, of course, Boeing released one for us that day. Alongside the Starliner is SpaceX’s Dragon (which will launch on a SpaceX’s Falcon 9) and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. The Starliner and Dream Chaser both will fly on ULA’s Atlas V.
The day ended with our heading to the Vehicle Assembly Building, VAB, which is the tallest one story building in the world (525 ft high). This massive enclosure was once home to the Saturn V and space shuttle, but is now being converted for its big job coming up: assembling the SLS. SLS is the launcher that will take humans to the moon and beyond. An essential part of NASA’s Journey to Mars, SLS will launch for the first time in 2018. To get humans so far out of orbit requires an enormous launcher. How big? 322 ft! To give you an idea of how huge that is, here I am (>5’8″) with a 1/50 scaled model. Even though it is actually smaller than Saturn V, it can carry a lot more weight. Engineering has come a long way.
So this is just a slice of the pie of pictures I took. You can check out the entire album on my Facebook page.