More Rocket in the Rocket City


In the past week, without most locals being aware of it, more rocket arrived in the Rocket City.
 
The core of NASA’s Space Launch System will be the largest rocket stage in history. One of its fuel tanks alone, the liquid hydrogen tank, holds as much as maybe 20 average backyard swimming pools. The liquid oxygen tank is “smaller,” but that’s a very relative term. When they’re full, they get kind of heavy. In between them is an empty cylinder that’s sole job is to keep them from bashing into each other during launch, because that would be what the technical folks call “a bad day.” There’s over seven million pounds of pressure pushing up on several swimming pools worth of a substance that really likes to burn, and millions of pounds of pressure pushing down on more swimming pools of another substance that really really likes to make things burn. And there’s one empty cylinder, the intertank, taking the combined force to make sure that doesn’t happen.
 
It’s kind of important that cylinder work. That’s why, the other day, a test version of that cylinder arrived in Huntsville to undergo unimaginable stress (seriously, stop and try to imagine it in a way that provides any real understanding) to ensure that, when the day comes, the real thing will do its job.
 
The intertank test article joins both more test hardware and actual flight hardware of the world’s largest rocket here in Huntsville. Over the course of the year, it will be joined by even more test articles, including those giant fuel tanks, while being accompanied by less flight hardware – while it’s cool to have giant rocket parts in Huntsville, it’s even cooler to have them in Florida, and way cooler still when they leave there.
 

At The Beginning…


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Three years ago today, Rebecca and I were at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the first launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft. It was, to put it lightly, an incredible experience. I’d returned to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and joined NASA’s Space Launch System two years earlier that week, but I’d been following Orion for far longer than that, so it was overwhelming finally seeing it fly.

Sunday marked five years that I’ve been part of the SLS program, and they’ve been the most incredible of my career. I’m incredibly blessed to be here – I was talking to a friend, recently, about how, when I was in early high school, this is basically where I’d dreamed of being, that I’d abandoned that dream before college, but had somehow halfway-accidentally ended up where I’d wanted to be in the beginning. The irony is, if I’d stuck with my initial dream, there’s a good chance I would have ended up somewhere else.

All that to say, I’ve watched the SLS team pour themselves into this work, and we’re now seeing it pay off in a very real and very big way as the rocket takes shape. It is phenomenal to see the things they’ve already built, and to watch those massive pieces come together. But the real payoff – I was about to say the real payoff will be finally seeing in launch in two years, but, while that will be incredible, it’s not really true. The real payoff will be seeing what is accomplished when this rocket starts flying, and seeing a generation inspired as humanity reaches farther than ever before.

Rocket In The Rocket City


Photos courtesy of NASA

I don’t generally get to work at 6:30 in the morning, but today I made an exception. A test article of the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter for NASA’s Space Launch System was being raised by crane and placed in the test stand. The LVSA is a giant metal “waffle cone” that will connect the two stages of the rocket. It will soon be joined by test versions of the rocket’s second stage and the adapter for NASA’s Orion Spacecraft.

To be honest, it wasn’t the most dynamic scene in the world. A large metal cone was carefully prepared and slowly moved to the stand. But it’s a start.

This piece will be followed by others, and the test will begin of a 56-foot-tall stack of rocket hardware; NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center‘s first major test of a large campaign to ensure America’s next great rocket is ready to fly. Next year will see testing of the rocket’s core stage liquid oxygen tank and the 130+-foot-tall hydrogen tank.

This morning was a very real step in a big rocket coming to the Rocket City in a big way. Not a bad way to start your day.
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…Speaking of Mars


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Waaaaay back in aught-two, when I was still new to Marshall Space Flight Center, then-NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe came to the center to talk about the state and future of NASA. I was watching the the talk on center TV, and I turn it on to see O’Keefe on the stage at Marshall’s historic Morris Auditorium, with a banner behind him reading “Mars Space Flight.”
 
And, yeah, space nerd me was excited. This is really happening? The NASA administrator is here to announce something about sending people to Mars? OK, that’s kind of cool.
 
And then the camera zoomed out. And the banner did not read:
 
MARS
Space Flight
 
It read:
 
MARSHALL
Space Flight Center
 
Oh. Well, that’s cool, too, you know. And, to be sure, we were doing exciting things, but for that one moment, I was really hyped that somebody was about to stand on the stage at Morris Auditorium talking about sending people to Mars.
 
Today, I stood on the stage at Morris Auditorium, talking about sending people to Mars.
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I had a really neat opportunity to brief the latest class of Leadership Huntsville about the challenges we face on the Journey to Mars. It was an honor to talk to that group, it was an honor to stand on that historic stage, and it was an honor, due to a scheduling change, to have Marshall Space Flight Center Director Todd May as MY opening act.
 
But it was one of those moments that drove home what an incredibly exciting time this is. This is happening. We’re going to Mars. And we’re actively working on it now.

One Giant Among Many


Without a doubt, one of the coolest parts of my job is getting a front-row seat for history, and today was an incredible one in that respect. The test area at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is a cradle of exploration — tested here were the propulsion systems that carried the first American into space, the first humans on the moon, and everything from Hubble to the International Space Station.

And now, we’re about to add to that list the core stage that will eventually send humans to Mars. NASA’s Space Launch System has made its own addition to the Marshall test area with two new towers, one of which will test the rocket’s liquid oxygen tank and the other its hydrogen tank.

Pictures don’t do justice to the size of this tower. And as I approached it, I had to remind myself that this gargantuan construct was there not to test the rocket, or even the core stage of the rocket, but one tank of the core stage of the rocket. Seeing how big the stand for that tank is was an awe-inspiring reminder of just how incredible the finished machine will be.

Ad Astra, Per Aspera, Per Aspera, Per Aspera


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Maybe I should be writing this Friday. I’ve always done it today, and this year won’t be any different.

Where were you?

Forty-six years ago, when a fire during tests in an Apollo spacecraft on the launchpad killed three astronauts, I wasn’t around yet. Odds are, statistically, neither were you. The Apollo I fire has been long enough ago now that the world’s population then was only half what it is today. I knew the names of the crew for the namesake schools honoring them here in Huntsville. I was teaching at one of those schools last year on the anniversary of the loss of Columbia.

Twenty-seven years ago, I was a new transfer student at Huntsville Middle School when we lost the space shuttle Challenger. I was in the gym when I heard, and I literally couldn’t believe it. Space shuttles do many things, but blowing up, to my 10-year-old mind, was not one of them. It wasn’t until much later in the day that I knew it was true. It was a universal touchstone for my generation, and it’s odd as time passes to encounter those for whom it’s just a historical event.

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago.

Ten years ago, I was at home. I was asleep, when a coworker called to tell me about Columbia. I was addled, and it made no sense. I finally understood enough to go downstairs, to turn on the TV. To hear the repeats of “Columbia, Houston, Comm Check.” I was working at Marshall Space Flight Center already then; I had been for about half a year. It was different. It was personal. It hurt. It still does.

I made myself some promises then. I was nobody. I worked at NASA, but I had nothing to do with the shuttle or its safe flight. But I promised myself I would watch every launch. I promised myself I would watch every landing. I wouldn’t take them for granted. We, as an agency, needed to take less for granted. And even if I couldn’t contribute, I could at least hold myself to that standard. And so I did. I set my alarm for some weird hours sometimes, but I watched every crew launch after that, and I watched every crew come safely back home after that. I heard every “Wheels stop,” right up until the last time they did.

The last time I marked this anniversary at Marshall, we were still flying humans into space. We’re not, today. But we are preparing for the day we do. And this time, in a very small way, I have the honor of being a part of that. I’m not an engineer. I’m not directly responsible for safety. I’m glad to be a part of a team that does have safety as a prime value in this new rocket they’re designing. But even in my small role, in the ways that I can, I will still work to uphold that standard — Don’t take it for granted.

Twixt Yesterday And Tomorrow


 

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I wrote a little bit ago about starting my new job at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, providing communications support for the new Space Launch System rocket. At the time of that post, I was mostly settled in, but had one milestone I’d not yet crossed — receiving my new badge. I’d planned to write another post when that happened, but I was busy. So I’m writing this one instead, which is better anyway.

The badge was always a big deal to me. It meant I was part of something incredible. I was proud to wear it, and when I was hired for this job, I very much looked forward to wearing it again.

There were two types of occasions, however, when I was most proud of wearing it, when I was most aware of what it meant.

There were the days when I was aware of its history. Days that I was in the room with Flight Director Gene Kranz, talking about his experiences on Apollo 13. Days when I was in the room with Alan Bean, telling us about what it was like to walk on the moon. In its history, NASA has done incredible things without parallel, and the badge means I’m part of that heritage.

And then there were the days when I was aware of its potential. Watching a shuttle launch. Watching the Ares I-X launch. This agency does incredible things today, and the badge means I’m part of that team.

So I was glad to be wearing it again.

Yesterday was one of those days. And by those, I mean both of those. I’m not going to say it was the most incredible day I’ve experienced, but I don’t recall another day that brought home both the heritage and the potential like yesterday did.

Yesterday, I watched an engine component test firing.

The component being fired was over 40 years old; a gas generator from the F-1 engine that powered the Saturn V rocket that carried men to the moon. Obviously, this particular piece didn’t fly, but it was produced alongside the ones that did, for that very purpose. F-1 engine testing at Marshall Space Flight Center was a major milestone on the road to the moon 50 years ago, and I was there watching hardware from that era come to life again, in the same test area.

The component was being fired because it’s being studied to create an improved, modern version of the F-1, as part of a program to develop a new rocket. The goal is a new launch vehicle that will ultimately be more powerful than the Saturn V and that will unlock the solar system for human exploration and for robotic missions beyond anything we could do now.

NASA has done amazing things. But the best is yet to come. It’s an honor to be a part of that. It’s an honor to wear the badge.