On December 3, I was invited to take part in a NASA Social event to celebrate the launch of Orion EFT-1: the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually be humanity’s first step to Mars.
To commemorate this historic event, NASA took the unprecedented step of opening the doors to 10 of its locations around the country on the same day. I was fortunate enough to be one of 25 people invited to Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.
Along with learning about Orion, we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Goddard complex, met some remarkable NASA employees literally bringing science fiction to life, and got a tantalizing glimpse of the James Webb Space Telescope under construction.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be one of three things: an archaeologist, a writer, or an astronaut. I’ve been the first two; I’m forever dreaming of the third. This might be the closest I’ll ever come to it.
If you’re interested in a more thorough explanation of anything I touch on briefly here, I encourage you to visit the embedded links, which all lead to the relevant NASA sites. I just don’t have the space here (or the brains) to go too in-depth with everything we saw in one very long day at Goddard.
The day began at the Goddard visitor’s center, which is free and open to the public. Inside, they have a small but informative exhibit about NASA, space exploration, and the work going on around the Goddard complex. They also have a Gemini capsule model that the kids (or you, I won’t judge) can climb inside.
(Incidentally, on the first Sunday of every month, the NARHAMS model rocket club hosts model rocket launches behind the visitor’s center. I built dozens of model rockets when I was a kid and have taken my kids here for the launches. Everyone’s welcome, and you can bring your own rocket. Just sign up, and you can launch your model rocket at NASA. Not everyone can say that. This event is highly recommended for young ones interested in model rocketry or space.)
After boarding the NASA bus, our first stop of the day was Building 28, home of the Flight Dynamics Facility and the Scientific Visualization Studio.
We met with Walt Feimer, one of the computer animators in the Conceptual Image Lab. Inside one of the coolest office spaces I’ve ever seen is where a handful of brilliant designers create a lot of the gorgeous animations and visual effects that NASA and its scientists use to educate about their missions.
We also had the opportunity to see their new short film, Bennu’s Journey, which is about NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu—the first U.S. mission to return samples from an asteroid to Earth. If you’ve got six minutes, marvel a little at this incredible bit of animation:
From there, we met with astrophysicist Stephen Rinehart and learned about the TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) program, which is scheduled to launch in 2017. The TESS satellite will search the sky for exoplanets—i.e., planets not within our solar system.
Over two years, TESS will conduct an all-sky survey, scanning the sky in sections and monitoring 500,000 stars for drops in brightness that could signal the presence of orbiting planets. These stars will then become prime targets for further study by other telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope.
TESS is designed to look for rocky, watery, and habitable planets on bright, nearby stars. In other words, it’s looking for the best candidates to have and/or be able to support life. The seeds of Interstellar begin here.
An example of what TESS is expected to do: The first exoplanet was discovered 25 years ago. Since then, 1,773 have been discovered and confirmed. At the end of its two-year mission, TESS is expected to identity 3,000 new exoplanets, including about 500 Earth-sized and “super-Earth” planets.
From exoplanets to broken satellites. Our next stop was the Satellite Servicing Technology Center, home to a huge robot arm. Believe it or not, Hubble and the International Space Station are the only satellites (of about 1,000 in orbit) that were designed to be repaired and refueled.
That means repairing all the others and extending their lives takes some creative thinking.
The servicing center is a state-of-the-art facility that tests and refines satellite-servicing technologies on the ground before they’re launched into space. Packed with cutting-edge robotics and full-scale replica satellites, this place is a virtual playground for techies.
From astrophysics and practical robotics to….some serious hard science. In the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory, we met astrochemistry research scientist Jamie Elsia Cook and learned a little bit about NASA’s research into meteorites and extraterrestrial samples.
What can we learn from these samples? Why is the mission to return samples from asteroid Bennu (OSIRIS-REx) so important? The scientists here are working on one of the biggest questions of all: Why are we here?
Did delivery of carbon-containing molecules and water to the early Earth enable the emergence and evolution of life? If so, how did it happen? What were the processes involved in the creation of such molecules?
Across the hall is where the rubber meets the road. Where the theory is currently at work. The Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument test bed is a suite of instruments on board the Rover Curiosity, currently scurrying around Mars.
The SAM instruments are studying the Martian atmosphere and scooping up surface samples, looking for organic compounds and evidence of either past or present life on Mars.
A good chunk of the afternoon was spent watching the NASA TV broadcast from Kennedy Space Center. Fascinating in its own right, we heard from NASA administrator Charlie Bolden, Orion program manager Mark Geyer, three-time shuttle astronaut Rex Walheim, and several others. And we were on TV! The full video of the event is here. (Look for our crew—and my shiny head—at about 50:00 and 1:29:45.)
The final stops we made that day were probably the coolest. If you’re still with me at this point (I know I’m speaking to no one), don’t go anywhere.
The Networks Integration Center is Goddard’s version of Mission Control. For the launch of Orion, this was the hub for tracking the spacecraft and communicating with the data relay satellite. We also got to meet Mark Severance, network director for human spaceflight.
Most importantly, though, we got to sit at the computers and imagine ourselves working Mission Control. Win.
And now for the big, impressive spaces at Goddard. The Satellite Testing and Integration Facility is where they put their satellites through the ringer: vibration and acoustics testing, thermal vacuum chambers, and a high-capacity centrifuge capable of generating a 30G force on a 2.5 ton load.
The acoustic test chamber is a 42-foot tall room that can produce noises up to 150 dB. Why? So payloads can be exposed to the noise of an actual launch to see if there are any effects.
The inside of the thermal vacuum chamber mimics the harsh environment of space. Enormous pumps remove all but the tiniest traces of air, down to about a billionth of Earth’s normal atmospheric pressure. It can also simulate the extremes in temperature that equipment will experience in space—with a 600-degree swing from -310 to 302 F.
Finally, we come to the James Webb Space Telescope. The High Bay Cleanroom in Building 29 is the world’s largest publicly known (I love the disclaimer) ISO 7 clean room. It has 1.3 million cubic feet of space. Currently, the pathfinder components of Webb are being assembled.
Once finished, Webb will be the premier observatory for the next decade. It is the successor to Hubble and is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. In terms of size, if Hubble is a school bus, then Webb is about half the size of a 737. It’s sun shield alone is the size of a tennis court!
What will it see? Webb will ultimately be stationed at the second Lagrange point about a million miles from Earth. Remember, the farther you can see, the further back in time it is. So, if Hubble is able to see “toddler galaxies,” then Webb will be able to see “baby galaxies.”
Webb is probably one of the most exciting things on the horizon for NASA. More so than Orion? Well, maybe.
Check out the live “Webb cams” of the work in progress here.
The clean room is enormous. Really. A smudge or speck of dust on the lens of a space telescope is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to clean, especially once it’s in space. Therefore, it’s imperative to prevent dirt, dust, and other contaminants from damaging the sensitive components.
One entire wall of the clean room is nothing but HEPA filters. In fact, the ventilation system circulates almost one million cubic feet of air every minute through 9,000 square feet of HEPA filters that are specially designed to last 50 years.
And then we all got to watch the launch, orbit, and return of Orion with almost textbook perfection. Bravo.
Many thanks to NASA Social for the invitation, Aries Keck for being such an awesome cruise director, and everyone at Goddard who took time out of their day to chat with us.