Take Back the Sky’s own Jeff Cunningham was recently invited to a NASA press event centered around the launch of the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) spacecraft aboard an air-launched Pegasus XL rocket. In this series of posts, he’ll share his behind-the-scenes tour of NASA’s latest and greatest projects going on at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Around 8:15 AM, I arrived at the old Astronaut Hall of Fame. Once a smaller tourist attraction competing with the larger KSC Visitor’s Center, it was eventually acquired by the latter, which led to this awkward period where an admission ticket included a shuttle bus to the Hall of Fame a mile or so down the road. Eventually, all of the exhibits and artifacts were relocated to KSC, negating the need for tourists to potentially divide their day at the attraction in half with limited shuttle availability — but leaving a currently unused and neglected building in the middle of Titusville.
Apparently, they’d turned some lights on and re-activated the air conditioning upon arriving and unlocking the doors just before all of the attendees arrived. I say this because when I stepped inside to pick up my badge at a card table they’d set up in the foyer, the air was positively stifling, like the scene from Apollo 13 where the astronauts nearly asphyxiate from running out of breathable air, and it was warmer than the outdoors. Water flowed halfway across the floor of the men’s room when I flushed the toilet — in short, all the markings of those “abandoned” videos on YouTube. Come to think of it, it’d be a cool location for an urban exploration video…
(Take Back the Sky does not endorse trespassing on private property. While we do endorse misbehavior, in the name of all that is good and Firefly, please don’t get us sued.)
After a security sweep by a K-9 unit, I boarded the bus with my badge in hand, with no one so much as suspecting my cover as a “journalist!”
Our first stop: Meeting the unsung heroes of NASA’s Swamp Works. Even NASA, it turns out, needs their own special team of unique talents with a license to solve problems in whatever crazy, unorthodox ways they deem necessary. Its centerpiece: one of the largest enclosed “regolith simulant” laboratories — fancy scientist talk for a high-tech sandbox. Like, not a metaphorical “sandbox” where you’re free to do whatever, I mean a literal sandbox, or to be more accurate, a perfect simulation of the ultra-coarse conditions and chemical makeup of the surface of the moon and asteroids. Like, a big one.
This provides NASA and university teams with the perfect place to test out robotic rover designs before sending them out to other worlds, and was featured on the National Geographic Channel.
Visible on the workshop floor below us were several stations with robots in various states of construction: a six-wheeled drivetrain here, a tread chassis staged for the loading lift there, and a handful of flying “drone”-type craft that, it is hoped, will allow the exploration of deep lava tubes beneath the surface of extraterrestrial bodies.
Next, we were led into a modest side room that would be easily forgotten unless you were a ’90s kid and had been there in its heyday. Back at the height of the International Space Station’s construction, one of the major expansions to the KSC Visitor’s Center (aka “the bus tour”) was “The ISS Center,” where you’d be treated to your typical dog-and-pony show of a short film and be ushered to a observation room overlooking the integration floor, where technicians were actively constructing and working on parts of the space station and conducting final checkouts before they were loaded onto the space shuttle — the exact observation room we stood in now.
Years later, though, the room is now a storage closet — you can’t make this stuff up — for, I kid you not, their spare moon dust and extra conference room chairs.
While one of the resident scientists addressed most of the group in one corner of the room, my attention was drawn to the opposite end — there was still hardware on the floor! Granted, the place was nowhere near as active as it had been, before, but as the gentleman leading our tour explained, the facility is still used for integration and checkout by various people, such as by Orbital/ATK (now owned by Northrop-Grumman) to get their Cygnus capsule ready for flight.
Of most interest to me, however, was an unmarked, unpainted metal tank that again, no one but me was as pathetically obsessed over spaceflight to recognize as resembling one of the Multipurpose Logistics Modules. The three MPLM’s were built by Italy to essentially perform the function of those PODS shipping containers in the U.S. that you can pay to load your stuff into when you’re moving to a new residence that’s really far away. They were used during the final stages of the space station’s construction to essentially bring in the furniture after the place was more or less built.
Our guide informed me, though, that this wasn’t merely a test article, but an unused fourth MPLM that had been the victim of budget cuts and was thus unannounced to the public and unknown to me.
The man said he had no idea what it was to be named — even though the other three had been named after certain great Italian artists from the Renaissance period, and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to me that they’d stay with the theme.
After that, we returned to the bus and continued to our next stop for the day, NASA’s Food Production Laboratory, also known as VEGGIE. We’ve covered some of VEGGIE’s work in the past; they conduct extensive, continuing research into new and innovative ways to grow food crops in extraterrestrial environments.
This time around we had the pleasure of being guided by one of the head researchers at VEGGIE. According to him, this humble-looking display unit in the lobby is similar to one recently flown to the International Space Station. Like its predecessor, it will cultivate a crop of Red Russian Kale, and again like the last time, it is expected to yield a harvest in time for the Thanksgiving holiday — meaning astronauts now have their first in-space Thanksgiving tradition. There’s currently interest in new experiments in cultivating wasabi out in the Black, as the physiological effects of weightlessness on the human body includes a deadening of the taste buds, so astronauts tend to prefer stronger seasonings to liven up their cuisine.
Left: A “suspension garden” will hopefully enable food crops on the surface of Luna someday. Right: A researcher harvests sprouts to analyze their nutrient content.
VEGGIE’s research tends to focus on non-traditional methods of agriculture, namely, hydroponics and aeroponics.
Left: These plants are actually descended from those grown in space by astronaut Scott Kelly, and give VEGGIE scientists the opportunity to examine whether weightlessness introduces changes to their genetic code that can be passed down to descendants. Right: A researcher maps out the potential use cases for non-soil-based growing in the inner Solar system.
Left: One of several controlled environments that reproduce atmospheric conditions aboard spacecraft. The first one on the left is destined for a future SpaceX Commercial Resupply flight. Lower Right: Science.
After thanking the scientists of VEGGIE for their time, we shifted gears to the launch integration side of KSC: The Rotation Processing Surge Facility (RPSF), a wordy-wordy name for the building that fulfills one very specific purpose:
- Receive segments of the tall, white solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) from both the space shuttle and its successor programs, lifting them off of the rail cars they come in on through careful crane maneuvering.
- Stand them on end, then send them across the street to the Vehicular Assembly Building.
Left: Entering the RPSF. Right: I spy one of the Mobile Launch Platforms off to one side, used in both the Apollo and shuttle programs.
The segments in these photos are test articles that are the same size and weight as the real SRB segments, for use in training a new cadre of technicians in the fine art of picking things up and putting them down.
Then came the a stop that was cathartic in a way I hadn’t expected. We’re all familiar with the expression “you can’t go home,” that the world changes whether we like it or not, and often towards entropy and decay, so the home we revisit can never truly be the one we left behind — or so the saying goes at least.
Take Disney theme parks, for example. My love for them is greater than any blog can contain. It’s understood by even the most die-hard Mousejunkies like me that change to this place that’s near and dear to my heart is inevitable — indeed, Walt himself is said to have stated that “Disneyland shall never be finished,” that it would continue to innovate. So my reaction, and that of many like me, to that change is the very definition of bittersweet. You can’t very well let this beautiful creation stagnate by staying the same into eternity, you look forward to new and exciting new attractions (STAR WARS, ANYONE?), but a part of your heart will always mourn the loss of whatever once stood in its place, no matter how little merit and entertainment value it actually had to begin with.
Standing in the Vehicle Assembly Building on that mild October afternoon after nearly a decade flew in the face of all of that. Not only was I able to “return home” to the home of the space shuttle, my first love, but it was even better than when I’d last seen it in its death throes leading into the shuttle’s last flight.
But, I get ahead of myself. The words that come to mind to many who are fortunate enough to get clearance to walk into the VAB are words like awe, scale, massive, and then you run out of words to describe how bigly, hugely big it is.
How big? If you felt like taking a morning jog before reporting to work at the VAB and decided to do a lap around the building, you’d run over a mile. The first sixteen stories of the building are nothing but structure to support the massive weight of everything above them. Urban legends and apocryphal anecdotes spun by former old hands of NASA abound of self-contained weather systems forming at the ceiling, including clouds and rain, and of entire floors abandoned in place in the wake of the end of the shuttle program covered in several inches of dust.
Well, the pictures may not do it justice or evince my point here, this time around, the VAB may have quiet and empty, it was most certainly alive, more so than I’d ever seen before.
Left: Plaque commemorating the final flight of Space Shuttle Columbia, in which all crew were lost. Right: At the close of the shuttle program, every single employee involved signed this wall — not like it takes up much of the real estate in this place.
Left: Looking up at the ceiling from the transition point. Right: The VAB: The building so large that nothing but Portrait Mode will cut it.
Left: Preparations and refits underway for the Space Launch System test flight. Right: Due to the immense distances and surface area inside the VAB, NASA had to get creative to meet fire code. That tiny red dot is actually about four or five feet across, to mark the location of a fire extinguisher so that it’s visible from a distance.
I didn’t know how much I’d needed that. Feeling the renewed energy of this place, hallowed by the sweat and toil of the proud men and women who work here, and the sacrifice of their heroes who gave their lives for the American dream and the hopes of mankind, renewed me in turn. It gave me newfound drive to hit the books in my grad school classes and to apply myself in my career so that I, too, may join the ranks of the people here who live the dream.
Much ink has been spilled concerning the question of whether the SLS is the most prudent way forward for America’s space program. All I can say from standing at that waystation to the stars is that it’s gratifying to see the place abuzz with activity, as it should be. I’d go so far as to say it restored my faith in things, after a fashion.
This has been the first in a two-part series covering the NASA SOCIAL press event for the ICON mission. For more information on the research conducted at NASA VEGGIE, follow @growbeyondearth. We extend our most sincere gratitude to NASA SOCIAL and the Kennedy Space Center for welcoming us and making this possible.