Prior to December 2, I had visited the Kennedy Space Center precisely one time, when I took Tenley and Wayne years ago (I think they were around 10 and 7, so that’s almost 10 years ago!). My involvement as a NASA Social participant December 2 and 3 catapulted me into a whole new level of interest, and I am so excited to share the my observations with you!
Although the NASA Social experience for the Orbital ATK OA-4 Mission spanned December 1-3, I joined on December 2. (December 1 was an optional day and after my impromptu trip to Orlando 11/29-11/30, I needed to get caught up on work and pitch in to the caregiving effort for Dad so I deferred, but here’s the view of the Boeing Defense Starliner the group had on 12/1!).
Once I arrived, submitted my two forms of ID (I had been so worried I would forget my passport), and had my belongings as well as our bus pass muster via the bomb sniffing dog, we were on our way to stop number 1, the press center where we did preliminary icebreakers and then participated in a live briefing on NASA TV (view a recording of the briefing here!).
Now for the takeaways, so many takeaways!
Enhancing STEM by Emphasizing STEAM
We didn’t know the awesomeness ahead for us when we were directed into the KSC Training Auditorium on Thursday. Once we sat down, we were told that Dava Newman, Deputy Administrator for NASA, would be speaking with us. I really enjoyed her talk and learned from it. The statement that most stood out to me was her idea that STEM should be broadened to include Art, to become STEAM. That’s the missing link I have been struggling with mentally about STEM: people engaged in science, technology, engineering, and math need the thread of art woven through. Thinking creatively directly impacts thinking analytically, in my opinion, and school systems need to think twice about cutting arts funding in favor of STEM funding. View Dava’s entire talk here (credit to Backyard Astronomy Guy) and follow her on Twitter at @davaexplorer (she’s new to Twitter so if you are on Twitter, please give her a nice welcome!).
Ownership and Engagement
In my capacity as Community Manager for the Lead Change Group and Social Media Specialist for Weaving Influence, I encounter content about employee engagement daily. This is fine with me because it’s a topic I adore. In my last few years at Healthy Kids, I struggled with my own disengagement. Prior to that, as a supervisor, I strove (often unsuccessfully) to foster a sense of engagement. When I had responsibilities as the liaison between Healthy Kids and our Third Party Administrators, I really felt challenged to help weave a thread among people who were not always engaged with their employer and therefore were highly unlikely to go a layer beyond and engage with us as the contractor.
During my time at NASA, I was struck repeatedly as we passed banners which had been signed by team members of various projects. I know signing a banner doesn’t create lasting engagement, but it was a tangible sign of intent, and it resonated with me.
I suppose it’s obvious to say “NASA is big on procedure.” Spending two days touring various components of NASA, though, gave me deeper insights into why the organization is so procedure-heavy and why it matters. The scale of investment that has been made in the research being done at the International Space Station is expansive (and expensive!). The governments and private entities which have invested in research do so trusting that care will be taken to get their experiments from inception to completion safely, with the relevant data intact.
I learned that anyone in Mission Control for the Atlas Rocket via United Launch Associates can stop a launch in its tracks, but they have to do it a certain way. You don’t want someone stopping such a huge process precipitously by saying to a neighbor “hold on, I need to check a figure.” They specifically have to say “HOLD. HOLD. HOLD,” which everyone understands to be the signal to stop the launch sequence in order to assess what is wrong.
Procedures Matter Part Two
Back when I announced on Facebook that I would be going to the NASA Social event, someone said, “oh it’s a cargo launch; they don’t scrub those that often.” WELL, I am not sure how often they scrub them but I can attest that if the weather factors which impact launch success are not favorable, and/or if the five launch attempts in a 30 minute window have been spent, the craft will not launch. As we sat in the bus on Thursday night, in the rain, watching attempts 1, 2, 3, 4 and finally 5 come and go, we had a prime example of the fact that no one can control the weather but everyone can control the sentimental goal of getting a rocket up in the air and stop as procedures dictate.
Subsequently, the Friday night launch window closed after each of the 5 attempt options came and went as did the Saturday night launch window. While I was glad I had not rolled the family logistical scheduling dice and decided to hang around for Friday (or Saturday), I was disappointed for all the people I met who are invested in a safe and successful launch. AND I was thrilled to see a successful launch at 4:44 pm today (Sunday, 12/6/15)!
I have developed a personal skepticism about privatization over the years. Although Healthy Kids was technically privatization of the provision of health insurance for children, we were quasi-governmental in many ways. It was when we contracted with Third Party Administrators to do our enrollment, billing, member services, and other duties that I grew disillusioned. Although there were some exceptions, and throughout the years there were always fantastic individual people in the mix, in general it often seemed to come down to a lack of embracing our mission, vision, and values as well as a focus on profit over quality.
This trip to NASA demonstrated ways in which privatization can work, via organizations which are fully aligned with the contracting entity’s goals and personnel who are dedicated to quality. Notably, two of the private organizations involved in this mission were Orbital ATK and the United Launch Alliance. Each of these organizations has a corporate pedigree encompassing big names (Honeywell and Thiokol for Orbital ATK, Lockheed and Boeing for ULA — NOT a comprehensive list). Compared to my personal experiences related to privatization, I saw unity, esprit de corps, and commitment to mission among the people I met at NASA. It was reassuring.
When one of the experts was speaking about the payload being delivered to the International Space Station by the Cygnus, someone asked what the astronauts were most looking forward to. One of the answers? Fresh fruit. Apparently the payload contains fresh fruit. After seeing the launch delayed from Thursday to today Sunday, and the laborious process undertaken to prepare and load something as part of the cargo, I’m hoping it isn’t bananas because this takes a while. I want these men to have their fruit and to enjoy it for heaven’s sake!
Delayed Gratification is a Thing, Especially if There are Veggies (and Zinnias) Involved!
I gathered that one key quality to have as a NASA employee (or employee of an organization like Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, etc.) is patience. We learned about the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) experiment underway. The first crop was red lettuce; they are now growing zinnias. But when you are on the Space Station and grow your first red lettuce, you don’t just start chowing down. You have to send your crop back to earth so it can be deemed safe. You have to give up a portion of your crop for research. Everything gets measured, studied, and analyzed before (sometimes instead of) being eaten!
When we visited the Vehicle Assembly Building, there was so much to see it was hard to focus and take in one component at a time. We were told, when we went to the 16th floor to look at the building from a different perspective, to under no circumstances take pictures of the crawler. It had been dismantled in order to be overhauled, exposing sensitive components and clues about processes which were not to be disseminated via social media (there’s an acronym for the regulations governing this (there’s an acronym for everything by the way) but I don’t recall it). Those who disobeyed this rule would be sent back to the bus to wait out the rest of the visit. I had not doubt they were serious!
When we went to the 16th floor, our escort caught me by surprise when he asked, “do you all want to see where the existing pieces of the Space Shuttle Columbia are kept?” We were allowed to go, two at a time, as long as we did not cross a specific line. I was told that access to go INTO the room is limited to once a year, for the families only (and a very few other exceptions). I recalled the day this disaster happened, how we had just gotten home from Tenley’s soccer game, how cold it was in Florida, and how surreal it seemed that there had been another Space Shuttle disaster. I was moved by the reverence shown for this piece of NASA’s past, by the memories evoked in this run of the mill civilian all these years later, and by the trust placed in me to pay my respects.
People + Technology + Passion
For us adults, finding wonder in our world can be elusive. It is easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day, in the pessimism of a world more divided than unified, in being resigned to things as they are rather than what they could be.
Thank you, NASA, NASA Social, and everyone in the NASA Orbital ATK OA-4 Social group for giving me a stellar view of the reality of tomorrow!
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.