Finding Mars: A #NASASocial Experience

Finding our way to Mars is going to take an unprecedented amount of resolve. We’ll need the best people, the wisest use of equipment, and the most thought through of plans.

When I participated in the #NASAMarsDay NASA Social August 17 and 18, I got an in-depth look at the people, the equipment, and the plans involved in the journey to Mars. Although I had been a believer already in the idea that we will have humans on Mars in the 2030s, I am a better informed and more inspired believer now.

It’s Technical

Although I have been to two previous NASA Socials (documented here and here), the only attention I had given specific to Mars was taking this picture as an afterthought during one of our tours:

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After a day at Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center, I have a much better understanding of the technical feats that have to occur in order for us to make it to Mars.

Getting to Mars happens in stages. Currently, primary transportation capabilities have been established via the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, the crew transportation vehicle. Low earth orbit missions involving the International Space Station are conducting tests of deep space hardware and operations.

The phase following low earth orbit missions, slated for the 2020s, will be proving ground missions. These initial missions near the moon will demonstrate important space systems as well as early elements of Mars transportation vehicles. Two components needed for Proving Ground missions, the transit habitat and the deep space tug, are in the early development stage.

In the early 2030s, NASA plans missions to the Mars vicinity using the vehicles and systems validated in cislunar space. These missions will prove capabilities for transit to Mars.

Lastly, in the mid to late 2030s, humans will be capable of landing on and ascending from Mars, and of exploring on that planet. Two building blocks of this phase, the Mars Lander/Heat Shield and the Mars Ascent Vehicle, are still in the conceptual phase.

Note: Some of the above information relied heavily on Boeing’s A Path to Mars. Thanks, Boeing! There is lots of indepth information from NASA here as well.

I now can speak a tiny bit more knowledgeably about friction stir welding, a solid-state joining process that produces faster, higher quality welds than traditional fusion welding by using an accurate, repeatable, and environmentally friendly process. (More info here and here.)

Short layperson’s explanation: because friction stir welding doesn’t melt the metal like traditional welding does, it doesn’t compromise it.

Additive manufacturing is essential. Niki Werkheiser said it best in this podcast: “…additive manufacturing is actually the kind of formal term for 3D printing. Traditional manufacturing is subtractive. You have a material and you take away from it. Additive is any process where you actually build the part that you’re trying to create, layer by layer, so it’s additive instead of subtractive.”

Short layperson’s explanation: there’s no Lowe’s or Home Depot on Mars. When you need a part you don’t have, you can’t go down the street to buy it. You have to know how to make it yourself out of components you already have. 

Cleanliness matters. When we visited the RS-25 assembly area, we were reminded of the importance of keeping things clean, clean, clean. Even the oil from a quick touch of a finger can compromise the manufacturing process. Everywhere you go, “FOD” reminders are posted.

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Note the “FOD Awareness Area” barrier around the service module conical adaptor.

FOD is foreign object debris/foreign object damage and it is apparently the devil’s equivalent in the space construction arena. (And those of you who know me best know that yes, I do have a post floating around in my mind that parallels space FOD with life FOD and how we can let the smallest piece of trash mess up a perfectly good plan … that post will have to wait!) This post is older, but it’s an example of FOD analysis and follow-up planning.

Short layperson’s explanation: when you are in a facility that constructs launch vehicles, engines, crew modules, or any other component of space travel, don’t be careless. Don’t touch anything without permission and for heaven’s sake don’t carelessly drop your gum wrapper or last week’s crumpled up grocery list. Small debris can do huge damage.

It’s Technical, But Without People the Technology Means Nothing

Between the formal presentations and the less formal exhibits, we talked to MANY people. Formal presenters included Todd May, Director of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center; Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, Bill Hill, Deputy Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Development at NASA Headquarters, Richard Davis, Assistant Director for Science and Exploration, Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters; John Vickers, Principal Technologist for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center; John Honeycutt, SLS Program Manager; Bobby Watkins, Director of Michoud Assembly Facility; Lara Kearney, Orion Crew and Service Module Manager; and Katie Boggs, Manager for Systems and Technology Demonstration at NASA Headquarters.

Each speaker named above shared a glimpse into their specialty. For example, Bill Hill explained the difficulty of getting through Mars’s atmosphere. Rick Davis elaborated on the need for a semi-permanent base. Katie Boggs, below, explained why we have to become independent of earth in order to be able to exist on Mars.

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To watch the hour-long Journey to Mars briefing, click here. For an excellent overview of the process of assembling the SLS at Michoud Assembly Facility, click here.

When we visited the exhibit area, I learned about many additional aspects of the Journey to Mars. The Dream Chaser Cargo System is a commercial reusable spacecraft designed to provide transportation services to low-Earth orbit (LEO) destinations.

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I enjoyed the opportunities to, literally, “ask a real rocket scientist” and “ask a real space architect.” I asked; I learned.

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One exhibit had to do with one of my favorite NASA projects, one I have had the privilege to hear about at each NASA Social, and one even a generic layperson like me can understand: the VEGGIE project, which is figuring out how to grow food in space!

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This is only a FRACTION of the exhibits we saw, the speakers we heard, and the technology to which we had access. As Bill Hill said, “We’re going to need everybody.” What I saw on this day was a great cross-section of “everybody.”

The Technology + The People Made For a Successful RS-25 Engine Test-Fire

The grand finale of our day was a test-fire of the RS-25 engine. After being transported to Stennis Space Center, we were given a tour of the Rocketjet Aerodyne Facility (there are no pictures for security reasons). We learned about how heritage Space Shuttle engines are being upgraded in order to power the SLS on its successively more complex missions related to the Mars journey.

Around 5 pm CST, we were in place at the viewing area, earplugs protecting our ears. As the test commenced, we were about 1500 feet from the plume of the test fire.

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Google Image Screenshot courtesy of JR Hehnly

Here’s my image of the test fire:

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But honestly, some things (such as capturing test fire images) are best left to professionals. Therefore, here is NASA’s recording:

I don’t know if the picture or the video really convey the power and awe, but it was powerful and awesome! At our “goodbye moment” in the parking lot of Michoud Assembly Facility, John Yembrick, NASA Social Media Manager, reminded us “when we go to Mars someday, you will have seen these engines in person. Imagine four of them and two boosters getting us to Mars. You can’t replicate that in pictures or on tv.” (This is a bit of a paraphrase; I don’t remember his exact words but the point was: you’re so lucky to have been here and seen this. I concur!)

History Matters

I have probably driven past the exits to Stennis Space Center 15-20 times in my lifetime as I went to Baton Rouge and New Orleans on various trips. Never did I realize what a behemoth of a complex existed south of me. As our informative guide Virgil explained, Stennis is a “federal city.” The towns and people that once existed there, which were displaced so that Stennis could be built, deserve our respect and gratitude.

Other sacrifices, big and small, are being made now and have been made over the history of the space program. We all know about the lives that have been lost. Smaller incremental sacrifices occur along the way: years of study, patience with failed experiments, the dogged pursuit of Federal funding (and the constant quest to reduce expenses).

In Closing

Before I talk about dollars and cents, as a mom of a daughter it is critical to emphasize that one of my huge motivators for being a social media ambassador for NASA is the fact that I want the young girls in my life (and heck, the “older” girls and women who may be considering career changes) to be comfortable with and excited not just by STEM, but by  STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. The first person I heard talk about STEAM was NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman and I have been intrigued ever since.

Count me in as one citizen who feels confident in NASA’s efforts and I fully support its continued Federal funding. Every dollar spent on NASA adds $10 to our US Economy.

Right before we went to observe the RS-25 test fire, we saw a brief presentation by Howard Conyers, principal investigator or the HiDyRS-X project which is refining a high-speed video camera system to provide high dynamic range capabilities with one camera. When Dr. Conyers presented a recording of a test fire from the naked eye and a test fire from the HiDyRS-X camera, it was stunning to discover how much detail is missed by the  naked eye, especially once the images are slowed down in infinitesimally small increments. I recall seeing  how there was shimmy in the nozzle once the advanced technology was used.

The presentation of the HiDyRS-X camera was a perfect example of a principle that will get us to Mars: technology + people + tenacity to solve problems and find answers.

Let’s pull this blog back up in 2040 and see how it all went. You know what? Maybe an astronaut on Mars will send me a screenshot of this very blog on their screen and prove that we did indeed make it. Now that’s the kind of 2040 email I would like to find.

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This post is inspired by the following Mama’s Losin’ It prompt: Write a post where the first and last sentences contain any form of the word “find.”

Please visit my Facebook album from this NASA Social here (expect some New Orleans food and drink pictures too!).

How The “OUR” of NASA is Changing

“The state of our NASA is strong.”

This is the refrain NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. repeated 12 times in 22 minutes during Tuesday’s State of NASA address, delivered at NASA’s Langley Research Center, simulcast to 9 other major NASA centers, and broadcast by NASA TV.

I was one of the fortunate social media enthusiasts invited to be at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to watch the simulcast and to tour key components of the center as part of the day leading up to (and following) the address, an event identified all over social media as #StateofNASA.

When I talk about NASA on social media, it is always interesting how people chime in with their memories. My friend Deb shared this letter that her father, a NASA engineer, received in recognition of his work in 1965 on the Apollo program:

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Photo courtesy of Deborah Huwaldt-Dunatov.

Deb shared:

My dad worked on the computer systems of the Apollo, the one that went to the moon. People worked long days about 12 hours day at the test site in Hancock County, MS-right by New Orleans. They then shipped the Apollo to Florida along the Gulf of Mexico. Van Braun, Rocket Scientist would stop by the engineers desks. My dad said he stopped by my dad’s desk and talked with him.

The people of Deb’s father’s 1965 NASA would probably be astounded at 2016 NASA, at:

Technology That Helps Diagnose Breast Cancer

Technological advances which originated at NASA, like Charge-Coupled Devices, which were initially created to help the Hubble Space Telescope produce more detailed images. This technology is now used to make the diagnostic process less invasive and more effective for women being examined for breast cancer.

Fitting Lots of Oxygen Into Compact Spaces

On my December visit and the #StateofNASA visit, I had an opportunity to hear from the Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System (NORS) developers. (NORS is mentioned and described briefly here.) NORS enables NASA to deliver compressed oxygen to the International Space Station via a compact, lightweight container. This is a critical component for long-term survival needs of inhabitants of space.

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One of the NORS Tanks, December 2015.

The Cooperative, International, Public-Private Nature of Today’s Space Industry

In my two visits to Kennedy Space Center, as well as a visit by the head of Kennedy’s Tech Transfer office, Mike Lester, to Tallahassee’s DOMI Station, I have seen professionals of both genders, people of every ethnicity, those who have been NASA employees for decades, and been a guest of facilities who are most decidedly “private” and “corporate” in nature but “public” and “mission-driven” in purpose.

Would any of the men who signed Deb’s father’s letter have expected the upcoming roster of astronauts to be 50% female? Would those men have envisioned an American astronaut and a Russian astronaut living together on the International Space Station for a year? Would they have seen as “desirable” a mutually supportive relationship between Boeing, United Launch Alliance, Orbital, and multiple other commercial partners?

When Administrator Bolden referred to OUR NASA, he meant a NASA which would probably surprise the men of 1965 in its composition, its achievements (and yes, its failures), and in its resilience. Bolden reflected, “growing up in the segregated south, I never dreamed my own journey would take me to space. I certainly never thought it would take me to the administration of the first black president, or to be Administrator of NASA at a time when our people are preparing to return human space launches to American soil and laying the foundation for a journey to Mars.”

Two Additional Notes

The Astronaut Class of 2013

I have noticed this story several times, both on Twitter and during my visit to NASA: Would You Go to Mars? Meet the Four Women Astronauts Who Can’t Wait to Get There. The article in Glamour highlights the four women who compose 50% of the astronaut class of 2013. I so admire them, and loved hearing about their backgrounds, such as Army veteran Anne McClain, who said “…I have no doubt NASA will find solutions. Walking out to the launch pad, would there be … fear? Absolutely. But if you don’t face your fears, the only thing you’ll ever see is what’s in your comfort zone.”

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NASA Astronauts Nicole Aunapu Mann, Anne McClain, Jessica Meir, and Christina Hammock Koch, as published in Glamour Magazine

I also loved the fact that the article quoted NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, Ph.D., who made a huge impression on me when she spoke to our group during the December NASA Social. In this article, she stated, “This [MARS Mission] will be the longest, farthest, and most ambitious space-­exploration mission in history.”

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President Obama, Administrator Charles Bolden, Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, KSC Director Bob Cabana

Here’s the thing for me: I am thrilled that these women received this coverage, I am thrilled that they will potentially be among the first Americans on Mars, but when will the day come that “our” NASA will be so thoroughly integrated that it won’t be an outlier or cause for unusual celebration that four women are part of an astronaut class? It seems to me that’s still a work in progress.

Sagan’s Quest

One of my fellow #StateofNASA attendees was Jillian Gloria, with the Earthrise Space Foundation, Inc. Jillian and her team have produced a book called Sagan’s Quest. The book, targeted to children, promotes Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and is inspired by her company’s real endeavor to the Moon. Sagan is a robot (named after the infamous astronomer Carl Sagan) who is led by his friend, Carla, through spaceflight history and his journey to the lunar surface. You can read a virtual copy for free, or order a physical copy, at www.earthrise-space.org/sagansquest. I was enchanted by Carla, a girl “with a dream”:

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A page from Sagan’s Quest courtesy of the Earthrise Space Foundation.

From Mr. Huwaldt who was part of making space exploration a reality in 1965, to Administrator Bolden who 50 years later is leading a legitimate effort to go to Mars in the 2030s, accounting for every man and woman in between, the “OUR” of NASA has evolved and will continue to do so.

I can’t wait to see where “our” NASA goes!

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