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:

Space Exploration

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!).

Notes from a NASA Social Newbie

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!).

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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!).

NASA Social

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.

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At the Space Station Processing Facility

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At the Vehicle Assembly Building; Space Shuttle Teams throughout the history of the program.

Procedures Matter

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)!

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From Astronaut Scott Kelly’s Facebook Page

Privatization

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.

Fresh Fruit

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!

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Gioia Massa explains the VEGGIE Project!

Reverence Matters

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.

NASA Social

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.

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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!

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Photo Credit: NASA GSDO