My Apollo day at Marshall

Once again, I find it difficult to find the words to explain my latest NASA experience. In the past month, I have had the honor of being a part of two back-to-back NASA Socials at Kennedy Space Center, followed by a private tour of the 45th Weather Squadron at the Cape, met an astronaut here in Crossville, and then was invited to participate in activities at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. It’s been overwhelming!

Since I’m still working on a write-up about my experience down at Kennedy for those 10 days, I’ll just focus on the Huntsville experience I had for now. It’s impossible to share it all with you, but I’ll sure try.

I arrived at Marshall and found out only 15 of us were invited to this special NASA Meetup.  It was really cool meeting other NASA fanatics, especially since so many of them are from the area, which isn’t too far from Crossville.

The day began by us walking out to the field where 5,000 model rockets, donated by volunteers, would be launched at 8:32, the same time the Apollo 11 astronauts were rocketed off to space 50 years ago. This was open to the public and there were so many excited kids. I felt sorry for the frazzled parents but there wasn’t anything that was going to calm those kids down! (ha).

As with any launch, there was a delay (ha). Alas, all 5,000 rockets were lit and launched at the same time, successfully setting a Guinness Book of World Records. It was actually a more interesting display than I expected. Two astronauts were there but there were so many people I couldn’t see them.  At the end of the launch there was a ton of smoke!

 

Then, we went back to the Education Building, where we had gathered that morning to check in. We had a very interesting speaker come talk to us. He was the director of one of the branches there. He is very passionate about his job at Marshall.

That’s one thing you notice with these NASA events, everyone is so passionate and excited to be working for NASA. It’s very noticeable and such a joy to be around!

After talking to us about the projects he works on, etc. he said something that really impacted those of us who are responsible for so many social media accounts, whether it be our personal accounts or work accounts. He said that all of NASA really appreciates the work we do to spread the word about them.

He said that our documentation of all these events makes us the historians of our time. People will look back many years from now to see what all we were saying on social media when all these NASA plans were dreamed up.

We live in the days before we occupy the moon and go to Mars. Someday people will want to know what we thought in the years and days before these missions. Social media will let those ideas be readily available.

After his talk, he then asked for questions. He looked straight at me and asked me what I thought would be an incredible find on another planet (or even the moon). Without hesitation I said, “Single cell organisms.” He was satisfied with that answer. Finding life, in any form, somewhere else will change our whole view of our planet.

Prepare to have your ideas about our planet changed over the coming years with what NASA finds.

The Moon to Mars mission is in full throttle, as I’ve seen down at Kennedy and at Huntsville. NASA originally planned on trying to get to Mars, but plans have changed and now our goal is to get back to the moon, maintain a sustainable presence there, and then branch out to Mars. This is a good idea, because the things we learn by living on the moon will prove critical in getting us to Mars.

Plus, if astronauts run into trouble on the moon we can get there in three days. If they get in trouble on Mars it would take several months for help to get there.

None of this will be easy. That’s for sure. But the things we’ll gain from all the new inventions, etc to make these missions possible will be incredible.

The original goal of getting back to the moon was set for 2028. Then Vice President Pence surprised everyone when, in a news conference, he announced that we were going back to the moon in 2024. This stunned many NASA employees, though they had been warned that this administration was going to be very ambitious with the Moon to Mars program.

So, things are in full throttle and optimism is very high! Gone are the dark and dreary days following the cancellation of the shuttle program. Things are looking up and everyone is working hard.

Will we land with the intention of staying on the moon in 2024? That’s unlikely. The 2024 mission will likely be another visit, similar to the one we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of this week.

So, why is it taking so long to get back to the moon when we were able to go 50 years ago? Well, we want to  go back much safer this time. We’ll have magnitudes more technology and it’s very expensive. I think people forget how difficult it is to go to the moon. It’s not easy and we want everyone to come back alive. Don’t forget that the space program went many years with very little funding and lots of neglect. There’s a lot to build back up.

Interestingly, I learned yesterday that there is a private company that NASA is teaming up with who just wants to drop off things on various parts of the moon. Some of this cargo would be supplies for future astronaut missions. If you need something just make your way to one of these drop off points and get some more supplies. Pretty cool, huh? It’s almost like a store, in a way.

After a short break, we were bused to the site of the first rocket test ever performed in the United States. That’s right, the first rocket test was in Huntsville, Alabama. The date was October 3, 1942. Were we that anxious to get to space? Nope. That first test was to develop a missile that could carry a nuclear payload. We were worried about Russia.

Below is the site of the very first rocket test. I took the second pick below with people in it to give you a better sense of scale.

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So, all of this started with the intent to destroy. Now, the technology is being used to explore and discover. Odd how that worked out, right?

It was very cool to be standing on this site, where rocket testing began in our country. The flame trench for the rocket was so small! I can’t believe I forgot to take a picture of it. The flame trench for the shuttles and current day rockets is enormous! This one was about the size of a  large car.

We asked why they only used one engine for those first rockets. You’d think you would want a back-up right? Well, it turns out it’s actually safer to rely on one. All the engine has to do is get you out of our atmosphere. After that, it’s done. I think they said that to use one engine it required 50,000 lines of computer code, which is actually pretty minimal. To add engines would mean adding many, many more lines of code, checks, etc. It’s just not worth it.

If that one engine fails it just means you’re not going up and that you’ll be staying on the ground.

We then went to various test sites for different parts of the rockets. It was so impressive. At Kennedy I’ve only seen the finished side of things; the rockets are always ready to fire by the time I get there. At Marshall I was able to see the parts that get tested before coming together for that launch. I feel like I’ve made full circle! (ha)

Some of the test sites at Marshall are designated as historic landmarks, including where the first rocket test was performed. The site of the first shuttle test site was going to be designated as a historic landmark but Blue Origin (a private industry) has decided to lease the site to test things they develop.

You should see the flame trench with that site! The flames of the rockets have to be directed away from the pad, etc and that’s what the fire trench does.

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Pictured below are parts being tested. They test the stress on every inch of these parts. They test for a lot of things! (ha)

Pictured below is the liquid oxygen test tank. This is all new construction. The metal beams for the structure go down to the bedrock. IMG_20190716_113411

This is the main body of the rocket that you see between the two solid rocket boosters on the launch pad. Here, they test it for everything you can think of. Look how small we look standing on the ground beneath it. Need less to say, they don’t work on this when lightning is in the area. IMG_20190716_112503

There are little mirrors on the tank above, with their counterparts sitting across the parking lot from it (pic below). These detect any movement of the rocket above, as stress is applied in all locations. They are almost through with the test above, since the rocket no longer moves more than 1/36000th of an inch during stress test. Yeah, I’d call that precise.IMG_20190716_112458

I was impressed with the amount of construction going on at Marshall. It’s very exciting to see us moving forward so quickly and so ambitiously!

It was just so cool being surrounded by all the tests going on to get us ready for the moon. At one facility we were shown an exact replica of the Orion capsule. They test that thing from top to bottom to make sure it’s suitable for flight.

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Look at all the wires used in testing of the Orion capsule! IMG_20190716_141633

They’ve already invented a fabric that is the toughest stuff you have ever seen. They’ll use it on the Moon mission. It’s thin, but absolutely unbendable! (I tried!) Just another NASA invention that you’ll see in your own life somewhere, someday.

We then saw a 3D “printer” that creates metal parts. That’s right, it builds metal parts. They spread metal beads that are about a quarter of the size of a BB pellet over a platform. The machine is then programmed to create something, like a metal ring that is a quarter of an inch thick. The laser only goes over the beads that it’s programmed to melt, creating a paper-thin metal ring. That layer then drops down and another layer of metal beads has the same laser night to run over it, creating another paper thin ring that then drops down on top of the previous molded rings. In time, you get a quarter inch thick metal ring that is just what you need to fix something. (I showed a video of this on Facebook)

The 3D metal “printer” created all the parts you see on the table below.

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How valuable this will be on the International Space Station or even on the moon! When you need a part, just make it! Once this machine is put up there, all they’ll need is the metal beads and they are super light and easy to haul up. It’d be really nice if we can find material on the moon that would work!

Thankfully, with the involvement of so much super rich private industry, money is everywhere. Just go down to the Cape and see what Blue Origin is constructing. It’s impressive. Plus, with private industry involved you don’t have to worry as much about the Federal government cutting funds. The private money will step in. Thankfully, NASA’s budget is a minuscule part of the Federal budget (less than one half of one percent).

That brings me to another point, the mission to Mars will be an international effort. Event the U.S. doesn’t have enough money to get that done. With an international effort, there will be enough money to fund the project. Plus, that will make the Mars mission a project of the world, not just one country’s.

The discouraging news I heard yesterday is that the mission to Mars is one that we will have to be very patient for. We may be as many as 20 years away from having human footprints on the Red planet. It may take longer than that.

Consider this, it will take three separate missions just to bring back one pound of dirt from Mars. Three missions! That’s to bring back dirt. Dirt that requires nothing to keep it alive, etc. It’s just dirt.

On a side note, how cool would it be to be the first person to open up that capsule and see Martian dirt on earth? Wow….

The other downside is that the window of opportunity to go to Mars only comes around every two years. So, if you miss that window you have to wait another two years (this is based on planetary positions, distances, etc.).

We went to the facility where a lunar platform is being built, like what we’ll land on the moon when we go back. It’s about the size of a car and very light in weight. It was pretty cool standing there looking at what will someday be on the moon. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in that facility.

They showed us where the International Space Station (ISS) was built. That’s right, the ISS that we watch cross our night skies from time to time was built right there in Hunstville.

NASA keeps in constant communication with the ISS. That communication comes through Houston, Texas but if Houston has a hurricane or something to disrupt that communication, that communication is then directed through Huntsville.

Between cameras and microphones there is never one second of privacy on the ISS. Not one second. Interesting, huh?

With our talk of going to the moon and Mars, there’s always the concern of contaminating those bodies. The moon isn’t as much of a concern as Mars because, well, the moon is pretty darn desolate and anything that might try to live there wouldn’t survive long. There’s a reason Buzz Aldrin’s first words when stepping on the moon were, “Beautiful view. Magnificent desolation.” (pales in comparison to Armstrong’s quote, right? haha)

Incidentally, Buzz paused as he climbed down the ladder to step on the moon for the first time. A lot of people think he was pausing in awe. Nope. He just had to pee. (LOL) Hey, when you gotta go, you gotta go.

As for some side notes from things I learned yesterday…

The next time we go to the moon we will be landing in a crater on the south pole of the moon. There are strong indications that there will be enough water in the ice there to help sustain astronauts. Can you imagine drinking moon water? They can even use it for fuel. That would be huge! The crater is also so deep that the mantle of the moon is exposed; a geologist’s dream come true.

There is concern for the powder that is on the surface of the moon. That fine powder is dangerous to equipment and that is something to pay attention to. It’s similar to the concerns our military has with desert sand, especially in the Middle East. That powder, however, could also be used to cover the structure the astronauts stay in and protect it from the sun’s harmful radiation. There is also interest in somehow extracting the water from that dust to provide even more water for the astronauts.

On the moon, day and night are 14 Earth days long. You have to get your work done during the daylight because the night’s are dangerously frigid. While daylight hours bring temps around 200 degrees, the overnight lows dip to negative 200. That’s a bit chilly (ha). That temp drops fast when darkness moves in because there isn’t an atmosphere to hold on to any of the heat.

Keep in mind that we still have the rovers on the moon from former missions. So, when new astronauts arrive they will access to those rovers. Those rovers should still work, as they are solar powered and have few, if any, parts that would wear out just sitting on the moon. There have been a total of six lunar missions, with 12 people having walked on the moon. Only four are still living.

We had a member of our group ask why Marshall was located in Huntsville. The answer comes from the fact that they have the Tennessee River and major railroads that all run through there. Huntsville is actually a port city, making it very easy to ship parts to them, even huge parts. Now, they have Interstate 65 that runs nearby.

So, that’s the gist of what I learned yesterday. Later on I’m sure I’ll think of something I wish I had said here.

As always, the people I meet are often as incredible as the things you learn in these NASA events. I was honored to have been a part of this and I can’t wait to see what I get into next!

You all stay tuned and I’ll do my best to get you a story about my NASA Social experience in Florida. That sure was a wild ride!

It’s always an honor to share all these experiences, too. I will be speaking to the Crossville Noon Rotary club for the lunch on July 25th.  A couple of days before that I’ll be speaking to a STEM class of young ladies at Roane State’s STEM summer camp. At least two teachers want me to speak to their classes, and I have promised the lovely Jan Boston Sellers that I will speak to the TAD Center when school gets started back. I love to talk about NASA and it only reminds me of how cool they make my life 🙂

You all take care and don’t forget to look up and dream big!

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