I recently had the privilege of being invited back by NASA Social to cover the first test flight of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew spacecraft! I had originally applied for the opportunity to cover this launch back in November of last year, and after numerous mission delays (including a Government shutdown), the green light was given and I was on my way to see numerous NASA facilities normally restricted to the general public. There was no hiding my excitement for this event as this mission was a milestone - the first uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, designed to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The next couple of days were incredibly busy with a great deal of foot traffic taking place at KSC ahead of the launch, which was scheduled for 2:49am EST Saturday morning. This first day, Thursday, was actually the least hectic day of the event as the only item on the docket was a live NASA social press briefing held at the Operations and Checkout building. Here we would listen to several speakers from both NASA and SpaceX - all of whom are currently involved in the Commercial Crew Program.
We arrived at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at approximately 10am where we would spend the majority of our day as we prepared for a live NASA Social briefing on the upcoming launch. This was actually my first time stepping foot inside this particular facility, one that holds a special place in KSC history.
Originally opening its doors in 1964, the five-story-tall building was originally called the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building and housed the crew quarters where the early astronauts stayed and made all their suit-up preparations prior to their launches. Today, the building's high bay is being used to assemble and test Orion, NASA's next-gen space capsule currently being developed to send astronauts beyond Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo era.
Upon entering the facility, our group was ushered into the Operations and Control Mission Briefing Room where we would stay for the NASA Social mission briefing to be broadcast live on NASA TV. The 90-minute briefing covered the launch readiness of the Dragon 2 spacecraft and brought several speakers to the stage for Q&A.
The entire live portion of the NASA Social briefing for Demo-1 can be viewed below
We arrived back at Kennedy Space Center bright and early Friday morning with a much busier schedule in store than the day before. After another quick security check, we were off to our first stop of the day - the historic Vehicle Assembly Building.
Completed in 1966, the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) stands as the largest single-story building (525ft) in the world having originally been built to facilitate the assembly of the massive Saturn V rockets. Upon completion of the Apollo program, the VAB was later modified to support Space Shuttle operations as it did from 1981 until the end of the program in 2011. And while the majority of hardware components for NASA’s Orion and SLS are currently being built and tested by contractors at locations across the US, those finished pieces will eventually find their way here for final assembly.
While walking around the exterior, one can see that there are four large entries to the VAB, all of which will take you into the inner bays of the building. These grey entryways stand 435 feet tall and are the four largest doors in the world, taking approximately 45 minutes to completely open or close. It’s hard to appreciate just how large this building is from the outside, particularly as it stands alone with hardly any tall structures nearby with which to compare it.
But once you step inside….
Upon entering the south side of the building, I found myself standing in the Low Bay. During the Apollo program, it was here where the various stages of the Saturn V were initially brought in horizontally after making the trip via a barge or NASA’s Super Guppy airplane. Along the front left wall in the image seen above were the “test cells” in which the third (S-II) and fourth (S-IVB) stages of the Saturn V rocket were checked out and stored. These test cells were later abandoned after Apollo and the ground level of the Low Bay became dedicated to Space Shuttle support work, including SRB nose cone repair, main engine maintenance and serving as a holding area for the SRB forward assemblies and aft skirts.
As you walk through the Low Bay further into the center of the building, the facility truly opens up as the ceiling rises and 4 huge Bays are revealed on either side. The corridor right down the middle of the VAB is called the Transfer Aisle with High Bay 2 and 4 on the left side with High Bay 3 and 4 on the right. High Bay 1, in the southeast corner of the VAB, and High Bay 3, in the northeast corner, were used for most of the Apollo missions. All of the bays were used for both Saturn V staging (which could accommodate up to three Saturn V vehicles at a time) as well as for moving for the Space Shuttle's external fuel tanks and flight hardware, which included mating the Space Shuttle orbiters to their solid rocket boosters and external fuel tanks. Once assembled atop the Mobile Launch Platform, the Space Shuttle was then moved by the Crawler Transporter to either LC-39 Pad A or B.
Currently in High Bay 3, NASA engineers are working on the 380-foot-tall mobile launcher that will be used on the agency’s upcoming Space Launch System rocket. The SLS is currently being built by NASA with the hopes that it will one day send astronauts back to the Moon with the Orion crew capsule atop it. The mobile launcher structure includes a crew access arm along with numerous umbilicals responsible for providing power, environmental control, pneumatics, communication and electrical connections to both the SLS and Orion spacecraft.
The first major test of the mobile launcher is planned for June 2020 when the 1st uncrewed flight of the SLS rocket is scheduled to take off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
After leaving the VAB, we left for Launch Pad 39B, one of several launch pads on NASA grounds with a prominent history. Apollo 10 was the first mission to begin at Launch Pad 39B when it lifted off May 18, 1969. In the following years, 39B was used to launch three Skylab missions using the Saturn 1B rocket, one Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission that also used a Saturn 1B, as well as 53 Space Shuttle missions. In fact, the first Space Shuttle mission to be launched from 39B would be the tragic launch of Challenger on STS-51L.
Following the end of the shuttle program, NASA began modifying Launch Pad 39B in 2007 to accommodate Project Constellation - which has since been cancelled - and is now currently renovating the pad to make way for the Space Launch System.
One of the great highlights of visiting launch pad 39B was the view it gave us of 39A, where SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon 2 Crew Capsule sat just 2,657 meters away.
Next we were off to the “Veggie” Lab!
The Vegetable Production System Laboratory, or “Veggie” lab as it’s most commonly referred, is located in the Space Station Processing Facility and researches all aspects of horticulture in space. While NASA has historically always held an interest in plant growth in space, their focus has always been rather academic (ie, how will plants grow in a zero-G environment?) while staying in low Earth orbit. Now, researchers at this particular lab are exploring how to best grow food that can sustain astronauts for when they commit to long-duration missions such as going to Mars.
The importance of this research cannot be overstated. Many nutrients that humans require, particularly Vitamins C and K, break down over time when stored within freeze-dried foods. Without such vitamins, the risks for astronauts to develop infections, blood clots, and heart disease all become much higher. Therefore, learning how to best grow crops in microgravity as well as keeping the yields confined to small spaces is integral for long-duration spaceflight. There’s also huge psychological health benefits that come with such a project, having astronauts see something green (and growing) in a high-pressure environment such as a spacecraft that could be very far from home. Simply put, it helps the crew maintain a connection to Earth.
Developed by scientists and engineers here at Kennedy Space Center, the International Space Station currently hosts the Vegetable Production System, a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing fresh, nutritious food. Crops grown in the VPS are harvested and consumed by the crew members with the remaining samples then being packaged and returned to Earth for further analysis. A big moment for the experiment came in 2015 when astronauts first tasted a crop of lettuce that they grew on the Space Station.
One of the more interesting topics we discussed began with us learning how peppers are being looked at as a desired crop for long-duration spaceflight. Besides them taking minimal space to grow while providing an astonishing amount of vital nutrients such as Vitamin-C, peppers are desirable because they have a bolder flavor than most other vegetables which is more important than you might think as many astronauts find their sense of taste dulled while in space. A variety of factors are believed to contribute to this phenomenon, with “fluid shift” suspected of being the leading cause. This is a prominent physiological change that astronauts undergo when their fluids shift from the lower to the upper parts of the body due to weightlessness. The resulting swelling from this change creates nasal congestion, which affects their taste buds and leads to the dulling of flavors. Because of this, many astronauts are known for insisting that condiments, sauces and spices be provided on their missions.
But well beyond the efforts to produce better tasting food for astronauts, the importance of having humans facilitate their own food supply in space cannot be stressed enough. While providing a source of food may be the obvious reason for studying crop growth in space, the effects that such systems will have on a spacecraft’s ecosystem is important to think of as well. Astronauts exhale carbon dioxide that the plants can inhale while the plants in turn exhale oxygen, which humans then inhale. Human waste can also be turned into both fertilizer and hydration for the crops, making the it a closed-loop system where nothing is wasted.
It’s a fascinating laboratory with promising research that I feel is one of the most important facilities here at Kennedy Space Center.
After leaving the Space Station Processing Facility, we boarded the bus and left for one of the highlights of the day - the base of Launch Pad 39A, where the Falcon 9 stood ready to launch.
In addition to being able to view the rocket, we got our first of two big surprises of the day as astronaut Kjell Lindgren made an appearance to speak with us. You may actually recognize Lindgren as one of the fellow astronauts that took park in the lettuce-tasting moment on board the ISS back in 2015. In addition to speaking about his time on the ISS, he also talked about his current position serving as backup for both the SpX-DM2 test flight as well as the first crewed mission for Dragon 2.
After wrapping up at LC-39A, we quickly drove off to the Launch Complex 39 Press Site where we were hit with our second big surprise of the day - a visit from KSC Director Bob Cabana and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine!
I felt we were incredibly fortunate to have these two individuals take time from what was an incredibly busy day for them with all of the commotion surrounding this launch. After hearing from Cabana about the new developments currently underway at KSC, Bridenstine took the opportunity to talk about the upcoming DM-1 launch and explained NASA’s plan to return humans to the Moon through the combined efforts of joint commercial partners.
What really made this whole meet-and-greet special was that, even with all the commotion going on in terms of the media and press at KSC, Bridenstine and Cabana were there to interact solely with the NASA Social group while all other news outlets were kept away from the area. Granted, they had their opportunity for photos and questions at a later time slot, but it really was a great opportunity for us to speak with them in a less formal setting. It also seemed just as good of an opportunity for them to speak to us without the pressures of an international audience, allowing them to have a more relaxed conversation with our group.
Now feeling the sunburn setting in, I packed up my gear and boarded the bus for one last stop before we wrapped for the day to recoup before meeting up again in the early AM for the launch. Ironically, our last stop was the iconic walkway outside the Operations & Checkout building - which all astronauts walked down to get into the vehicle that would take them to their designated launch pad.
I made a quick trip back to Orlando for a shower, food and to pick up a few pieces of equipment before heading on my way back to KSC to witness the highlight of the event - the launch of the Dragon 2 spacecraft. The launch was scheduled for 2:48am EDT and while the area was still wet from the rain, the small storm system had passed and the skies were as clear as could be - perfect conditions for a viewing.
After sharing stories of who managed to get a proper powernap in since we last saw each other, the group wound up boarding the buses for the NASA Causeway viewing area a little after 1AM. At this particular location, we would be approximately 7 miles away from Launch Pad 39A with a gorgeous, clear line of sight over the Banana River.
3… 2… 1…
After an incredible 2 1/2 days, the Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Dragon 2 was successfully launched and the NASA Social event came to a close. It’s ridiculous how much content I decided to hold back in order to make this a more approachable blog entry in terms of length, but I’m planning on sharing more imagery from this incredible event on Instagram, Twitter and will soon have prints available for purchase right here on this site.
Thank you NASA Social for this incredible opportunity!