I recently had the privilege of attending latest NASA Social event for SpaceX's fifth mission of 2019 and first CRS mission of the year - CRS-17. This would be a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) which was originally slated to launch on April 26th at 5:55 AM ET but wound up taking off on May 4th 2:48 AM ET…. more on that later.
After arriving at Kennedy Space Center, the first scheduled social media event we attended was the “What’s on Board” press conference held on April 29th. Aired live on NASA TV, the event was essentially a science briefing, introducing us to many of the researches who spearheaded the experiments that would be up to the ISS on this mission.
The briefing kicked off with Mike Roberts, the deputy chief scientist for the ISS Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, who provided a basic overview of the science that would be going up on CRS-17.
The first experiment we learned about was the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), which will take space-based global measurements of CO2 found in Earth’s atmosphere. The science behind OCO-3 was presented by Annmarie Eldering, project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Our goal is to get really good data so we can make informed decisions about how to manage carbon and carbon emissions in the future,” Elderling says.
OCO-3 will be able map specific areas on the planet that produce C02, allowing us to learn how these concentrations may fluctuate seasonally. Equipped with this data, scientists will be able to monitor such emissions and analyze how carbon interacts with our atmosphere on a daily basis and study the associated long-term risks.
The OCO-3 is actually the third iteration of the carbon-sensing module. The first such version, known as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, was originally launched aboard a Taurus-XL rocket in February 2009. Unfortunately, the payload fairing failed to separate and the rocket did not have sufficient power to place the satellite in orbit. It’s replacement satellite, the OCO-2, was then launched aboard a ULA Delta II rocket in July of 2014 and continues to provide carbon dioxide data from an altitude of roughly 438 miles above the surface of the planet as it heads into its fifth year of operations. Unlike its predecessor, OCO-3 will be installed on the exterior of the space station’s Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility Unit, making its orbit approximately 200 miles lower than OCO-2. While having the OCO-3 piggyback on the ISS may limit it to one orbital path, the cost of the mission has greatly been reduced, with mission costs coming in at around $110 million, compared to the $467 million NASA spent to develop, launch and fly OCO-2.
Another project being launched aboard CRS-17 is HERMES, a module roughly the size of a large desktop computer which houses a removable carrier, called a cassette, that different experiments can be loaded in and out of. The HERMES was presented to us by creator Dr. Kristen John, a principal investigator with the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. John discussed how she and her research team developed HERMES as a way to study samples of simulated asteroid particles in an attempt to better understand how they behave in microgravity.
For example the first set of science experiments loaded in Cassette-1 are being housed in four, 10-inch plastic tubes that each contain different materials intended to simulate regolith - the layer of loose and dusty debris that covers the majority of asteroids. Three of these tubes contain different-sized particles of silica glass while the fourth tube has a meteorite simulant created by Professor Addie Dove and students from the University of Central Florida here in Orlando.
Seeing how such regolith particles interact with each other while being exposed to changes in pressure, temperature, and impact shocks from outside forces may give scientists and engineers better insight into how exploratory spacecraft, such as landers and rovers, might better navigate the surface of asteroids on future missions. Once aboard the ISS, the HERMES module will be installed along the wall of the space station and powered up so that scientists on Earth will have full monitoring and control capabilities over the experiment.
Another exciting experiment that was discussed was the Tissue Chips in Space project. Tissue chips are truly fascinating devices and approximately 50 of them will be heading up to the ISS on CRS-17. These chips, which emulate the functions of human organs through the help of pumps and fluidics, are part of a new experimental program from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
Presented by Dr. Lucy Low of the National Institutes of Health, we learned about the 4 different tissue chip investigations that will be carried out aboard the ISS, all of which will use human tissue samples to conduct research. Each tissue chip project will fly into space twice. The initial group of tissue chips will remain on the ISS National Lab for about one month before returning to Earth. On a second mission planned for approximately 18 months later, these tissue chips will be used to test potential drug therapies on the biological processes observed during the initial mission.
Lung / Bone Marrow chips: Designed by scientists and engineers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, these chips will contain both lung and bone marrow and will be study the body’s response to bacterial infection in an effort to study how aging affects our ability to fight infections.
Kidney chips: Spearheaded by the University of Washington and the University of Washington School of Medicine, researches will be monitoring kidney tissue samples to understand how microgravity affects kidney function. Their research will focus on the cause, prevention and treatment of aging-related conditions of kidney function, such as changes in vitamin D metabolism and formation of kidney stones.
Blood-Brain Barrier chip: Designed to emulate the mechanics of the blood-brain barrier, scientists and engineers at the biotechnology company Emulate will study the what makes it more permeable in microgravity and how they may better understand new ways to treat neurodegenerative and immune disorders.
Bone / Cartilage chips: Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will be studying bone and cartilage samples to better understand how the body repairs itself after suffering a knee joint injury in hopes of learning how to better treat osteoarthritis.
Lastly, we heard from high school students Aarthi Vijayakumar, Michelle Sung, Rebecca Li and MIT student David Li who were the winners of the 2018 Genes in Space competition. Their experiment, which will be heading up to the ISS, will investigate the mechanisms of DNA repair in space, allowing scientists to better understand how to reduce DNA damage from cosmic rays on future missions.
Upon leaving the Press Site, we made our way to the historic Launch Pad 39B.
Originally constructed in the early 1960s, the pad was first used to launch Apollo 10 on May 18, 1969 and went on to be used to launch three Skylab missions as well as a single Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission before undergoing major changes for in preparation for the Space Shuttle Program. Following the end of the shuttle program, having launched 53 shuttle missions total, NASA then began modifying 39B in 2007 to accommodate Project Constellation until its cancellation in 2009.
Beginning in 2011, Engineers began repairs and modifications on the pad in preparation for NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) as well as Northrop Grumman's upcoming Omega rocket.
After leaving LC-39B, we made our way back towards the Vehicle Assembly Building where we were treated to the sight of the Mobile Launcher. While I’ve walked through the VAB and passed it on numerous occasions while the doors were open, this was the first time I had a fairly unobstructed view of the Mobile Launcher from top to bottom! Currently under construction in High Bay 3, this 380-foot-tall structure is will eventually provide NASA’s Space Launch System with all the connections needed to provide power, communication, environmental controls as well as the crew access arm that will transfer astronauts to Orion.
Following our visit to the Mobile Launcher, we then made our way to the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF), where the majority of flight hardware for the International Space Station is handled before being sent to it’s designated launch vehicle.
While inside the facility, we were shown many of the plans for NASA’s proposed Gateway program, which will see the construction of a lunar-orbit space station to serve as laboratory, short-term habitation module, and a holding area for lunar exploratory vehicles. Having such a space station in lunar orbit will allow researches and vehicles to access more of the lunar surface than ever before.
In addition to housing the large processing area, the SSPF is also the home of one of NASA’s most interesting research stations - the “Veggie” lab. Here at the Vegetable Production System Laboratory, scientists research all aspects of horticulture in space with an emphasis on how to best grow food that can sustain astronauts on future missions.
This lab has already developed the Vegetable Production System, a deployable plant growth unit capable of producing fresh, nutritious food that is currently aboard the International Space Station.
With research being devoted to every step in how such food is grown, from artificial soil development to environmental controls, the importance of Veggie lab and how it will shape the future of NASA’s long-duration manned spaceflight missions cannot be overstated.
"Our end goal is for food production, and Veggie is our first step for NASA to be able to achieve food production systems for space," says Gioia Massa, NASA project scientist for Veggie. "We're looking at developing what we call a pick-and-eat capability for the space station within the next few years."
Following our visit to the SSPF, we then made our way over to Hangar AE. This particular facility, though maintained by Kennedy Space Center, is actually located on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and houses NASA's Launch Services Program (LSP) which uses the facility as its launch communications center. In all of the control rooms, real-time voice, data and video information can downlinked from whatever launch pad is being used.
This particular mission was originally slated to lift-off on April 26, 2019 at 5:55 am EST. Unfortunately, the mission wound up being postponed multiple times before finally taking off from Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. The first delay pushed the launch to April 30 at 4:22 am ET because it is “the most viable date for both NASA and SpaceX due to station and orbital mechanics constraints.” The second delay pushed the date to May 1 at 3:59am. When that day arrived, NASA announced they were pushing to launch May 3 at 3:11 am ET because of an electrical problem aboard the ISS that needs to be fixed before Dragon arrives, adding that the new launch date is dependent on the successful resolution of the electrical problem. Then came May 3rd. Despite being given just a 40% chance of probability to launch earlier in the day, we gathered at the launch viewing site and with just 20 minutes to go, the probability of launching jumped to 70% favorability. This was finally gonna happen!!!
Then… just 10 minutes from launch… the announcer broke the news over the loudspeaker that the launch was going to be scrubbed due to an electrical problem on SpaceX’s drone ship where the first stage was scheduled to land.
But when we returned the following day, the generator on the OCISLY had been replaced, the weather had cleared and we were looking at beautiful conditions for the launch of CRS-17!
Then at 2:48 AM on the dot…
With the mission officially underway, we wrapped up our on-site activities for the NASA Social event and just 2 days later, watched as Dragon capsule docked with the International Space Station. This event was an incredible experience, not just because of the access provided to both the rocket and NASA facilities, but mostly because of the incredible opportunity we were given to speak with the researchers responsible for the science launched onboard this particular mission. I cannot thank the folks at NASA Social enough for providing the public with such an inspirational opportunity!
You can find much more imagery from this incredible event on both Instagram and Twitter and will soon have prints available for purchase.