I’m old enough to remember when man first set foot on the moon, but even before that I was a huge fan of space exploration. As long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with space and the idea of going there.
For the majority of my life the very idea of an average citizen going into space was just a dream and nothing more. Today we’re actually so close to this becoming a reality that most people accept it as an inevitable part of the future. And not the far future, either. We’re expecting to be able to become space tourists within our own lifetimes, and with good reason.
There are many private companies working on making flights into space available to anyone who can afford the ticket. Ah, there’s the rub. But to get there they’ve got to make inroads into the growing commercialization of the space industry in other ways. The best way at this point is to have a means of sending supplies to the ISS.
Orbital Sciences Corporation has become the next major player in that field and last April they proved their mettle in the era of human space flight by executing a successful test launch of their Antares rocket. Orbital is not new to the game, though. They’ve been around since 1982, sending rockets into space carrying satellites, instrumentation, and more.
Okay, enough seriousness. I’m letting my inner child/geek out. I got the chance to visit NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, meet real astronauts, and saw a real rocket up close! How cool is that?
How did this happen? It all started when a friend of mine, Walt, sent me a link to the NASA Social program’s planned event surrounding the Antares launch. NASA Social gives people active in social media the chance at full press access to certain events and a rocket launch was right up my alley. I had to apply for social media credentials and wait for NASA to decide if I qualified based on my social media outreach.
I guess you could say they were looking for the “write stuff.” (sorry…)
Okay, so now I had access, but all expenses are on me. I began adding up the costs and Houston, we have a problem. Flying halfway across the country, renting a car, getting a hotel, and feeding my formidable face was not going to be cheap. At first I decided the cost was just too much for my budget and shared that thought with my friends in social media, but they weren’t letting me give up that easily.
Some very smart friends of mine suggested I try a Kickstarter campaign to help with the costs, so I did. I set a very modest goal that would help pay for part of the trip and thanks to a good many generous people, most of whom I don’t even know, my first and only Kickstarter was a success. Heck, it even overshot the goal by about 12% which was pretty damned awesome.
The first day involved registering, getting my cool NASA badge, and touring the Sounding Rocket Facility and Scientific Balloon Research Laboratory. These two programs are really important to space research because they allow NASA to test equipment and do scientific experiments for a true fraction of the cost of a “big” rocket. They can work out the kinks for pennies on the dollar before committing something to the continuous vectored explosion units commonly referred to as rockets.
All us social media geeks were gathered at the Wallops Visitor Center and at first I was a bit amused that for people who trade in “social media” we weren’t being all that social. But it didn’t take very long before we were all having fun sharing our nerdy love of space things. We do alright in the real world…for the most part.
The second day was a really big day that lasted over eight hours. NASA pulled out all the stops and gave us the grand tour of the launch site (MARS – Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport. They do love their acronyms!) and Orbital’s Horizontal Integration Facility, which is a fancy way of saying they build the rocket on its side. We got to see Antares parts up-close in the HIF and a really great technician named Larry even took me up in a scissor lift so I could get some bird’s-eye views of all the cool rockety bits.
It was during this tour that I met Carl Walz, former astronaut and Vice President of Orbital’s Human Space Flight Operations. Meeting him was absolutely awesome for me and he couldn’t have been nicer. My first time meeting an astronaut and the guy was just a gem of a human being!
Then we rode out to the launch site where Antares was standing in the bright sunlight waiting to defy gravity. The weather was perfect and the views spectacular. I was in awe of what was laid out before me. This was something I’d waited my entire life to see and it did not disappoint.
After the amazing tour was over we all gathered in the NASA press room for a pre-launch conference. Among the participants was the second astronaut I got to meet, Frank Culbertson. He’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Advanced Programs Group for Orbital and a former commander of the ISS.
While this was the longest day, it seemed very, very short. It was a whirlwind of experiences any fan of space exploration, whether avid or passing, would have found enthralling.
The third day was the planned launch day. The big show.
We started with a briefing where we met Pumpkin. Pumpkin is a PhoneSat.
What’s a PhoneSat? It’s a tiny, “nanosatellite” whose primary computer is a smartphone! Yeah, a smartphone.
A cube of only 10cm per side, this thing was cute, but like the sounding rockets and balloons, provides a very economical way of running tests and gathering data. They’re made with commercial off-the-shelf components and are therefore very inexpensive to make. The phones are Android-based and a few of them went up with Antares on the test launch.
Next, we got to meet with NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charlie Bolden. It didn’t take long to see why he was chosen for the lead role at NASA. Mr. Bolden has a charming personality, a distinguished career in the military, is smart as a whip, and a whole lot of fun to listen to. Below is a video taken from our meeting wherein he gives us a quick synopsis of his career. It’s well worth the watch.
After our meeting was done we all boarded buses to head for the grand finale: the launch! We had a great view of Antares and there were dozens of people buzzing about with cameras clicking almost constantly. The weather was still perfect and it looked like I was finally, after all these years, get to see a live rocket launch.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. With just a few minutes left in the countdown a data umbilical disconnected from the rocket and the launch had to be scrubbed. Unfortunately, the rescheduling was several days later and I simply couldn’t afford to stay.
Missed it by that much!
Thankfully, one of the many friends I made while on the trip was able to stay and get some great video of the launch. Paulo Ordoveza was kind enough to let me share his launch video with you below. Please take a few minutes to visit his websites. His professional site is HERE and his blog is HERE.
NASA also has video of the launch, and while it’s impressive I think Paulo’s does a much better job of showing the scale of things. The NASA video is zoomed so close to the rocket that you lose all frame of reference once Antares leaves the pad while Paulo wisely chose to go for a wide-angle shot with no zoom at all.
NASA does have the advantage of being able to bring you a video feed from onboard the rocket, though. They wouldn’t let us tape any cameras to Antares and I don’t blame them. Check out NASA’s much longer video below.
Here’s an image gallery of the awesome things I saw on my trip. The pictures of Antares in the process of launching are courtesy of NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation. Sadly I got to see everything except the actual launch, but I will try again through the NASA Social program.[nggallery id=121]
This is a list of the wonderfully generous people who made my Kickstarter a success, and in turn made my trip possible. I quite literally could not have done it without their contributions. Thank you all for making this happen.
Simon Cunningham, Peter Shinkoda, Mike Wideman, Walter Wozniak
Bryan Silverthorn, Carrie Hildebrand, Vicki Dolenga, Robert Prentice, Tamara Tipton, Scott Lewis, Janet, Dawn Opolony, Hannah Gardiner, Larissa Mrykalo, Cuatro Benavides, Colby Himes, Devin Rich, Michael and Liz, Alex Sedevie, Captain Motorcycle, Jeremy Hunter, Jonathan Bohlmann, James Dellow, Andrew Wardlaw, Susy Strom Hoefer, Ruben Ortega, Benjamin Bangsberg