GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 3) September 7, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Space Shuttle
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And now begins Part 3…
Contrary to some predictions, Titusville is still here. At 8:00a.m. on a weekday morning, the McDonald’s on Route 1 still has a line of cars in the drive through. And they still launch rockets on the Space Coast. Big, powerful rockets that can send satellites out of Earth’s gravitational well and on to the Moon. If the weather improves, Thursday morning at 8:37:06a.m. ET a Delta II rocket will launch the twin GRAIL satellites on their long, slow journey to map the Moon’s gravity with an accuracy never seen before.
Although Doug and his fellow Tweetup attendees have been communicating ever since they were selected to attend, the event began in earnest this morning. The ensuing day has left Doug exhausted in a way that he’s come to associate with covering NASA launches. Among its meanings, to exhaust means to consume, and these trips consume us.
The day started with an early registration and a brief meet-n-greet that gave Tweeple the opportunity to introduce themselves with name, hometown, Twitter handle, and something intriguing about themselves (much like way Anna’s classes began last Tuesday). While there was a heavy dose of local Floridians, the Tweetup attendees originated from an enormous range of locales: Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, and dozens of states across this country. Many intriguing personal reveals mentioned NASA influences from an early age, including a young woman whose grandmother had been a seamstress on the original Apollo spacesuits. Doug asked her later in the day if she was familiar with the passage in Michael Collins‘s book Carrying the Fire where he thanks her grandmother (not by name) for protecting his hide. The young woman indicated that she’d been told this before but hadn’t yet read the book.
The morning was spent touring Launch Complex 41 (a launch pad dedicated to Atlas rockets and which just launched Juno to Jupiter), Launch Complex 17 (two Delta launch pads, one of which—17A—will launch GRAIL tomorrow), and the VAB (the Vehicle Assembly Building, where Apollo and Shuttle were assembled). The flow of numerical facts and figures was dizzying. When the Delta II main engine and solid rockets fire, they produce a combined thrust of just under 1.2M pounds. Just think about how much thrust that really is and what it can do. That sort of information can make Doug as deliriously happy as did the tables and specifications that he found in aviation and spaceflight books as a child.
The tour guide for Doug’s bus was a 22-year NASA veteran, and his enthusiasm for his job and NASA’s mission was obvious. Maybe NASA carefully controls which employees have direct interaction with the public, but we’ve not yet run across an unenthusiastic NASA employee. At each stop, NASA or contractor employees gave us the lowdown on the activities of their respective launch complexes. One of the speakers at the site of the GRAIL launch, Dave Grant, imparted a great deal of information about the Delta family of rockets. GRAIL will be the final launch of a Delta II at Launch Complex 17, marking the end of a history that includes 259 Delta launches beginning in 1960.
The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was much debated during the morning, with speculation trending towards, No, we wouldn’t visit. The will-we-or-won’t-we is another strangely consuming state we experienced during our previous visits to the Space Coast. Rumors about the VAB visit this time were based on a wide range of assumptions, usually focused on the fact that we hadn’t been told to leave laptops and phones behind. Depending on who you talk to, the shuttles pyrotechnics are either enormously sensitive to RF signals or they are plausibly sensitive. Either way, you aren’t allowed anywhere near a shuttle orbiter with a device that can broadcast an RF signal. That was our experience when we peeked around at Endeavour in the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) in July.
In the end, Tweeple were allowed into the VAB, and Doug, having seen Endeavour on the launch pad before her final mission and in the OPF recovering from that mission, saw this space shuttle in its next phase. Today, no one was concerned with spurious RF signals, as Endeavour is well on in the deprocessing phase. The OMS (Orbital Maneuvering System) pods have been removed, the RCS (Reaction Control System) bay sits empty and covered by clear plastic, and all of the pyrotechnics have been removed. In short, Endeavour is almost completely inert at this stage. Even still, the Tweetup attendees thrilled at the sight, and Endeavour is still a magnificent-looking machine.
The afternoon was a series of speakers including such luminaries as Charlie Bolden, Nichelle Nichols, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. We’ll have more to say about each of them. But the hour is late on East Coast, tomorrow’s day begins much too early for a Southern Californian, and each of the speakers, especially the science team and the spacecraft engineers, deserve their due. Follow Doug at Twitter, and check back here tomorrow!
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2) September 6, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Physics
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Today, Doug is traveling to the Space Coast, making that cross-country SNA–MCO trip yet once again, though he’s going it alone this time. Doug will be en route for about nine hours, and Anna is booked solid with student conferences and teaching for nine hours, though these nine-hour stretches overlap so that we’ll probably be out of touch with each other for at least twelve hours. We outlined the week’s posts on Saturday and drafted this one on Sunday. Working together this week started by working ahead. How collaboration will happen tomorrow, we’re not quite sure.
Meanwhile, what’s this trip all about? Why are we willing to cross the bridge yet another time on this quest for GRAIL?
GRAIL is the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, which is scheduled to be launched from pad 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station during one of two one-second launch windows on Thursday (or sometime by October 19). GRAIL is actually two spacecraft, nearly identical twins that will travel toward the Moon for a few months, then begin orbiting. For a couple of months the two spacecraft will adjust their orbits until one is following the other in a low-altitude, near-circular path of formation flying.
Each washing-machine-sized craft contains a Gravity Ranging System that, according to NASA, keeps track of the distance between the two craft down to the diameter of a red blood cell. The laboratory aboard each craft is designed to map the Moon so that we can better understand the Moon’s history. GRAIL’s goal is to answer scientific questions about the Moon interior and thermal characteristics.
Each craft also contains MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle-school students as part of Sally Ride Science) cameras because part of the GRAIL mission is to take photos for educational and public outreach purposes. The mission is part science and part fun—uh, we mean educational.
NASA’s compares GRAIL to the five-year GRACE project, which launched in 2002 and mapped the Earth. By using geodetic-quality Global Positioning System technology, accurate measurements between the two GRACE spacecraft have produced measurements and images of the Earth’s gravity fields. We can now see variations and changes within land masses, interactions between land masses and bodies of water, and characteristics of the atmosphere. We think of the globe as uniformly spherical, but GRACE reveals that we live on a lumpy planet.
GRAIL is almost ready to go take a look at the Moon and determine its lumps, bumps, and past. On August 18, the spacecraft were moved from Astrotech in Titusville to the launch pad and encapsulated for the journey on August 23. The Delta II rocket is ready to roar. This morning review meeting gave a Go! for launch (click HERE for that press release).
So Doug and the rest of the space tweeple are making their ways to the Space Coast in hopes that GRAIL launches on Thursday (or maybe Friday). Among those invited to the Tweetup is Justine McKinnon, the sole Brit and a mother of four. Several of the participants are also bloggers, some have affiliations with Kennedy Space Center or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that built GRAIL, and one is a pastor. Others are teachers or students. Eight hundred people vied for 150 spots. Seven countries and 32 states are represented.
The Tweetup schedule looks pretty amazing, including events with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and GRAIL scientists. We’re interested to compare the experiences in social media coverage with those of news media coverage. In this world of almost instantaneous sharing of information, what exactly is the difference between news coverage and 150 tweeps relaying 140-character tidbits? Who among us asks questions, and whose answers do we heed? Who now makes the distinction between an African and European swallow when asked about a swallow’s airspeed?
GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1) September 4, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Books, Cognitive Science, GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest, GRAILTweetup, Movies & TV, Physics
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In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the bridgekeeper asks three questions, much like the security questions now used for credit card accounts. What is your name? Lofty Ambitions. What is your quest? GRAIL. What is your favorite colour? According to Crayola, America’s favorite color is blue. We suppose this bridgekeeper’s question calls for a separate post on color and the light spectrum.
In just a few days, Doug will head off to an event that feels like a mixture of old and new, familiar and strange, routine and unexpected. He’ll return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for another lofty quest: GRAIL, or the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory. The two GRAIL spacecraft, identical twins, are scheduled to launch on Thursday, September 8, and Doug is covering the days surrounding the launch as part of the GRAIL Tweetup.
FOLLOW DOUG’S TWITTER FEED: http://twitter.com/#!/dougdechow
In addition to tagging this series with its title, we’ll also use the tag GRAILTweetup to make it easier to follow on Twitter.
We didn’t expect to head back to the Space Coast. At least, we didn’t expect to return this year, soon after witnessing the last-ever space shuttle launch. We are somewhat stunned that NASA finds itself unable to launch human beings into space and remains unprepared to articulate a consistent, achievable future for human space exploration. Our rational, logical selves understand how much simpler and more effective lifeless, robotic space probes are. The Voyager twins may be among humankind’s greatest achievements, whizzing out of the earth’s ecliptic plane and on to whatever cold, dark fate awaits them. They have traveled farther from the sun than Pluto, which was classified as a planet when they left Earth in 1977. But few people take notice of them. Few will mourn the passing of lifeless, robotic space probes, no matter their accomplishments.
We owe a lot to NASA. Maybe that’s why our thoughts about the space program are not always completely rational and logical. Doug’s first memory in and of life is watching Apollo on television as a tyke. His first job out of college was as an abstractor and indexer at NASA’s Center for AeroSpace Information, a job that helped keep us fed, clothed, and adequately lodged for three of the most invigorating years of our lives together. Doug’s job at NASA coincided with us striking out alone together, far from our families and homes and into the cultural-political fray that is the metropolitan D.C. area.
Over the past whirlwind year, NASA employees have guided us to understand and interact with the world in new ways. News Center flacks like Allard Beutel, security guards like Omar Izquierdo, volunteers like Matthew Baker, and engineers like Stephanie Stilson (see our interview with Stilson HERE) have been some of the most competent and conscientious professionals with which we’ve ever dealt. They’ve helped us become more eager journalists (two posts on that subject are HERE and HERE), more informed bloggers, and more interesting people.
We’ve traveled enough in the past year that we now think of airport codes—MCO—instead of stopover and destination cities. Three years ago, when we were just settling into our new life in Southern California, if a soothsayer had foretold of our year cycling between SNA and MCO, we might have stared at each other blankly, wondering how and why we’d end up working for The Mouse. After three years, when we mention that we haven’t yet been to either Disney theme park, others stare blankly or get embarrassed for us. Even Mike Coats, the Director of Johnson Space Center, chastised Anna for never having experienced the pixie dust (see that interview HERE). But it hasn’t yet made our list of things to do. It can wait.
Six weeks ago, GRAIL wasn’t on our list of things to do. Then, NASA sent out a call to Twitter users, and Doug was chosen to participate in the meet-and-greet that is the next NASA Tweetup. NASA has become avid about social media. The Tweetup tents for the last three launches were air-conditioned and had separate high-speed wireless that worked better in the hour after launch than that for the press. Two NASA websites won Webby Awards this year, and Astronaut Doug Wheelock won a Shorty Award for an image of the Moon he tweeted. If you don’t follow Astro_Mike, you’re not getting the most space geek out of your social networking. Mike Massimino has more than 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
For a while, people lamented that the rise of video games and personal computers would make us all more isolated from each other. Each of us would be holed up in our offices and our homes, interacting only with an individual machine. While Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and others point to cognitive changes that remain disconcerting, Facebook and Twiiter and all the rest of social media have connected us in ways we couldn’t imagine ten years ago. Social networking allows us to stay in touch with friends we haven’t seen in years, and it invites people who might otherwise never encounter one another into larger social networks—perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but far from isolated. Fears that technology would further distance people from each other physically and emotionally seem to have been unfounded.
Plenty of people go about their days without Facebook or Twitter. Some people don’t bother with the internet at all and get along just fine, though they’re missing a chance to read this post. When Anna’s mom invested in an iPad, scrolled through photos right away (this weekend, she’s reliving the national Elvis impersonator semi-finals), played virtual solitaire for hours, and even started sending email messages, we knew her world had changed. NASA is all in too, and space geeks are using Facebook pages, a wiki, Google docs, and a variety of social media to share information about GRAIL instantly. And the virtual interaction supports the in-person gathering, including a barbeque, that will be this coming week’s Tweetup.
This trip to the Space Coast, therefore, will be different because Doug will view the events through the lens of the Tweetup. He’ll be busy looking for Nichelle Nichols and Neil deGrasse Tyson. This trip will also be different because Anna is staying home, working with her graduate and undergraduate students to create together a (private) cross-course blog about poetry. Together, we will negotiate, for the first time, how to co-write posts while separated by 3000 miles. We plan to post every day this week! Check back to see how we manage.