GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 3)

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1)

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2)

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.

GRAIL (artist's rendition, NASA)

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.

Preparing for GRAIL at Launch Pad 17B (NASA, Jim Grossman)

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.

View of Apollo 14 astronaut footsteps on Moon (NASA Goddard/ASU)

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!

One thought on “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 3)

  1. Given how many people are probably lined up to work for them, I’d be surprised if NASA didn’t select for enthusiasm, technical considerations being equal.

    I know all the engineers I spoke with years back at one of their Inspection events in Houston were thrilled to talk about their projects. And who wouldn’t – NASA people get awesome projects. In the awe-inspiring sense, not merely the slang sense.

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