GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 4)

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 1)

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 2)

GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 3)

And now, the next installment…

Tonight, GRAIL still sits solidly on Florida’s Space Coast. Unacceptable levels of wind aloft forced the delay of today’s launch for 24 hours (or nearly 24 hours, as GRAILS’ launch window recedes by approximately 4 minutes each day). Another not launch certainly isn’t the outcome for which Doug had hoped, but it’s one with which we’ve become quite familiar in our year of chasing rockets.

GRAIL on launch pad (NASA photo)

With no launch to try to describe, we have a chance to continue recapping the events of the first day of the GRAIL Tweetup.

The afternoon of speakers kicked off with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. A hale-and-hearty 65-year-old, Administrator Bolden’s high-energy presentation can best be exemplified by one of his remarks: “I love my job […] because I happen to be with some of the most phenomenal people in he world.”

This time is an uneasy transition period for NASA. The end of Shuttle forces NASA to cede (perhaps happily) to the commercial operators the role of truck driver to low-earth orbit. Unfortunately, absent maintaining a human presence on the International Space Station until 2020, NASA’s own human space exploration remains inchoate, alternatively encompassing a return to Moon, an attempt to Mars, or perhaps something intermediate such as a mission to an asteroid. Given the challenges ahead, not the least of which will be the nation’s current fiscal reality, it was reassuring to Doug’s not-so-inner space nerd to see that the enthusiasm for the job, which we’ve seen in nearly every NASA employee we’ve met, extends right to the top in Charlie Bolden.

Charles F. Bolden, Jr.

A not-so-subtle component of Bolden’s message, and one that was picked up again during Q&A, was the role of NASA in inspiring students to study math and science. This question echoes the one we’ve used on several occasions while interviewing NASA engineers, astronauts, and administrators. To his credit, Bolden sensed an opportunity and turned it back on the Tweetup attendees. Those of us witnessing and reporting 140 characters at a time have an important role to play in getting the word out.  Given that Charlie is a retired Marine Corp Major General, Doug is willing to consider this a direct order. In fact, by sharing our fascination with aviation, science, and writing, Lofty Ambitions is following Bolden’s command.

After Bolden concluded, the ever-fabulous Nichelle Nichols spoke. Nichelle Nichols’s role as Uhura on Star Trek, of course, allowed her to become an advocate for a more diverse, more inclusive astronaut corps. Nichols’s talk included the inspirational message, “If you can imagine it, you can dream it, you can do it.”

Space Shuttle Enterprise with Star Trek Cast (NASA photo)

Today is the 45th anniversary of the original airing of Star Trek. (See our Star Trek birthday posts HERE and HERE.) Doug celebrated that anniversary—that dream of boldy going where no one has gone before—by waiting in a long, hot line for Nichelle’s autograph. Sadly, the line was too long, and Nichelle kept to her allotted one-hour schedule. Her session ended with Doug ten people away from getting her autograph. A day of not-launch followed by not-autograph.

That’s okay. There’s no wasted time for us at Kennedy Space Center. Some of this post was written while standing in that line earlier today.

The rest of yesterday afternoon was filled with a cavalcade of scientists and engineers, many of whom were associated in some capacity with the GRAIL mission. The first of the techy speakers was Jim Adams, Deputy Director of NASA’s Planetary Division (@NASAJIM on Twitter). Although his talk wasn’t technical, it did contain some of the most interesting numbers of the day. During the Tweetup for the recent Juno mission launch, 28,000 tweets were sent. Some further analysis of the data indicated that this yielded 90.7M so-called potential impressions, which is print magazine ad-speak for you’re getting your money’s worth.

GRAIL (NASA photos)

Maria Zuber, the Principal Investigator (or PI in the land of research grants), gave a fascinating overview and rationale for the GRAIL mission. (See the whole GRAIL team HERE.) The fundamental question comes down to our lack of understanding why the front and the back of the moon are so radically different. We wonder how Dr. Zuber and the rest of the GRAIL team feel right at this moment. The thought of so many years of planning and preparation being delayed by even 24 hours can’t be an easy thing to take this close to the endgame.

Sami Asmar, Deputy Project Direct of GRAIL and a JPL scientist, came next. His talk provided a overview of the basic principles and history of making planetary gravitational measurements.

Other speakers during the afternoon session in included the following: Doug Ellison (@Doug_Ellison) described the visually seductive Eyes on the Solar System (@NASA_Eyes) project, a 3D that picks up where Google Earth leaves off and heads into the farthest reaches of the universe (you’ve got to experience it for yourself). Members of the MoonKAM (Moon Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students) team spoke about the potential uses of MoonKAM in the classroom. Vern Thorp, NASA Program Manager for United Launch Alliance, provided some technical background for the Delta II rocket that will launch the GRAIL spacecraft (After I asked him about the possibility of human-rating the Atlas family of launch vehicles, he indicated that he was all for it.). Stu Spath of Lockheed-Martin discussed the design of the GRAIL spacecraft and brought out the audience’s uber-geek side when an audio system failure led to speculation about whether or not his altered voice was that of a Cylon or a Dalek. Whew, what an afternoon!

GRAIL Tower Rollback (NASA photo)

And there was more! The day’s closing speaker was astrophysicist and a Lofty Ambitions favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson. In addition to being Stephen Colbert’s frequent guest on The Colbert Report, he’s also a passionate explicator of science and the universe around us. Dr. Tyson’s talk focused on the power of science to describe the world in a way that’s meaningful to us beyond our senses and what is sensible to us. He advocated field trips for adults, which Lofty Ambitions preaches and practices. (See video below for his take on the role of NASA for our future.)

Bright and early on Friday morning, Doug will be heading out to the causeway again. The buses load at 6:00a.m., and the first launch attempt is at 8:33:25a.m., with a second opportunity to follow at 9:12:31a.m. if the first window is a no-go for some reason (like the weather). Once again, it’s hurry and wait time at the Cape. But, it’s all a part of the game, and it’s a game that we love to play at Lofty Ambitions.

Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson answering the question, What does NASA mean to us and our future?

To go on to Part 5 in “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest,” click HERE!

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