The past week or so has been completely non-stop for me, buried under a mountain of grading, applications to doctoral programs, and my own final papers, but before the academic avalanche closed in, I was at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida to cover the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), the first uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft, with Talking Space, a weekly podcast both CraftLass and I contribute to. Orion is NASA’s new exploration spacecraft, designed to carry humans beyond low earth orbit (LEO) for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission to the moon in 1972.
Of course, I’m always excited anytime I have the opportunity to see a launch, especially if it’s going up on a vehicle (in this case, a Delta IV Heavy) that I’ve never seen launch before, but this time was special. Not only was EFT-1 the first step towards getting humans back beyond LEO, but this was my first opportunity to cover a launch as news media, which is a crazy and wonderful experience. One of the best things about covering the launch as media is the incredible access you’re afforded to both KSC and the people working with the mission that is launching; that access, in turn, allows the media to share with their audiences the most comprehensive view of the mission possible. The downside of that access is choosing who to speak with or what to share. In some ways, covering the launch for a podcast was much easier than it would be for a print or web publication. Talking Space allows us to go in depth on whatever the weekly topic is, or in the case of Orion and EFT-1 record a two-part show to fit it all in. However, even while at KSC, I was also thinking about what I would focus on for GGNO. I knew, because of the timing of the launch falling right at the end of the semester, that I wouldn’t be able to post anything for GGNO immediately following the launch, so I wanted to choose a topic that would be relevant even two weeks after the launch, but that would still address why EFT-1 was important, both to NASA and to the nation.
With that in mind, I decided to focus on the significance of EFT-1 for NASA’s continued human exploration of our universe. Now, you might be wondering why I have included so much of my thought process in this post thus far and this answer is this: I don’t want you to only learn about EFT-1 and my experience at KSC, but also a little bit about how we make decisions about what to write and talk about as bloggers and podcasters. At GGNO, we think carefully about the topics we write about, and their relevance to you. We aren’t just another blog, we’re a community, and we want what we write to reflect that. Some of you are bonafide spacegeeks, just like me, but many of you are geeks of other persuasions, and have only casual contact with our nation’s space program, and that’s fine – my goal, GGNO’s goal, with any blog we post or event we host, is to connect you with other amazing geeky women, inform you about what is going on in the world, and to help you understand why this is important. This will be one of the last, if not the last, GGNO blogs of 2014, our inaugural year. Throughout this year, we’ve learned so much about what GGNO should and can be for you, and where we want to take GGNO in the future. As we develop our plans for the coming year, we want you to know that we are thoughtful about how we can best serve you, our community of geek women and allies, and we are grateful for all of your feedback over the last year and we look forward to the next.
Speaking of looking forward, that’s exactly what EFT-1 was about – looking forward to what Orion could accomplish in the future – about expanding our exploration of the solar system and adding some bootprints next to the rover tracks on Mars. I sat down with two astronauts while at the KSC Press Site, Jack Fischer and Ricky Arnold, and spoke with them about Orion and EFT-1. They work in different areas of NASA’s Human Space Flight (HSF) program, Jack works in the Exploration branch of the Astronaut Office (on next generation vehicle design) and Ricky works in the EVA Office.
Jack is a member of the 2009 Astronaut Class, a group selected as the Space Shuttle program was ending, and completed his training in 2011. He has yet to go to space, but he’s been preparing for it his whole life and was selected on the first try; as Jack put it, he was “kind of the little Goldilocks” that hit the sweet spot between being too inexperienced and too old. He works on both Orion and the Commercial Crew Program as a Crew Office Representative. His background as a test pilot for the Air Force has proved invaluable to him in this position since these programs are both currently in the testing phases. I asked him for his opinion on this flight test:
“I think it’s huge and it’s that first step in a new age of space of space exploration. The promise that we have, and just the kind of the energy that’s in the space environment right now with the commercial crew program being announced …. and a lot of the commercial partners that are really trying to open space up to a wider audience. I hope that this serves as a way to kick down the door and to get people excited … This really is the first step.”
Jack and I went on to discuss such matters as the importance of communicating the science activities done by NASA to the public, and how NASA is working to improve public awareness of how their “half of a percent” of total tax dollars are spent, and I asked him why he doesn’t often tweet. According to Jack, four hours of meetings on hatches “aren’t sexy” and much of his work on commercial crew is proprietary. He had glowing compliments for the Boeing commercial crew team and regretted he couldn’t share more of that part of his work life. Jack is married with two teenaged daughters, so I asked him what he would tell them, and other young people out there about EFT-1:
“I hope you take advantage of tomorrow, it’s a historic day for NASA, for the country, for the world. I really do feel this is the start of a new space age … hopefully people will see it as such and use that inspiration to drive them to great things.”
A couple of days later, after we all watched Orion’s safe return to earth, I mentioned I noticed he’d started tweeting more, and he teased me for “shaming” him into it. I look forward to hearing whatever he’s able to share about his “boring” meetings in the future.
With Jack, I was lucky, I had time to prepare for his interview, and knew a bit about his background, with Ricky, I wasn’t so lucky, I was supposed to interview someone else, but at 5:30 in the morning, sometimes things don’t go to plan. Ricky was very gracious and offered to sit down with me instead. I didn’t know much about him, and in hindsight, that might have been a good thing, or I might have missed my bus for the launch viewing, he’s one interesting guy. A member of the 2004 Astronaut Class, he flew on STS-119 and participated in two spacewalks on that mission. For those of you who watch EVAs on NASA TV, in the most recent one, his was the voice you heard communicating with the astronauts outside the International Space Station (ISS), though he joked we’re lucky he didn’t have to sing while on live TV. Ricky says he really enjoys how dynamic his job working on EVAs is, because with the completion of the construction of the ISS they generally only occur now because hardware failure and they must be completed within a couple of days.
We had a great conversation, despite the early hour, and a few interruptions (including one from his neighbor in Dallas, Brian Duffy, that led to a discussion about his office “neighbor” Doug Wheelock, who I’m hoping to meet one of these days). I asked him what he was looking forward to for EFT-1 and he said he was most excited to “seeing it get off the pad,” and that it would test 12 out of the 16 objectives the Orion team needs to test. I asked him to explain the importance of EFT-1 and Orion for the taxpayer who might see NASA’s spending as extraneous:
“Well, it sounds like a lot of money, but in the grand scheme, it really isn’t. To me, the one thing you want people to know is going to Mars, building a space station – these are all generational projects. This flight is just one step in a long series of steps that have to happen before we land on Mars … so we need to sustain the commitment to these projects we get started to achieve the goals we want to achieve.”
In this age of instant-gratification, viewing projects like Orion as a generational one is very important. It’s hard for the American public to take a long-term view, we’re so used to brinkmanship and short-term fixes by those in charge, but we need to understand that the best results from our investments come when we are willing to wait for them to mature. As Ricky added, “things don’t happen overnight, getting to Mars is hard.” To close out the interview, I asked him his advice for the young kids out there, dreaming about being the first to put a boot on Mars:
“Don’t close the door on your dreams, I know it sounds crazy, the idea of traveling that far in the solar system and landing on another planet, but it’s gonna happen someday, and you can’t close the door on your dreams, you gotta keep it wide open. The other thing is to study your science, technology, engineering, and math. If you want to be part of this, and I think it’s going to be a really exciting journey to be a part of – I’m just here for the baby steps and I’m really excited – take your school seriously.”
America’s next spacecraft, Orion, launched successfully on its second attempt on December 5, 2014 at 7:05am EST; the previous day, the launch had been scrubbed for multiple issues, including a boat violating the safe area around the launch range, high ground winds, and faulty valve openings on the launch vehicle. EFT-1 went “better than expected” and splashed down, on target, in the Pacific Ocean at 11:29am EST to cheers from everyone watching from the KSC Press Site, and around the world.
The Orion program is currently only funded for three missions, EFT-1, EM-1, and EM-2. Though the goal of the program is crewed flight to an asteroid and Mars, these programs are not funded, and therefore not guaranteed. EFT-1 proved that Orion can survive re-entry at speeds comparable to those from a deep space mission, among other important measures like how the systems and spacecraft survived the radiation of the Van Allen belts. The success of the flight test puts Orion on track for its subsequent test missions.
First steps are significant, and Orion was our first step out of LEO since the 1970s. However, if politicians and the public don’t stay committed, EFT-1 will be remembered as nothing more than a first step to nowhere. This is a generational project, and for it to succeed, we must stay the course. Most of you reading this aren’t spacegeeks, but you are people who care about the future of our planet and humanity. We are explorers and it’s one of the things we do best as a species. This is our future, if we’re willing to commit to it.