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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

My Return to NASA Social: The Orion Ascent Abort 2 Test



Our fabulous NASA Social group in front of the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building).
Photo Credit: NASA Social

5...
4...
3...
2...
1...
ABORT!!

Did I get your attention?  Well, there's a reason for it, but I'll get to that in a minute.  If you've read my post from last year's NASA Social adventure, you know that I witnessed the launch of NASA's TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Satellite System) on Space-X's Falcon 9 rocket, and it was basically the coolest thing I've ever experienced in my life.  I've spent the time since then sharing my renewed passion and knowledge of space travel and exploration with friends, family, students, and even complete strangers via social media, classroom presentations, and my inclination to bring it up in virtually every conversation I have.

Inevitably, I decided to apply for another NASA Social event.  And this time, I would be attending as an alum!  A pro.  A seasoned veteran.  Ok, it was only my second event and it was completely different from the first one, but at least I had some idea going into it of what I might be experiencing.  And I ended up with a few first-timers on my tail throughout the experience which I'll admit, made me feel just a little bit special.

So why the 'abort' in my countdown above?  Well, since NASA is committed to the safety of its astronauts, they are conducting abort tests of the Orion capsule, which will eventually take women and men to the moon and beyond!  The first test was successfully completed on the launchpad in 2010 and the second one I witnessed last week... 31,000 feet in the air!  55 seconds after launch the test capsule was ejected, along with 12 Ejectable Data Recorders, and hurtled spectacularly into the ocean.  No parachutes were used since this was just a test, but once humans are on board, parachutes will be installed in order to make an abort landing more of a gentle splashdown than a colossal cannonball.

This is Pad 46, which housed the Orion test capsule and booster before the launch.  Can you see it hiding inside there?
(Not pictured: the alligator I ended up about all of 20 ft from before someone said "Look out for the gator!")

This is Andrzej Jackowski, a smarty pants NASA Avionics Engineer.  He is shyly holding a mock-up of one of the Ejectable Data Recorders he helped design. #cutie

Day 1 of the event was all behind the scenes.  We acted like professional NASA correspondents in the media building, visited Pad 46 and its eventual moon-bound inhabitant (pictured above), and saw Pad 39b with the Mobile Launch System, which had just been moved there a few days before.  This is the launchpad that will eventually launch astronauts to the moon and mars.  Fun fact: I got to walk ON launchpad 39b last year while it was still being built!


We all look so professional don't we?
Photo Cred: NASA Social

That gangway on the upper left is where future astronauts will walk into capsules like Orion for launches to the moon, mars, and beyond.  So cool!!

Next up on the tour was the massive beast that is a NASA Crawler.  These titans transport all of NASA's shuttles, rockets, boosters, capsules, etc from their hangers to the launchpads.  They move at the blinding speed of 1-2 miles per hour, get a whopping 38 feet to the gallon, and look like something directly out of a Star Wars set.  Can't you just see Chewbacca climbing this thing while yelling "aaaarrrrgggggwwwwwhhhh"?!?  We drove past one of these behemoths at the event I attended last year, but this time we got up close and personal... and even got to walk underneath of it!!

Our entire group lined up in front of the crawler... and we still didn't even span the entire thing!
Photo Cred: NASA Social

My view of the Mobile Launch System on Pad 39b from UNDERNEATH the crawler!


The obligatory, "The crawler was THIS BIG" photo. 

After visiting the crawler, and recovering from the sheer awesomeness of what we had just experienced, we traveled to see the astronaut crew quarters.  We didn't get to go inside, but it was truly awe inspiring to think of the astronomical (see what I did there?) number of brave souls who had lived there during training and while preparing for launches.  Are you ever really too old to want to be an astronaut when you grow up?

Wishful thinking...


Photo Cred: NASA Social

The final stop of our tours for the day was the NASA Cryogenics Lab... a very 'cool' place and a welcome relief from the stifling Florida heat.  Here, we watched a daring NASA scientist turn a rubber bouncy ball into glass-like shards on the floor, and we learned that anything above the coldest temperature possible (around -460 F) is actually considered heat.  So next winter, when Wisconsin reaches wind chills of -50, I'll just tell everyone "It's a heat wave!".


After warming back up, these shards actually became pliable and rubbery again!

Day 2: Launch Day, started early with a 5:00am meet up time.  After the most adorable security sweep ever (good dog!), we boarded the bus and headed to our viewing area just a few short miles from the launchpad.  Florida put on a breathtaking show for us in the form of a magnificent sunrise while we waited for the countdown.  We couldn't see the launchpad from where we stood so my video of the launch on Twitter is missing the first couple of seconds as I move my camera to the right spot (oops!), but it was spectacular to see in person.

For almost a full minute, we watched Orion rise above the landscape before the anticipated separation occurred without a hitch.  We stood silently and watched with wonder as 3 teeny tiny white dots fell back down like little bitty dandelion seeds in the sky.  One seed was the booster, a second was the abort system, and the third was the test capsule, all of which splashed down perfectly into the ocean, exactly as planned.  Well done NASA!


Up, up, up, and away!
A perfect abort test.  Can you see two of the pieces falling?

As usual, I made a ton of new friends at this event, several of whom I am certain I will remain in touch with, just like last time.  There were a few other teachers there, as well as people from a vast array of backgrounds.  I love how NASA Social can bring such a diverse group of space geeks together like that.  So thank you again NASA Social for another incredible and life changing experience.  Thank you to my school (Indian Trail High School and Academy) for covering my expenses with a grant.  Thank you to my administration for the support.  And thank you to all of my friends, family, and students who followed along and participated as I posted my adventure on social media.  I can't wait to continue sharing what I've learned in the classroom and beyond!  Now I just need to win the lottery so I can go to adult space camp!!
Until then...
Live simply, run swiftly, and dream big my friends!




Photo Cred: Goldie Chan


Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Story of My NASA Social TESS Launch Experience

"5"- My breathing intensifies...
"4"- Tears fill my eyes...
"3"- My hands tremble...
"2"- The silence is deafening...
"1"- It's finally about to happen...

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my parents took me to the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center in Alabama.  The majority of my space travel and exploration knowledge until that point had come from watching Star Wars and Star Trek with my dad, so it may have been a tad skewed from reality but I was in love with it regardless.  I remember that day well; flipping switches and pressing buttons on a shuttle control panel while imagining the exhilaration of being thrusted into the atmosphere from the launch pad, pushing off with as much force as my scrappy little legs could muster on the lunar jump simulation ride, and wearing a perma-grin as I watched a movie about the planets through flimsy blue and red cardboard 3D glasses.  Just one day at that space center, and I had decided that I was either going into space, working for NASA, or at the very least, participating in a part of the adventure by witnessing a launch first-hand.

I don't have pics from that trip but this was me around that age... I wasn't kidding about the scrawny legs! ;)
Fast forward about 30 years.  While scrolling through Twitter on a random Sunday evening, I came across a post from NASA that caught my attention.  It turns out, NASA Social chooses up to 40 social media influencers to come to Kennedy Space Center and participate in 2-day events culminating in the viewing of a launch.  I applied for the first launch listed and was not selected.  But because I don't give up easily (some call it stubbornness, I call it tenacity), I immediately applied again for the next event; the launch of TESS: THE PLANET HUNTER.  While that sounds like the name of a formidable comic book villain, TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is actually a satellite containing a set of cameras which will discover millions of new planets over the next two years, some of which may contain or support life!!  SO COOL!!

I included in my application a plan to involve the students of my school and beyond by creating a Facebook group for the event that all of our staff, parents, and others could join.  I wanted to share my love of everything space related with as many people as possible and essentially create an entire generation of little bitty space nerds, just like me.  On the first afternoon of our Spring Break, I got the e-mail announcing that I had been selected and my inner space nerd completely geeked out.



Being the Type A person that I am, I headed toward Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral with my carefully packed suitcase, plenty of healthy snacks, print-outs of key e-mails and directions, a playlist full of meticulously chosen music, and all the positivity I had in me.  But as usual, things didn't go according to my plan.  I didn't hear my alarm on the first morning (thanks a lot hotel dehumidifier with jet engine decibel levels!) and I almost missed my check-in at Press Accreditation!  Luckily, I'm a morning person so I woke up on my own and made it just in time.  As we boarded the bus for the best field trip of my life, my near panic turned quickly into sheer joy and excitement.  This was it, an experience I had hoped for since that fateful day in Hunstville back in 1988.  And it was all about to begin.


Our first day was relatively short and sweet.  We gathered in the NASA News Center Auditorium for a meet and greet and NASA Social Briefing Live Show.  This was where we met several of the key players in TESS's development and mission planning.  Scientists, engineers, and more from all over the country were gathered at The Kennedy Space Center to witness the culmination of their creation and hard work.  It was exiting to observe the vast diversity of the population both in the audience and on the stage... a theme that would resonate strongly throughout the entire experience.

After the Live Show, we were given parking passes and tickets to The Kennedy Space Center Visitor's Complex and sent out on our own for the rest of the day.  I connected with a small group of NASA Social participants and we headed into the park for lunch and an afternoon of learning and fun.  We explored the Space Shuttle Program and Atlantis exhibit, rode the Shuttle Launch Experience (which simulates what astronauts feel when launched into space!), and visited the Heroes and Legends exhibit where we learned what truly makes a person a hero.





While everything we saw was memorable, the part of the afternoon that stuck with me the most was seeing the memorials to astronauts whose lives had been lost.  I fought back tears as I walked the hallway amongst photos, memorabilia, and plaques.  Then I reached the memorial for Christa McAuliffe and the tears flowed freely.  For those who don't know, Christa was a teacher and the first civilian to literally reach for the stars.  She was onboard the Challenger Shuttle when it exploded above the launch pad in 1986.  I actually lived in her dorm at Illinois State University where, like Christa, I studied to become a teacher.  She is a true American hero.

Photo credit: Wikipedia 

Day 2 was the big one... tour and launch day!  We boarded the bus bright and early and while we were all adults, I'm certain there wasn't a soul on that bus that didn't feel like a kid about to enter the largest candy store they'd ever seen.  Our first stop was Swamp Works (NASA Robotics Lab).  We were very limited in what we could take pictures of in there, but I can tell you they are working on some truly amazing creations... including a 3D printer that will use metals pulled from Martian soil to create the very walls the Mars colonists will live in!!

Next up was a visit to Pad 40 and TESS.  Being only a couple hundred yards from the Falcon 9 rocket that would be exploding off that very launch pad in mere hours with TESS housed in the top was a truly incredible experience that goes beyond words.



The next compound on our agenda is still one of the most mind-blowing sites I've ever had the honor of seeing firsthand; Pad 39b, the launchpad which will eventually see the launch of the SLS (Space Launch System) Mars missions.  The sheer size of the pad coupled with its 'clean pad' concept and the realization that this is the last thing the Mars astronauts will see on Earth was both awe-inspiring and humbling.  Can you imagine leaving Earth in the name of science with the knowledge that you'll never return?!



After lunch in the NASA cafeteria and a Q&A session, we headed off to the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building).  It's the largest building by volume in the country and the building I was most anxious to see.  As I walked in through the "mouse doors", the sheer volume of the structure nearly overwhelmed me.  I started to think about all of the shuttles, rockets, boosters and more that had traveled in and out of this very building and my emotions got the better of me yet again.  Challenger, Columbia, Apollo, and so many more names went through my head as I stepped silently among the 21-story high walls.  We even saw the bay where they will be piecing together the SLS (Space Launch System) for the Mars missions.  It looked like something out of a sci-fi movie and in fact, part of Transformers 3 was filmed here!




It was on the bus traveling from the VAB to our next stop (Launch Control Center), when we got the news.  The TESS launch scheduled for just 2 hours from then had been scrubbed, and would probably be delayed for 2 days.  I was shattered.  I had known all along that this was a possibility but had convinced myself that it wouldn't really happen.  Being a public school teacher, I'm limited in my finances and in how many days I can take off... and I had already hit my limit on both fronts.  I tried my best to fight back the tears, but failed miserably and fell on the receiving end of several comforting hugs from sweet people I had met only the day before.  We finished our tour and were sent on our way.

What happened next only reaffirmed my belief that there are good, kind people all around me.  All that night and into the next morning, people from both my classroom back home and from the NASA Social group did what they could to help enable me to stay.  People offered me beds to crash on in their hotel rooms, free meals, and more.  Despite having a take 2 days without pay from work, I was able to stay the extra 2 days for the launch of TESS thanks to several angels in my life whom I will never be able to thank enough.

To my many new NASA friends and especially those who made it possible for me to stay for the launch... THANK YOU for your friendship and kindness!!
And so the time finally came... we lined up on the NASA Causeway overlooking the water with TESS and the Falcon 9 rocket looming quietly a mere 2 miles or so away.  I had waited almost 30 years for this moment and was having a hard time processing that I was actually here and this was actually happening.  It was mostly silent as we listened for the final countdown.  And then it happened:

"LIFT-OFF"







                                          

The rocket rose smoothly into the air and the sound came about 15 seconds later... roaring over the water with a deafening crackle unlike anything I had ever heard before.  Tears flowed freely down my cheeks as I witnessed history being made.  The delay had made this moment even more special because I had almost lost it.  It's like when you go to the circus and the trapeze artist misses a trick.  Then he or she climbs back up, tries again, and nails it.  The audience that was politely clapping for the acrobats before is now on its feet screaming in a standing ovation.  TESS got her own standing ovation that night as our little group cheered and cried and celebrated together.

What hidden secrets will TESS uncover during her mission?  What new worlds will she find and will they contain life or the potential for it?  Where will we go with our newfound knowledge?  I don't have the answers yet, but I know one thing for sure; I am eternally grateful to NASA Social and to all of my new NASA friends for this experience... and I genuinely hope I get to do it all again someday!

Live Simply, Run Swiftly, and most importantly, Dream Big my friends!

Friday, March 30, 2018

New Kids on the Block: Anxiety, Confetti, and How They Changed My Life

If you happen to listen to the most amazing podcast on the planet, 'My So Called Whatever', then you've probably already heard the condensed version of this story.  But since I got a lot of positive feedback and encouragement from listeners, I decided to blog the full story in the hopes that it might inspire someone else.  My NKOTB history is a unique blend of anxiety, positivity, hopefulness, and self-awareness.  And it all started with a scrawny little 9 year old and a sweet, little voice on the radio.

PART 1: I'll Be Loving You Forever

I first discovered The New Kids on the Block like so many young girls did, in 1989.  I heard "Please Don't Go Girl" on my little black and grey Sony radio and fell in L-O-V-E with the sweet, angelic voice of young Joey McIntyre.  Now, those that know me well are probably spitting out their Blondies by Jenny at that comment because everyone knows I'm a die-hard Jordan Girl (with strong Donnie tendencies... we are ALL Donnie girls after all!).  But yes, in the early years it was all about lovable, curly haired Joey.  If I'm being honest though, it was more by default than anything else.  He was the only one I thought I had a shot with since he was the youngest... and I was only 9.

Can you spot the New Kids watch and button?  I never left home without either!

I can remember doing all of my weekly chores just to earn New Kids posters, buttons, slap bracelets, and my totally awesome pink, plastic watch with the guy's faces plastered across the band.  My very first poster was one of the band that I cleaned out my entire bedroom for.  I was positively giddy with excitement as we drove to Sam Goody in the mall to pick out the poster and while my dad helped me to hang it ever so precisely between my windows where Joey and his Boston bandmates had the perfect lighting.  I can also remember memorizing exactly how many seconds I needed to forward-wind and rewind my cassettes to get to 'Step-By-Step', 'Hangin' Tough', 'The Right Stuff', and 'My Favorite Girl'.  I would count the clicks and know exactly where to stop the tape and press play.



It was in 1991 during their 'No More Games' tour that I had my first chance to see them in concert.  Unfortunately it was determined that I was too young to go to a concert yet and I had the lamentable experience of being the only one in my troop to show up for the Girl Scouts meeting that night, because every single girl was at the concert!!  My troop leader, bless her heart, did her best to make the night fun for me.  But ultimately I was heart-broken.  Making God's Eyes from twigs and yarn just didn't compare to seeing the loves of my life perform on stage.

Here's the catch though; looking back, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have been able to handle it anyway.  If you've read my post on how I use running as therapy, than you know that I have dealt with anxiety throughout my entire life.  I often got (and still sometimes get) overwhelmed by large crowds, lots of noise, and being a new and unfamiliar situations.  I used to call my parents crying to come pick me up from birthday parties and school dances when I got overwhelmed.  I had no way of knowing this at the time, but it would be a full 26 years before I was able to see The New Kids on the Block live!

PART 2: The Whisper That Grew Louder

Inevitably, the New Kids on the Block broke up.  I don't actually recall it happening but I remember missing them.  And I clearly remember years later, watching in awe of their bravery as Jon and Jordan talked about their anxiety on Oprah.  I couldn't help but feel a connection to them as they sat tense and uncomfortable in those iconic chairs.  The episode aired right around the time that I was becoming more aware of my own anxiety and it was oddly comforting to hear the Knight brothers talk about their own struggles.

When the group got back together in 2008, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about it at first.  Part of me was ecstatic to hear new music and maybe finally get to see them live.  But another part of me wanted to remember them as the iconic boy band from my childhood with the catchy pop hits and questionable style choices (rattails and mullets and overalls... oh my!).  I never imagined they would be so popular the second time around, or that my future experiences with them would be so life-altering!

As much as I wanted to see them at that time (and to see Jordan during his Unfinished Tour), the stars didn't align for me until this past summer during The Total Package Tour.  I found out that I was going to be in Chicago at the same time that NKOTB was going to be touring there.  So I called up my friend Kenlyn and asked her if she wanted to go.  It had been almost 30 years and it was time for me to face my anxiety and see what I was capable of overcoming.  Most people don't know this, but that concert in Chicago would be the first concert of that kind I had ever attended!


Since we're both public school teachers, we went with the cheapest tickets available which meant we were in the back row of the highest balcony.  As the New Kids rose up from underneath the stage and began to sing "Give me one more night to love ya...", I cried.  I literally cried.  For 29 years I had waited for this moment and it was even more amazing than I imagined it could be.  Notes were sung, dance moves were performed, confetti fell, and I had never been happier... or less anxious.  Despite the Boston boys looking like sexy little ants so far below, Kenlyn and I sang and danced like there was no tomorrow and my preteen obsession with NKOTB was reignited.



I hadn't even gotten home from that trip yet when I contacted my friend Jaimie about going to see the guys again in Raleigh a few weeks later.  This time around I decided it was worth shelling out the money for floor seats and we ended up on the aisle right by the B-stage.  We stood a few short feet from Jordan as he swayed his hips to 'Block Party', and rushed over with the crowd as the guys took the B-stage for 'Summertime', 'Games', and more.  Jordan smiled right at me at one point and I miraculously captured my blurry unicorn on camera.



As they made their way back down the aisle toward the main stage, I got a quick hand squeeze from Joe, then Donnie, and finally my dear sweet Jordan.  I'm not gonna lie, I seriously considered chasing after Jordan to profess my undying love for him, but the sight of the hulking bodyguard following him brought me back to my senses.  And I never washed that hand again!  Just kidding, I'm a special ed. teacher and I wash my hands at least 20 times a day.  But I think of those hand squeezes fondly and often.  And the best part of all; with the exception of one brief moment about halfway through the concert, each new song washed my anxiety further and further away.





PART 3: Thankful

What happened two days later ended up being a turning point in my life, and I owe it all to NKOTB!  I was still riding the high from my concert experience in Raleigh when I decided on a whim to look on TicketMaster and see where NKOTB were performing next.  The answer was Charlotte, just 2 and 1/2 hours away from me.  With 3 hours left before showtime, I took a chance and found a single front row ticket available for an insanely low price.  Fate.  I purchased the ticket... then immediately began to feel those all too familiar pangs of anxiety.  How on earth was I going to drive to Charlotte and sit in the FRONT ROW of a concert completely by myself?!?  I could feel the panic rising in me.

But... if those last two concert experiences had taught me anything, it was that I was capable of handling more than I ever thought possible and that the Blockheads at NKOTB concerts are the most amazing, genuine, kind, and supportive people around.  So I pinned on my "I love Jordan" buttons, jumped in my car, and headed to Charlotte without a second thought.  Only for you Jordan, Donnie, Danny, Joe, and Jon!

As the night wore on, I made 3 new friends, danced my butt of, sang my lungs out, got two winks and huge smile from Jordan (swoon!), and felt absolutely zero anxiety at all!  I learned a lot about myself that night, and it was life-changing in the best possible way.  My only regret is that I didn't take any confetti home with me.  That confetti is a symbol to me now... of my strength, my courage, and my self-confidence.  But in my elation at the end of the night, I made the mistake of emptying my purse of it's tissue paper cargo instead of bringing it home with me.  Oh well, there's always next time...







It was only a week after that last concert that I decided to really throw caution to the wind and sign up for the NKOTB Cruise!!  It would be my first time on a boat, first time out of the country, first time traveling by myself, and first time actually meeting the New Kids in person.  Talk about testing my limits!!  I even decided to tie a fundraiser for Remember Betty into the cruise and ran a mile on the boat in honor of breast cancer patients and survivors.  Had I not gone to that concert by myself in Charlotte, I would never have convinced myself I could do all of that.  But I had, and I did.  And the rest is history (you can read my 4-part cruise recap here on the blog!).



Fast forward several months and I have now made countless friends from all over the country (and even a few from other countries) that I wouldn't trade for the world.  Do I still have anxiety from time to time?  Of course!  But it's easier now that I know what I'm capable of overcoming and knowing that I have so many Blockhead friends that love and support me.  So thank you Jordan, Donnie, Joe, Danny, Jon, and all of my new friends... you may never know this, but you have all positively influenced my life and I am a better person for it.  May all your days be filled with confetti!!  #spreadloveandlovewillspread #loveeternal #BHLove #Thankful #NKOTBForever

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