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:



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!


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