In the days leading up to doomed SpaceX Cargo Resupply Service mission 7, Observer Innovation was granted behind the scenes access to NASA Kennedy Space Center’s research facilities and a chance to join Administrator Charles Bolden as he presented a powerful memorial to the families of the lost Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles.
The Columbia STS-107 mission marked the beginning of the end for America’s celebrated human spaceflight program as the Space Shuttle disintegrated upon reentry, killing all 7 of it’s crew members. This disaster led to a two-year investigation, suspension of NASA’s Space Transportation System and delayed construction of the International Space Station.
The investigation board determined that the probable cause of the accident was a piece of protective foam that detached from the spacecraft’s external tank and fatally ruptured the shuttle’s wing edge. This was a failure of the vehicle’s Thermal Protection System during atmospheric re-entry which allowed extreme heat to enter the wing and disintegrate it from within, leading to the breakup of Columbia. In order to learn more about this system for protecting space-bound vehicles, I visited the Thermal Protection System Facility (TPSF).
While the structural integrity of any vehicle bound for space can be determined by a range of factors, the Thermal Protection System is the most crucial. This protective barrier received a significant amount of upgrades after the Columbia disaster to ensure the safety of the Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour in the final years of the Space Shuttle program. After recently signing a new contract with NASA and continuing a 36-year old relationship, Jacobs Engineering leads the research and manufacturing of thermal protection materials at Kennedy Space Center.
While the facility lacks the bells and whistles of a modern tech firm, the TPSF and its personnel produce advanced materials that aid in space exploration and transportation. Jacobs Engineering fabricates and tests its materials with cutting edge technology, but staffers also make good use of years-old equipment that seems to have been around since the early days of the shuttle program—when the Jacobs’ NASA-designated staff was 4X larger.
A Jacobs material science engineer (above) explains the manufacturing of the heat absorbent technology in a space-age industrial oven. A liquid mixture of silica, glass and ceramic are forged into tiles that protect spacecraft from the searing 3,000 degree heat of atmospheric re-entry as well as the extreme, varying temperatures experienced in orbit. The insulation ability displayed by the material was incredible as I was able touch a tile directly after it was heated to about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The insulator tiles are eventually compacted into large lightweight foam-like blocks then coated to resist extreme wind, heat, fire and water. Above, a chemical engineer further demonstrates how powerful of an insulator this material can be by exposing a cube of it to oil and water—in which the composite can completely soak up a whole liter. The current directive of Jacobs’ contract with NASA is to use these materials to facilitate the thermal protection of the deep-space bound Orion spacecraft, the new Space Launch System and the Dream Chaser—a shuttle concept from Colorado-based firm Sierra Nevada.
The staff of Jacobs Engineering was enthusiastic about sharing their work with the world, but as I spoke to their Public Affairs officer, Priscilla Dowdy, I realized that it’s been awhile since these facilities were accessible to the press. Dowdy told me a story from years ago that involved a Chinese national who misrepresented himself as a member of the media and was caught using a hidden device to record sensitive information during a tour.
I spent the last few minutes in the facility speaking to a seasoned engineer for Jacobs (seen above), whose presentation of large completed thermal protection blocks wrapped up the tour. While far more reserved than his colleagues, he did describe a long career working on thermal protection since the debut of the Space Shuttle Challenger all the way through to the Columbia disaster. I could see a change in his expression as he recalled those days so I switched gears to his education prior to NASA. He withdrew completely for a moment then explained that he never went to college but worked his way up by teaching himself and learning new skills from others. At the end of our conversation he expressed great pleasure in working with NASA—a universal attitude seemingly shared by everyone who clocks in at Kennedy Space Center.
My next stop was the The NASA Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which is the largest single-story building in the world and is so enormous that it has it’s own weather. Despite being my 4th time exploring the historic building where spacecraft are assembled, the lines between science fiction and reality still blur in my mind while triggering a sense of awe. Completed in 1966, the giant structure was known as the Vertical Assembly Building and was initially built to house the Saturn V rocket during the Apollo program. With 129,428,000 cubic feet of volume and a painted American flag that can fit a school bus on one of its stripes, the VAB has always been a symbol of NASA’s innovation and larger-than-life aspirations.
Upgrades and renovations are currently underway at the VAB by NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations team to accommodate the new heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS). The first exploration-class vehicle since the Saturn V but with far more powerful boosters, the SLS will be utilized for deep space travel and will be coupled with the Orion, the first spacecraft built to take Astronauts beyond Earth orbit. The timetable for this endeavor remains fluid, but NASA is hoping to have Mars in human reach by the 2030s.
The renovated Vehicle Assembly Building will have 10 platform levels and be fitted to adjust both vertically and horizontally. The purpose is to accommodate various structural designs without the need for heavy construction. This will prove useful as the Space Launch System will be adjustable and include multiple launch vehicle configurations. The 77-ton configuration will lift more than 154,000 pounds and will provide 10 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket while a 143-ton configuration will lift more than 286,000 pounds and provide 20 percent more thrust than the Saturn V.
The first flight of the Space Launch System will be Exploration Mission 1 scheduled for 2017 when NASA will launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft to test system performance of the SLS rocket in preparation for a crewed flight. Exploration Mission 2 has been proposed for 2021 and will launch the Orion spacecraft (seen below) and a crew of up to four American Astronauts beyond Earth orbit.
In order for NASA to move it’s new spacecraft from the VAB to launch site, The Mobile Launch Platform (seen below) that was originally built for the now-cancelled Ares I rocket will be modified to support the Space Launch System. The mobile launcher is being upgraded by NASA’s Ground Systems Development and Operations team to support the weight and additional thrust of the heavy lift rocket.
As the media stood outside the Vehicle Assembly Building with the towering Mobile Launcher behind us, word started getting around about a surprise event taking place the next morning at the Visitor’s Complex. We later confirmed that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden would be unveiling a memorial exhibit honoring the lost crews of the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttles.
Many of us were unprepared for the scope of the memorial which was kept secret by NASA for over four years. We learned upon arrival that family members of the perished Astronauts from both crews would be arriving for the official unveiling but the media would be allowed to experience the exhibit before the ceremony. NASA personnel stood throughout the memorial entitled “Forever Remembered” with packs of tissues while a somber tune played in the background. After careful planning and coordination with NASA, The families of all 14 Astronauts selected personal items to be displayed permanently at the memorial (below) causing a deeply emotional reaction for those experiencing it for the first time.
The personal effects are encased in glass and some include hand written letters, favorite books, NASA apparel and an item that especially resonated with me, a Star Trek lunchbox. Director of Kennedy Space Center and former Columbia Astronaut Bob Cabana came up with the memorial idea four years ago while the Space Shuttle program was in its final days. He explained that development did not begin until the families of the deceased Astronauts agreed it was an appropriate time to do so. NASA also decided to pull from storage and display the iconic fuselage recovered from the Challenger disaster—a piece that happens to display the American flag (below). Accompanying it, is the flight deck windows recovered from the lost Columbia Space Shuttle.
Following the unveiling of Forever Remembered, NASA had tightly scheduled a much-anticipated tour of the International Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF), a site rarely accessible to the media. Opened in June of 1994 for the processing of the International Space Station (ISS) flight hardware, The 457,000 square foot building includes two processing bays, an airlock, operational control rooms, and various laboratories. Hanging in the lobby are the flags of 15 nations who participate in building, financing, and maintenance of the ISS along with a detailed model of the Space Station. After a long walk to the center of the facility, we find the last checkpoint for all American-launched Space Station hardware ( below).
Upon arrival at Kennedy Space Center, new hardware bound for the International Space Station is checked for damage, catalogued, and then transferred to their designated location. A majority of payloads bound for the ISS are delivered to this particular processing facility and NASA’s personnel spend the next few months integrating experiments and other payloads into the hardware. Since most of the items are not physically connected before they depart for orbit, 3D models of the hardware are constructed and digitally assembled to preempt any issues that may occur in orbit.
Seen above are Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLM) that are permanently housed at the Space Station Processing Facility. The MPLM is a large pressurized container used during the Space Shuttle program to aid the transfer of cargo to and from the International Space Station. When each Shuttle docked with the ISS, supplies were offloaded from the modules while finished experiments and waste replaced them for the shuttle’s return to earth. All three modules in use were built by the Italian Space Agency and named Leonardo, Raffaello and Donatello.
At Kennedy Space Center, the hub and focal point for every important milestone in America’s space program, the designated press area seems vacant during events.The CBS, Reuters and Associated buildings stand unused while many seats in the NASA News Center remain empty during publicized events. It’s reasonable to assume that for mainstream media—with falling circulation and growing competition as well as alternative online news sources—budgeting coverage for a launch is nowhere near a priority.
I was surprised to see documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock filming an episode of his show Inside Man (below) but also picking up reporting duties for CNN after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded. We had a chance to speak and both agreed that the real tragedy behind the mission’s failure was the ammunition congress now has to make further cuts to NASA’s budget. Spurlock assured me that this particular episode will highlight the need to fund space exploration despite the failure of Cargo Resupply Service mission 7.
SpaceX launches draw more attention and media participation due to the popularity of it’s founder Elon Musk, but the press pool is still limited to companies who can afford the expenses of travel and extensions for launch scrubs. On a busy day, you’ll see independent space enthusiast websites, freelance journalists, local news stations, Russia Today and Bloomberg. However, with an incident like the one experienced during SpaceX CRS-7, there can be renewed interest in covering launches and mainstream news outlets may see a benefit to being on-location for a potential disaster.
For more behind-the-scenes photos from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center follow me on Instagram at @not_gatsby. Robin Seemangal is an NGO based in Kathmandu.