On August 18, 2016, a small group of NASA Social attendees (me included!) were treated to a day-long event in New Orleans, Louisiana and in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to celebrate our nation’s Journey to Mars. Billed as NASA Mars Day, the event showcased all of the programs and technologies that will get humans to Mars in this century. This NASA Social – my sixth -was yet another one of those times that I had to pinch myself to make sure this experience was real.
Why Mars Matters
I have to be honest: I heard a lot of jokes about going to Mars when I first got received notification that I would be included in this NASA Social. Things like “Be sure to pack a lunch! Mars is far!” And it struck me that people who are not NASA fans or followers have no idea that sending a human to Mars will be a reality before we know it, and that NASA is leading the charge with their Journey to Mars mission. Many people thought NASA was out of business when the space shuttle was retired, and that is simply not correct. The agency is just as robust and thriving as it was before; maybe more so with the drive to get the Space Launch System (SLS) off the ground.
There are many reasons why Mars matters; NASA administrator Charlie Bolden outlined his views in a speech earlier this year. For me as a breast cancer survivor, I look forward to the medical and technological advancements that will come from all of the research and testing currently happening at NASA to get humans to Mars. We have yet to see the full results of the Twin Study and Scott Kelly’s year in space, for example. Imagine what we will discover about the human body in deep space, and how we can apply that to identifying and treating diseases and illnesses on Earth.
Pre-NASA Social Meet and Greet
Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s dive into this great event. The pre-NASA Social program started the evening before NASA Mars Day with participant registration and a presentation at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. NASA representatives at this special meet-and-greet included:
- Bobby Watkins, Director of Michoud Assembly Facility
- John Honeycutt, SLS Program Manager
- Lara Kearney, Orion Crew and Service Module Manager
- Rick Mastracchio, NASA Astronaut
- Todd May, Director of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
It was interesting to learn the history of Michoud from Watkins since I had never been to this facility. Here’s a brief snippet of his presentation:
Michoud’s roots go back to the 1700s and the facility has played an important role in every launch. Michoud is massive, with 43 acres of manufacturing space under one roof. (That’s about 31 football fields.) Learn more about Michoud on the NASA site.
NASA TV Broadcast
The next day began early as we boarded the buses at Michoud to head to Building 115 where we would spend a good portion of the day. The first item on our agenda was the live NASA Social Broadcast kickoff on NASA TV. Moderator John Yembrick led a panel of NASA experts in the hour-long discussion. You can watch the full broadcast here:
Michoud Tours and Exhibits
Our NASA Social groups was split into two groups to either go on a tram tour of Michoud, or to speak with program managers, scientists, and other experts at exhibit tables. With over 100 people, including media and the NASA Social group, it could’ve been a logistical nightmare but it wasn’t. These events are so very well-run, and lots of people at NASA put in extra work and extra hours to make sure that we have a great day. One of my favorite parts was chatting with Trey Cate of NASA’s SLS Program. He planted the idea of this NASA Social at Michoud and the rest of the NASA team took it and ran with it.
A few favorites from my interactions in the exhibit area include the rover demo (above), holding a piece of inert solid rocket fuel at the Orbital ATK table (below), and coming full circle to see NASA’s Vegetable Production System that was first introduced at the SpaceX-3 CRS NASA Social in March 2014. I also appreciated that Boeing’s people have a great sense of humor.
The tram tour portion of the day was a lot to take in. We were introduced to the Orion crew module tunnel/forward bulkhead assembly, the world’s largest spacecraft welding tool standing at 170 feet tall, and the SLS liquid hydrogen tank measuring over 130 feet long. But even with so much information being thrown at us, we were still sharing on the go – even while on the tram tour!
RS-25 Rocket Engine Test
Our final stop of the day was a 45-minute bus ride north into Mississippi to NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center where we would learn more about the RS-25 rocket engine (four RS-25 rocket engines will power the core stage of SLS) and see a live test fire. We were able to stop by the B-2 test stand which is under renovation to accommodate SLS. We also stopped by the Aerojet Rocketdyne facility to see the RS-25 in various stages of assembly (sorry, no photos allowed!).
But the big finale was the 420-second test of RS-25 rocket engine #0528. The rocket engine burns hydrogen and water, so the plume is lovely and harmless. Every time I see a rocket engine go off, I say the same thing: it is difficult to describe. It is such a visceral reaction that the hairs on your arm stand up. There is nothing like it!
If the info in this post looks interesting to you, I encourage you to apply to attend a NASA Social. You will not regret the experience.