NASA Social: Wallops Flight Facility
Recently, it was my honor and privilege to be accepted into a NASA Social at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for the launch of an uncrewed Cygnus resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. Carrying the mission designation NG-10 (Northrop Grumman 10), this mission follows CRS-9, holding the first Northrop Grumman mission prefix since their acquisition of Orbital ATK earlier this year. As part of the NASA Social, our group was invited for a behind-the-scenes tour of Wallops Flight Facility and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), attend press conferences, and be present at the press site for the launch, just 2.8km (1.8 miles) from the Antares rocket on Pad-0A!
Wearing the NASA Social badge carries the responsibility of sharing everything we learn and experience with our followers. It is not enough for us to experience these events alone. We must communicate them. This article is drafted from my real-time social media posts shared along the way to form a narrative of the whole event, including new details and in-depth information about the experience of attending a NASA Social and seeing the launch up close.
The first part of the Wallops experience is getting there. The airport options are limited, besides a small airport in Salisbury, Maryland. I ended up flying into Norfolk, Virginia and renting a car for the remainder of the distance. Others flew into Baltimore/Washington, and many drove from home. The closest place to stay is Chincoteague Island, Virginia, just across the bay from Wallops Island. Luckily, I have a friend on Chincoteague who kindly hosted me for the week. From the cottage, I could look out the window and see the lights of the launchpad across the water! The Eastern Shore of Virginia feels remote and peaceful - a perfect place for an orbital launch facility. Living in Florida, it was also nice to enjoy some autumn foliage and weather.
The next day, those of us who arrived early for the first pre-flight press conference checked-in and received our badge and press kit. I couldn’t believe I was there! This would be Living Space’s first time at media events. Going into the room, there were already some familiar faces inside, such as Ken Kremer of SpaceUpClose and ISS National Lab scientist Liz Warren. They would be joined by many others throughout the day and the week. Taking my seat and retrieving a pen and pad, I was positively surprised to learn the conference was going to be broadcast on NASA TV! This first press conference, “What’s on Board,” was focused on the scientific payload onboard the Cygnus spacecraft, named SS John Young after the esteemed NASA Astronaut. The presenters of the conference themselves were the scientists whose payloads were onboard, joined by NASA figures and representatives.
The first experiment discussed was a new device called the “Refabricator,” which will be the first bonafide 3D printer onboard the ISS. The mini-fridge size machine will recycle plastic trash on the space station into usable tools and equipment. 3D printing has undergone years of testing on-station, but this is the first model intended for operational and practical use. According to presenters Diane Risdon of NASA Marshall and Allison Porter of Tethers Unlimited, the contractor who designed the Refabricator, astronauts frequently note the nuisance posed by disposable plastic bags on the station. The Refabricator is designed to recycle these bags and other plastics into useful materials. Ultimately, a conceptual spinoff from this experiment could be 3D printing food and medical-grade tools. The Refabricator is also helping to pave the way towards the type of self-sustaining spacecraft needed for long-duration voyages to Mars. I couldn’t help but to think of replicators from Star Trek, especially the kind shown in The Original Series!
Two experiments will study cement's behavior in microgravity. MVP Cell-05, presented by Liz Warren, will examine the way concrete molecules form a crystalline structure in microgravity. By gathering data on the behavior of materials in space, researchers can learn more about their behavior and utilization on Earth. The other cement experiment will investigate the characteristics of self-healing composites in microgravity, and was presented by the high school students who conceived it. These students are sponsored by Higher Orbit’s “Go For Launch” program, whose goal is to involve students in spaceflight and STEM outreach. Learning about the changes in chemical characteristics of these self-healing cements in the “absence” of gravity could even provide data about how these composites may be used in future spaceflight.
Biological phenomena will also be studied by NG-10 flown experiments. One of them, Vection, will study the perception of visual cues by the human eye in microgravity, and is partnered with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). These areas of study are critical to human spaceflight, as they explore astronaut capabilities and functioning in space. Another experiment, CASIS PCG 16, will study the Parkinson’s disease-linked LRRK-2 protein and how microgravity affects its growth and function, partnered with the Michael J. Fox Foundation. A third bio-experiment by Micro-gRX and Florida Hospital will study muscle cells from eight donors of athletic-build in weightlessness. After a certain amount of time in microgravity, the cells will be frozen and returned to Earth for study aboard a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The experiment hopes to learn about the muscular atrophy that occurs in microgravity and obtain data for possible treatments. Researcher Siobhan Malaney introduced the “lab-on-a-chip” platform of the experiment. With the experiment taking place in a totally self-sustaining environment, the only job of the astronauts is to move the experiment from one place to another on the station.
This is just a handful of the exciting science which is now on the ISS, and only part of the 3,300kg (7,400lbs) of supplies delivered by the Cygnus SS John Young spacecraft. After a brief social period following the press conference, we went our separate ways for the afternoon. The entire conference can be watched here:
The next morning, the NASA Social began in earnest, with the whole team arriving and meeting for our tour of NASA Wallops and MARS. Our first stop on the itinerary was the Horizontal Integration Facility on Wallops Island, or HIF (pronounced “hiff”). This building is where engineers integrate the Antares rocket’s two stages and the Cygnus spacecraft. Long sleeves and closed shoes were required, and cell phones were prohibited due to their signal. Once inside, experts Michael Brainard, Kate Campbell, and others were there to show us around and answer questions. We were delighted to see the NG-11 Antares being prepared up-close! It’s one thing to see a rocket in a museum, but to see actual flight hardware awaiting its launch date has a certain cutting-edge emotionality to it. This rocket is going to go, and once it does, I can watch the launch and remember being in the same room with it.
Integration facilities are different from rocket assembly facilities. During the HIF visit, I remembered being inside the United Launch Alliance assembly facility in Decatur, Alabama. Assembly facilities are larger than city blocks, squeaky clean, and crowded with massive tools and equipment that construct the rocket itself. Integration facilities are not as spotless, and though they have large equipment, don’t feel quite as futuristic or industrial. They are a lot like a well-organized airplane hangar, where the vehicle is maintenanced, checked-out, and stored before flight - a “some assembly required” environment. Inside the HIF are two sets of railroad tracks leading to the launchpad, a massive crane to lift large articles inside the building, loads of tools and engineering items, and the rocket itself, which was in four pieces: the first stage and its two RD-181 engines, the solid-fuelled second stage built in Utah, the avionics ring which controls the rocket’s systems, and the empty payload fairing.
The next stop was probably the most awe-inspiring of the day, Pad 0-A, with the NG-10 rocket vertical and almost ready to go! We were just 300m (1000 ft) away with nothing obstructing the view. Seeing a rocket sitting on the launchpad up close is surreal. You are standing in grass and pavement just like any other, with trees and structures just like any other, except that tall, thin tube over there is about to leave the planet via a controlled explosion, delivering supplies to a space station with people onboard. The best part was I’d be there to see it happen!
By this point, there had been talk about weather conditions in the Eastern Shore of Virginia. While we were at the launchpad, Range decided that weather was NO GO for a launch the next morning, with only a 30% chance of favorable conditions. Nevertheless, we had a full day of exciting activities ahead! Though there wasn’t a guarantee of seeing a launch before travel plans forced me back to Florida, I was extremely grateful to just see that beautiful rocket on the pad. Wherever I ended up watching from, at least I saw it in person.
As we went back to the visitor’s center for the official press conference, the US Navy was continuing their all-day aircraft carrier practice landings. Wallops’ airfield has a painted outline of an aircraft carrier’s deck on their runway that the Navy’s Patuxent River base over in Maryland uses to train pilots.
The press conference had many items of importance, the first being the official word that the launch was scrubbed, and a 24-hour recycle was in place for an attempt the next day, Friday morning at approximately 4:30am EST. Even still, Friday’s chances weren’t good, with the best weather for launch being Saturday morning, with a 95% probability of favorable conditions. Ultimately, this ended up being the case. Another item of interest from the press conference was that a few of NG-10’s 3,300kg (7,400lbs) of supplies were items replacing those lost on Soyuz MS-10’s launch abort. The next bit of important information was that during inclement weather like what had been forecasted, the rocket is battened-down tight, and could stay on the pad until near-hurricane force winds. Pad 0-A was equipped with air blowers and heaters to keep water out the dry bays, with backup generators powering the equipment and a support team monitoring conditions 24/7. The entire conference can be watched here:
After the press conference, a visit was payed to NASA's main hangar at Wallops, housing their P-3 Orion and C-130 Hercules aircraft. These aircraft are not in typical configuration, though. They are essentially flying laboratories that conduct climate, weather, dust, and soil studies all over the world. In fact, the P-3 pictured below had just returned from a study over Africa. Aircraft from Wallops frequently traverse the Arctic and Antarctic as part of the IceBridge project, tracking ice floes and temperatures in the ice caps and glaciers. The aircraft also survey moisture and soil at low altitudes over land and water alike. One task in specific is to study cytoplankton in the ocean, comparing it to satellite data to track accuracy on both ends.
Our next stop was the sounding rocket assembly facility and machine shop. In this building, all parts of the sounding rockets constructed at Wallops besides the payload, nose cone, and fins are built, assembled, and integrated. Here, we learned that Wallops launches around twelve of these per year, and builds even more for clients all around the world. Sounding rockets are a low-cost option for testing equipment in the vacuum of space. The rockets can be sent up to 1600km (1000 miles) in altitude in a sub-orbital trajectory. This provides firms the ability to test component performance in space before flying them on a critical mission. You may be wondering - why are they called “sounding” rockets? The term has a nautical origin, with the word “sound” pertaining to taking measurements and verifying information.
Next was the Range Control Center (RCC), a mission control-looking room where officials from NASA, the government, and the payload customer (in NG-10’s case, Northrop Grumman) monitor Wallops’ range and the vehicle’s performance. Chief of the Range Robert Jameson explained that due to Wallops' location on the heavily-trafficked Eastern Seaboard, airplanes and boats are a frequent cause of range violations. The RCC is also where the two independent Range Safety Officers (RSOs) monitor safety data and rocket performance. The RSO is the highest authority of range safety during launch, and needs no permission to destroy the rocket in emergency situations that violate range safety and launch rules. For this reason, no photography is allowed of their consoles, though we did get to see the monitors and destruct switches. Interestingly, it turns out this RCC also controls other ranges around the world, recently supporting a launch in French Guiana, and even has plans to support a future range in Australia.
Finally, former astronaut Robert Curbeam, now working at Northrop Grumman, gave a presentation about the Cygnus spacecraft and his career at NASA, with particular emphasis on his expertise in safety and mission assurance. Curbeam spoke of future plans for Cygnus, including ideas to redesign the spacecraft so it can remain in orbit for over a year, independent from the ISS. Northrop Grumman is planning a diverse future for Cygnus. Meeting Curbeam was a highlight, as he is in the frame of one of my favorite space photos of all time, taken during STS-116 while he was assembling part of the ISS passing over New Zealand. He tells me it’s his favorite space photo as well!
This presentation brought the NASA Social tour to an end after a long day of absorbing new and exciting information! NASA Wallops conducts fascinating and important research, and their projects are vital to learning more about our home planet and its/our future. It was a privilege to see that work up close, explained by the experts themselves.
The next day, as expected, the launch was again scrubbed and put into a 24-hour recycle due to inclement weather, but things were looking up. Weather was trending 95% favorable for a Saturday morning launch of 4:01am EST. Part of the launch business is getting used to these delays. I spent my time doing some social media posts and preparing the draft of this article, as well as dissecting and reading the press kit we received for the mission. Thank you to Northrop Grumman for including these swans in our press kit! The Cygnus spacecraft may well have the best namesake of them all.
Some people slept before departing for the press site at 1:30am EST, while some of us stayed up. Another part of the launch business is working at awkward times of day. Despite the early hour and the freezing temperature, seeing that launch from just 2.8km (1.8 miles) away would be absolutely worth it. Once security checks were complete, we boarded the bus and drove on-center with a police escort. Though it may be fun to pretend the police were there to ensure our timely arrival at the press site, they were actually along for the ride to make sure we didn’t make any unplanned stops along the way. Regardless, it helped make real the fact that we were there as guests of NASA, and de facto social media journalists. It took no time at all to reach the press site, and our two hour wait in the cold, dark night began.
Rocket launch press sites are hardly more than a field with cameras and coffee, incredibly close in proximity to launchpads with launch control/mission control chatter being piped in through loudspeakers. It occurred to me that those of us present there are the “medium” through which this information makes it to other people (hence the word media). We get to hear the chatter and watch the rocket so that thousands of other people can be aware of it. One thing this experience has taught me is that the media has an obligation. It is not playtime for us because we get to be present for such an awesome sight. We are there to work, and work fairly, truthfully, and expediently for the benefit of those who are not there.
The two hours crept by, seemingly slowed by the temperature, and it finally came time to find a good spot for the launch. In truth, there wasn’t really a bad spot from that vantage point! Some were better than others though, especially through a photographer’s lens. Most people were down by the water, as close as they could get. Some of us gravitated towards the back, up the hill and out of the bright floodlight. Things started to quiet out in the last minute or so, with everybody listening to launch control chatter to catch any last minute aborts or technical issues. Our launch was not spared from these. There was a last minute range violation, which was luckily resolved before T-0; and what sounded like a sensor or downlink glitch, evidently not violating mission rules. They really had us going for a while, though! I can’t help but to wonder how much “GO fever” was at play with that sensor. Ultimately, the experts did their job and it caused no problems.
In these minutes leading up to a launch, I usually experience the same sensation, but hadn’t felt it so strongly since being at the turning basin for Falcon Heavy. All the hours of anticipation, quiet, and watching the rocket sit on the pad sort of trick you into believing that it isn’t really going to happen. It sounds ridiculous, but on some level, you don’t really grasp that you’re about to see a rocket launch until you hear “10… 9… 8… 7…” In that last-second, you are hit with the shock that it’s really going to happen! It’s the opposite of an anticlimax - an anti-rising action. I can’t imagine how that must feel for astronauts and cosmonauts, who are strapped into those rockets and are actually going along for the ride themselves.
T-0 came and went instantaneously, with all of the following occurring in just a second: a flash shocked my eyes and rendered the rocket invisible through the change in brightness. The sky turned orange, and my colleagues’ faces and all the clouds in the sky were illuminated. The flash levelled out to a steady, yellow-orange sunrise, accelerating off the launchpad at an astonishing pace. It doesn’t matter that the Antares booster is only a small/medium sized rocket. From just 2.8km (1.8 miles) away, the sheer power of the vehicle is communicated through the air with an almighty roar. The acoustic effects of the RD-181 engines hit the press site like a great boom of thunder rumbling steadily with no end. For the first time, I felt my clothes vibrate on my body from a launch, something not even Falcon Heavy or the Shuttle did for me. That 2.8km (1.8 miles) is something to behold compared to the distance of NASA Kennedy’s press site, 5km (3 miles). You will note in my launch video that the commentary becomes drowned out by the sheer noise of the rocket.
Launches are always made better by meeting people whose work is onboard. Years’ worth of scientific experiments with the potential to change the world were on their way to the ISS. In addition to the researchers’ work, the work of everyone at NASA Wallops, MARS, and other contractors was taking flight and coming to fruition. It means more than simply giving the Eastern Seaboard an awesome show in the middle of the night. Since it was so clear and there was so little light pollution, we were able to see the entire launch, from ignition to orbit, 0-28,000kph (0-17,500mph). Despite living near NASA Kennedy and Cape Canaveral, I have never seen the entirety of a rocket launch with my own eyes before. Usually, rockets at the Cape fade out of sight shortly after staging.
Soon after SECO, we were already on the bus leaving center. My eyes still had a few afterimage spots from the stark brightness in the otherwise pitch-black night. What was foremost on my mind, in all honesty, was the warmth of the bus. I realized I couldn’t feel my toes! After scraping ice off the car, I drove back to my accommodation and contemplated. It was 5:48am EST. By then, the Cygnus spacecraft would yet again be flying over the Eastern Seaboard, this time having completed its first orbit of planet Earth. SS John Young was on its way to resupply the ISS with science and supplies.
NG-10 may well be the most amazing launch I’ve experienced. It was beautifully clear and calm outside, the rocket was unbelievably close, and the sound and vibrations were literally rattling my body and clothing! More notably, it was a true joy to be part of the NASA Social reporting on the occasion. That accomplishment gives me lots of hope. Living Space got to do something very special. Despite my historian-training, journalism and social media journalism do have rewarding aspects to them.
So once again, well done NASA Wallops, Northrop Grumman, and MARS! Thank you for the unique and wonderful time at this NASA Social. It was an unforgettable experience, and hopefully Living Space will get to do even more of them in the future.
Images and Videos Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise
A special thank you to NASA, NASA Wallops, NASA Social Attendees, Northrop Grumman, and Laurie Simmons for a splendid week.