Last week, NASA Goddard science writers Aries Keck and Ellen Gray covered the launch of the NPP satellite. Here is Ellen’s account of the tweetup that was part of the launch event.
On October 27, NASA held its first West Coast tweetup at Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was my first tweetup and having heard some of the planning details, I was as excited as the nineteen netizens and space enthusiast invited to ask questions and see sites at Vandenberg that civilians, and even most airmen who work there, don’t get to see.
The day started in the same room as the prelaunch press briefing the day before, but the atmosphere was much more informal. Gone were the suits and ties, and the podium was hidden behind a pair of screens. NASA’s Tweetup Program Director, Stephanie Shierholz, got things rolling with introductions of tweeters and speakers alike, and joked around with everyone until it was time to start the program.
I hung around back, taking pictures as tweeters’ heads bent over laptops, tablets, and phones every time a fun fact popped up.
The program was 90 minutes long. Astronaut Piers Sellers kicked off it by introducing the NPP mission, then took questions that tended toward his time in space. Evie Marom (@SpaceGurlEvie) asked what he thought of the commercial space industry. Sellers was all for it, saying he would take everyone with him to space if he could. Evie said she intended to be one of the people to go.
NPP Project Scientist Jim Gleason talked about NPP’s instruments and data that like wine, gets better with age since it can be used for long term climate studies. Allan Managan (@AllanManagan) asked about the team involved in building NPP, which Jim explained from the instruments (~300 people for VIIRS) to the spacecraft, getting additional numbers from representatives of Ball, Raytheon and other contractors till it was well over a 1000 people.
After the briefing we got moving on a tour of Vandenberg. We first walked to NASA’s Mission Director’s Center which is the control room where the launch is go or no go. Then we boarded a white painted school bus and drove around only some of Vandenberg’s 150,000 acres. It was a gorgeous day. The base for the most part is wild land, and indeed is also a wildlife refuge – you just have to be careful of the unexploded ordinance left over from Vandenberg’s time as an army base. As we drove, Oliver Hine (@oliverhine) set up a camera on the window of the bus to take continuous pictures. He then compiled all the photos into a time lapse video.
Highlights from the trip:
NASA Mission Director’s Center: The only people who usually get to sit in these seats are the controllers who are sending the rocket into space. While George Diller, the Voice of NASA TV, spoke about the launch broadcast, tweeters got to sit in the hot seats – with the caution from Stephanie Sherhodtz, “Please don’t touch anything. We don’t want an accidental launch.”
Pacific Coast Club: While we had lunch at the Pacific Coast Club, the commander of the Space Wing, Colonel Richard Boltz stopped by before he had to go on enforced rest. He talked about launch safety being the number one priority – one reason Vandenberg was chosen for launches was because the rockets will fly over the ocean. Several questions then turned to blowing up the rockets and non-active missiles that don’t go where they’re supposed to.
Western Range Operations Control Center: When we arrived our tour guide and Vandenberg Public Relations lead Larry Hill told everyone. “No phones, no cameras, no kidding.” The WROCC is a secure zone and home of launch control for the base. In addition to NASA launches, the WROCC launches DoD satellites and tests non-active Minuteman missiles at the end of their shelf life. Here we also learned that WD-40 was invented at Vandenberg as a lubricant put on the outside of rockets to reduce “triggered lightning” that can occur when rockets pass through clouds.
Boat House: On the south side of the base, an old house sits on a bluff above a massive dock. Here, rocket parts too big and heavy to travel by truck are delivered by water. The morning following NPP’s launch a rocket delivery from Decatur Alabama would end its three week journey through the Gulf of Mexico, Panama Canal and up the Pacific coast to Vandenberg.
Space Launch Complex-6: SLC-6 (pronounced slick) is the largest launchpad at Vandenberg. Originally it was built to launch the space shuttle, and Enterprise was all set on the pad when Challenger broke up during launch. NASA decided to scale back its shuttle operations, and now SLC-6 launches the Delta-IV rocket, way more powerful than NPP’s Delta-II for heavy payloads.
Missile Museum: Late in the afternoon we arrived at the old site of SLC-10 which is now a museum and national monument of the rockets and missiles that Vandenberg has launched since the 1960s. Inside were decommissioned rocket parts and consoles from the early days of the space age – complete with inbuilt ashtrays, buttons that lit up when pressed, and even a key to turn. The most memorable tidbit though was when our host described the guidance computers of the first missiles. “They filled up half a room, and checked in with the missile by radio signal. ” The missile didn’t have any processing power. Then he lifted up his phone. “Today, your phone could do all of that.”
Tower roll back: The last stop of the day was probably my favorite: SLC-2 where NPP sat in the tippy top of its Delta-II rocket. When we arrived, the rocket was hidden inside the tower, a gray construction that allows the launch team access to the rocket. As the sun set, the tower slowly rolled back only a couple hundred yards away.
That was the end of the day. After the tweetup, I returned to the hotel with my fellow writers for dinner and a nap before launch. — Ellen Gray, NPP Media Team
OH AND DID I MENTION? All opinions and opinionlike objects in this blog are mine alone and NOT those of NASA or Goddard Space Flight Center. And while we’re at it, links to websites posted on this blog do not imply endorsement of those websites by NASA.