Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dinner at the Starship Gallery, Space Center Houston - Part 3

With Harv Hartman in front of the Apollo 17 Command Module. Harv retired as Director of HR at JSC. He joined NASA towards the end of the Gemini program and stayed on until the construction of the International Space Station. He had lots of great stories to tell.

Part 3: You would think it couldn't possibly get any better, but it did! Just to recap the day. We spent the night at The Houstonion Hotel. Had breakfast with Astronaut Terry Wilcutt. Then on the way to JSC we watched episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon. This episode was about Tom Kelly and the team at Grumman designing and developing the Lunar Module. Our first stop was the Rocket Park where we saw a Saturn V (this one was slated to fly to the Moon as Apollo 18 before the mission was cancelled). Then we walked over to the Astronaut Memorial Grove. Then listened to an awesome lunch presentation on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. We spent the afternoon at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Quite a full day so far, but there was more to come. Jeff Jackson, Dick Richardson, Matt Gray, Terry Willcutt and Harv Hartman had more in store for us. I was in orbit already!

Next, we drove to Space Center Houston (SCH) where we had a classroom session and recapped the key learning's of the day. After that we had some free time to wonder around the SCH. Harv had pointed me to the Space Shuttle Simulator and I decided to give it a shot. On my first try I ended up doing a pretty good landing. Harv was there right next to me and was my witness. Later that evening he announced to the whole class that I had "greased" the landing. I was smiling so hard all evening my jaw was aching the following morning.

We watched a movie of the Apollo 11 moon landing in the Destiny Theater. The discussion there was about the "team" effort needed to get the first men on the Moon. Everyone had a role, played their part and everyone relied on each other. What better example of this than the "1201 alarms" going on during the descent and the back room guys giving Gene Kranz the GO for landing.

Our reception at the Destiny Theater (with wine and appetizers) was followed by an amazing presentation by a scientist who talked about the research being conducted on the ISS. The ISS has been designated a National Laboratory by Congress. It is truly amazing to think that the ISS was launched in 1998 and that we have had a continuous human presence in orbit for over ten years!

We then went on for a private dinner at the Starship Gallery. Yup!

"Faith 7" Mercury Spacecraft flown by Gordon Cooper. This was the last flight of the Mercury program. Cooper flew a total of 22 orbits (May 15-16, 1962).

Apollo 17 was the 6th and last lunar landing and was crewed by Eugene Cernen (Commander), Ronald Evans (Command Module Pilot), and Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot).

Apollo 17 Command Module "America"

Apollo EVA Space Suits

Training model of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (AKA "the Moon buggy"). Rovers were used on Apollo 15, 16 and 17.

Moon rocks. Actually touched one.

Interior of Skylab

Among the many fascinating artifacts was this training mock up of the inside of Skylab. This was our first Space Station and was launched in 1973 and deorbited in 1979 after three long duration missions.

I could easily have spent an entire day just in the Starship Gallery

Astronaut on an EVA with the ISS in the background

Training mock up of the Lunar Module (LM)

Robonaut 2 is now aboard the ISS and was launched on STS-133

The main gallery at Space Center Houston has several historical artifacts including space suits.

Prior to the Challenger explosion astronauts wore just flight suits and helmets. After Challenger they switched to the now famous orange pressure suits.

Space Shuttle space suit

Orlan space suit used by the Russians for EVA

We had an amazing day and the best was yet to come - a visit to the historical Apollo Mission Control center and the ISS Mission Control center. That's for Part 4.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory - Part 2

At the NBL with Astronaut Col. Terrence Wilcutt

After lunch we drove to NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL) also known as the Sonny Carter Training Facility. This is where the astronauts train for Extra Vehicular Activities (EVA's) - better known as "Space Walks". The NBL training facility is located near Ellington Field (that's where all those cool T-38 aircraft are hangared) and is named in honor of the late astronaut M. L. "Sonny" Carter, who was instrumental in developing many of the current space-walking techniques used by the astronauts. Could not have picked a better place to have a discussion on training and methods and techniques used to build a world class "team".

Entrance to the NBL, the Sonny Carter Training Facility

The NBL is quite impressive. It's 202 feet in length, 102 feet in width and 40 feet in depth and contains 6.2 million gallons of water that is filtered and cleaned every 24 hours. Angie Prince who is the Branch Chief of EVA training gave us a very thorough overview of the NBL and the training that her team and the crews go through. For every hour of actual EVA the astronauts go through seven hours of simulated training in the NBL. Every time they have astronauts in the water she has a full team of physicians, safety divers, camera crew/divers and "mission control" going through all of the details and choreographing every aspect of the EVA. She said that after each training session they debrief in great detail. Every astronaut is "graded" after each training session. She said that the simulations are so "real" that many astronauts have thanked her and her team while on an actual EVA because the training was so close to the real thing. The selection of the training crews and the training they go through for these simulations was at a level I have not encountered before. They set the bar pretty high and then put together a training program to pull everyone involved to that high level. It was absolutely impressive!

I asked if I could suit up - they thought I was kidding

It was truly an amazing place. While we were there two ISS astronauts were undergoing EVA training in the far side of the pool where the ISS mock ups were located. Several times I offered to help and each time I got a huge smile from Terry and Harv. Oh, they new I was quite serious. Terry told me that sometimes they come over and wear their SCUBA gear and swim around the mock ups of the Space Shuttle and the ISS. How cool is that?

The ISS mock ups are at the far end

Mock up of the Shuttle cargo bay and the robotic arm

They hoisted up two astronauts that were training for an EVA 

Angie is the Chief of the EVA Training Branch

We then ended up in "mission control" at the NBL to continue our discussion on the importance of training and how leaders react during a crisis. Several important points to take away. At the NBL the astronauts train until they have gone over each step until its second nature. They sort of  build up "muscle memory". Then they train through emergencies and "off nominal scenarios" (to use a NASA term). That is they train through all of those situations that can happen. This is done because there will always be the possibility that they will encounter a situation that they have not trained for. In those situations, their training kicks in to cover most of the situation while their brain now starts to "solve the problem" that is presented. This is hard to describe in a short blog nor go over in detail the entire discussion that we had. Perhaps the best example of this is what Dick and Jeff presented. When US Air flight 1549 sucked up birds and both engines died, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger's training kicked in. If you listen to the cockpit voice recordings of his conversations with "ground" and with his "co-pilot" you can clearly note where his training had kicked in and what he was trying to "problem solve". The co-pilot made the takeoff and was "pilot in command" at the time of the bird strike (this is not unusual as the captain and the pilot take turns flying so as to give flight experience to the co-pilots) but when  both engines shut down Sully said "my plane" and took charge of the situation. Now if you go on to listen to the cockpit audio you can hear him try to solve the issue of where he could put down the plane and he was going through the options of each of the near by airports and available runways including  setting the plane down on the Hudson River. At no time do you hear him talk about controlling or flying the plane. That is because he had practiced "engine out" situations enough times in the simulator that his training had kicked in. He knew what to do and how to keep the plane in the air. He was not actively focusing on flying the plane but was actually focusing on going through ALL the available options to find a safe place to to set the plane down. Oh, I could go on an on about this... but it was one of those discussions that makes you really think. A lot of important tid bits to take away and makes you think how you would apply training to your engineers and organization so that they would react appropriately in  time of crisis and help "solve the problem".

Next Part 3: Dinner at the "Starship Gallery" at the Houston Space Center. There is an actual Goddard rocket, Gordon Cooper's "Faith 7" Mercury capsule, Gordon Cooper's and Pete Conrad's Gemini V spacecraft, the Apollo 17 Command Module "America"... and many more...

This Week @ NASA June 17, 2011

In Their Own Words: Astronaut Mike Barratt

On beng selected as an astronaut to flying the Soyuz and living aboard the ISS for six months...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Apollo Leadership Experience - Part 1

Next to the Saturn V. This one was slated for Apollo 18 before that mission was cancelled

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) and at the adjoining Space Center Houston (SCH) at a workshop titled The Apollo Leadership Experience. The program was hosted by The Conference Board, a non-profit organization providing in-depth research and best practices concerning management, leadership, and corporate citizenship. The company I work for is a member of The Conference Board. The Apollo Leadership Experience is one of their newest programs drawing on the leadership lessons of the manned space flight effort over the 10-year period of The Apollo Program. When this program was announced, at least six people at my company forwarded it to me knowing my interest in NASA and human spaceflight. I have participated in enough leadership and training programs to last a lifetime but this one was hard to turn down. It was about innovation (Saturn V, the Lunar Lander, the Lunar Rover), managing in a large organization and creating a culture of excellence (NASA), managing through a significant set back (Apollo 1), leadership and managing through a crisis (Apollo 13) and setting lofty goals and achieving them (Apollo 11). For those of you who know me... anyone would think that this two day program was created just for me and where I am in my professional career.

The folks at The Conference Board, especially Jeff Jackson and Dick Richardson really pulled together an amazing experience for all of us. From the NASA JSC side we had the undivided attention of four time Shuttle Astronaut Col. Terrence Wilcutt. Terry flew as pilot of STS-68 and STS-79 and as Commander of STS-89 and STS-106. He flew twice to MIR and once to the International Space Station (ISS). By the way, the folks at NASA refer to the ISS as "station". Also with us was Harv Hartman who served with NASA for 33 years and recently retired as Director of HR for JSC. He joined NASA during the Gemini program and stayed on until ISS. Can you imagine the stories he related. If I did not have a family and a job I would still be in Houston listening to him talk about NASA. Mathew Gray filled us with a ton of details on the ISS and just about any topic we presented him with. He is a Manager in the ISS Safety and Mission Assurance Branch. These people really care about NASA and human spaceflight. Amazing, amazing people and truly inspiring!

Our first topic was around innovation and the setting was the Rocket Park at JSC. We had a great discussion comparing "incremental" innovation versus "disruptive" innovation. Werner Von Bruan and team developed their rockets incrementally building bigger engines and bigger rockets going from the Redstone booster to the mighty Saturn V. We compared this type of innovation to what Tom Kelly and the Grumman Team did to develop the Lunar Lander. The design of the Lunar Lander broke all the traditional rules of aircraft design. For a good overview of the design process watch Episode 5 of From the Earth to the Moon. You will see how these managers and engineers really had to think "outside the box". Eventually, the Lunar Lander had very small windows, no seats - the crew flew it standing up, a two stage design where the lower part of the spacecraft remained on the Moon and was used as a launch pad for the ascent stage. This discussion really made me think about my own R&D team because we need to incrementally improve our current product platforms but equally we need some break through thinking to come up with the next "disruptive technology".

Dick and Harv also presented some great insight on some of the key players during the Apollo era. They talked about the leadership styles of James Webb, Werner Von Braun, Tom Kelly, George Low,  and Harrison Storms. Wow! What great leaders they were. I wish we could go back in a time machine and see these great folks in action.

Several folks wanted to go visit the Astronaut Memorial Grove. First a little bit of history. The idea for the Astronaut Memorial Grove was spearheaded in 1996 by George Abbey, JSC director at the time, and then became a reality when seven live oak trees were planted in memory of the STS-51L crewmembers who perished 10 years earlier during the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. From that moment on, tree dedication ceremonies have been held in honor of every astronaut who has since departed this life.

We have lost a total of 17 astronauts (Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia) and I am sure all of you have read the harsh criticisms that NASA was complacent, or they did not care or was negligent. Let me tell you, the managers and engineers at NASA really care, and they put the the lives of their astronauts as the most important aspect of the mission. Everywhere you go you see the three mission patches of the missions where the crews were lost. From the Rocket Park, to the NLB to the JSC buildings.. they are NOT forgotten. There is a tradition in Mission Control where the mission patch of the "current" mission is placed by the door. After the mission is complete the most valuable contributor to the mission from mission control is selected to to place a ladder on the wall and the mission patch is "permanently" attached to the wall of Mission Control. This tradition dates back as far as anyone can remember. When we were looking in at the ISS Mission Control Center you can see all of the mission patches up on the wall, but the three mission patches where the crews did not return are still by the door. These people really care about the crews! It means everything to them.

We then stopped by at one of the JSC buildings for lunch. It was 100F outside but it felt like the sun had gone super nova. Yup, this is a really dedicated bunch of folks living in Houston. Meanwhile, it was 74F and blue skies in Southern California.

Jeff, Dick, Terry, Harv and Matt had a real treat for us at lunch time. Trnt Martin, "the project manager" for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) gave us a presentation on the program and status to date. Don't ask me what I had for lunch because I don't remember one bit. Martin's talk had me totally consumed.  I had blogged previously about the AMS but his inside scoop of this incredible instrument and pictures of it being installed on the ISS totally rocked! (Hmm, secretly I was imagining myself on a spacewalk installing it on the ISS). Here is my advice to all my readers. Go find all of your physics text books and get ready to throw them in the trash can (no, you cant donate them) because they are soon going to be obsolete. Our view of the universe is going to change very soon. With almost a billion particles going through the detector our views of antimatter and dark matter will change very quickly and our knowledge of the natural world will soon change. This is what these folks at NASA are doing. Our understanding of the Universe is going to change very soon. This is really exciting!

Next: the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (Part 2).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

International Space Station and Space Shuttle Endeavour

Credit: NASA

These images of the International Space Station and the docked space shuttle Endeavour, flying at an altitude of approximately 220 miles, were taken by Expedition 27 crew member Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz TMA-20 following its undocking on May 23, 2011 (USA time). These pictures are the first taken of a shuttle docked to the International Space Station from the perspective of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Onboard the Soyuz were Russian cosmonaut and Expedition 27 commander Dmitry Kondratyev; Nespoli, a European Space Agency astronaut; and NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. Coleman and Nespoli were both flight engineers. The three landed in Kazakhstan later that day, completing 159 days in space. Additional photographs ca be found here.

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Friday, June 3, 2011

Copenhagen Suborbitals launches test rocket!

Rocketeers Peter Madsen and Kristian von Bengsten. Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

Just a small step for all mankind if you compare with NASA or SpaceX, but what a huge leap for all of us aspiring astronauts. Two guys with a vision and a strong desire for personal spaceflight and some 20+ volunteers and some $60,000 built and launched a rocket today. So it went only to a height of 2.8km and some 8+ km down range, the parachutes got tangled up... but they did it. They launched a rocket! This is so exciting.

There are so many private entrepreneurs building rockets these days ranging from Elon Musk's SpaceX, to Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic to Jeff Greason's XCOR Aerospace, and Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin to name a few... all of this has only renewed my faith that someday soon I will have my turn to live out my childhood dream of being an astronaut and flying in space. Today was a great day for all of us who dream of someday seeing the Earth from the outside. Congratulations Copenhagen Suborbitals!

Liftoff of HEAT 1X and TYCHO BRAHE. Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

Launch video in Danish...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Copenhagen Suborbitals to launch a test rocket on Friday

Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

Copenhagen Suborbitals announced today that they have completed all testing and are GO for launch tomorrow of the HEAT 1X rocket and the TYCHO BRAHE spacecraft. Designed and built by two Danish rocketeers Kristian von Bengston and Peter Madsen, the unmanned launch is scheduled at about 3:00pm Danish time. Additional information about the launch including live video can be found here and here. Additional updates from the launch team is also being posted on their Facebook page. Latest reports from the group states that the rocket and the launch platform (Sputnik) has been towed to the launch area located in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Denmark. So far it seems that sea and weather conditions are optimal for the launch.

Overview of the TYCHO BRAHE Spacecraft: Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

Credit: Copenhagen Suborbitals

If all goes well tomorrow, the plan is for Peter Madsen to be on the first manned flight sometime in the near future. The eventual goal is to launch paying tourists on this single seat spacecraft on suborbital flights to altitudes of 100 kilometers (62.5 miles). The spacecraft including the astronaut is 3.5 meters long, with a 64cm diameter and a weight of about 300kg. Other data on the spacecraft specifies a 15 mm cork as a heat shield and a "personal parachute for panic egress". From the sketch above it appears that the astronaut will be standing/sitting upright in the small capsule with a clear view through the Plexiglas's dome of the entire ballistic ride. It looks like it will be one wild ride!

PS. I am hoping my wife reads this blog post. IF she does, the yellow lab puppy and the Ducati can be recategorized as a "sure shots".