If you have been following me on Instagram, you know that Pete got invited to cover the NASA Artemis launch. I saved all the details to this Instagram Story highlight. To say he was like a kid in a candy store is an understatement. Today, he is our guest blogger giving you the play by play of his experience at Cape Kennedy.
Enjoy! xoxo- Tanya
NASA Artemis launch experience
There are times in life when the stars just seem to be favorable to you. That’s what must have happened in August when NASA’s Social Media group (NASA Social) invited me to attend NASA’s Artemis 1 Launch at Cape Kennedy representing TanyaFoster.com and @tanyafosterblog. This Artemis mission is the first launch of NASA’s new Space Launch System (the SLS) with it’s new deep space crew capsule, the Orion. I can’t even begin to say how excited I was because I’ve been a huge space enthusiast for the entirety of manned (crewed) spaceflight which began when Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth (1961). I couldn’t wait!
So NASA Social invited about 100 out of thousands of applicants and I was fortunate enough to be selected. Thanks NASA Social The folks at NASA Social were trying to have a very broad cross section of social media to raise awareness and excitement about NASA’s plans to return to the Moon. I think I represented the Baby Boomer generation since I seemed to be the oldest invitee. I met all kinds of folks from YouTube Vloggers (follow my friend Felix Schlang of What About It), to “traditional” social media influencers (think Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), to children’s writers and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teachers, to industry guests. One guest was responsible for promoting and building Scotland’s rocket launch facility. (Who knew?) NASA Social even invited two players from the Harlem Globetrotters (who taught me to spin a red, white and blue basketball on one finger). The Globetrotters arrived in full basketball uniform (thankfully it was warm weather) together with their full commercial film crew.
NASA provided a great two-day orientation program for the NASA Social invitees. We got to meet Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, several astronauts, various NASA program managers and senior NASA contractors responsible for various parts of the Artemis program. A major talking point from most of our hosts was NASA’s ambition to land a woman and a person “of color” on the moon. Oh, and along the way, NASA wants to establish a long-term presence on the moon. A little too much in the way of woke overtones for me, but, hey, it’s the government. I did learn that the Artemis 1 mission was “uncrewed” (not “unmanned”) and that the Orion Capsule had female form “moonakins” (not “manikins” and certainly not “dummies”). They are female form moonakins because the female anatomy is more sensitive to radiation and NASA wanted to study radiation effects away from the Earth. I suppose the male astronauts will just have to wait until a later mission to see if radiation hurts them, too. Certainly I’m being sarcastic, but IMHO the whole woke message was just overdone. It felt a bit like the U.S. taxpayers just spent $20+ billion on an affirmative action program rather than on a historic world-leading science and technology achievement.
We were privileged to visit several of the engineering facilities, the launch pad photography area for Pad 39B (and 39A), walk around the newly upgraded “Crawler” that transports Artemis from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Pad 39B, tour the VAB itself, and see the new countdown clock in the Press Area. I learned a lot about the Artemis Program and NASA’s blueprint for establishing a permanent base on the moon. I was a bit surprised in the attendees’ lack of knowledge about the US Space program, and even the basics surrounding past and current space programs of NASA. I think this NASA social media program is a brilliant way to increase the public’s awareness and support for the Artemis Program and NASA’s other programs.
A bit about the Artemis/Orion vehicles. The Artemis rocket is called the SLS or Space Launch System. It is the most powerful rocket ever launched. It develops 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. This makes it more powerful than Saturn 5, our first moon rocket from back in the ’60s and ’70s. Until now, no other rocket in the world has topped the Saturn 5’s 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The main stage is fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and it’s four RS125 engines develop 2 million pounds of thrust for about 8 minutes. The SLS also starts out with two solid rocket boosters to provide an initial push which contribute about 6.8 million pounds of thrust. These fall away after about two minutes of flight. It also has a second stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (“ICPS” for short) which is a slightly modified Delta IV second stage. The “payload” part of Artemis is the Orion Vehicle made up of the Orion capsule and the European Space Agency’s service module.
The SLS is not new technology by any means. Back in 2010, Congress wanted to keep the folks in their districts who were working on the Shuttle Program employed with the Shuttle program ending. So it mandated that NASA reuse many of the components of the old Space Shuttle in new programs. Remember that the Shuttle program began in the 1970s, so that’s when most of the Shuttle components were designed. A rocket program designed by Congress…what could go wrong? This might explain why the system is 7 years late and way, way over budget.
Anyway, SLS uses most of its major components from previous NASA programs. The SLS main engines are actually used Space Shuttle engines. All have flown before and been recovered. One engine on this flight has flown 12 previous times, first flying in 1998! The Solid Rocket Booster segments have all flown before but an additional segment has been added to each booster for the Artemis program. The main booster even uses a redesigned Space Shuttle fuel tank. As I mentioned, the SLS second stage, the ICPS, is a Delta IV second stage modified slightly for the Artemis program. Interestingly, none of the SLS components from the Artemis program are going to be reused. Well except for the Orion segment which is partially reusable.
The Orion Capsule itself is from the previously cancelled NASA Aires Program. The Orion service module is made by marrying the European Space Agency’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (“ATV”) with an OMS (“Orbital Maneuvering System”) engine used on the Space Shuttle. The ATV carried supplies to the ISS from 2011 through 2015. There’s only one OMS engine needed per service module. One of the OMS engines to be used in the program has flown over 40 times on previous Shuttle missions. Thank you Congress!
But on to the main event, the launch. We got to the NASA Social meeting place at 1:30 am, hours before the 8:33 am launch time on August 29th and everyone was excited. Our press area was just a bit over 3.5 miles from Pad 39B. Closer than almost everyone else. This was to be the closest I have ever been to a launch and provided a great view of the SLS/Orion vehicle on Pad 39B. Unfortunately, after hanging out for hours, the first attempt was not to be. Too many fuel leaks, just like in the earlier launch rehearsals over the summer. Our group of NASA Social folks were disappointed to say the least. But we packed up and went back to our hotels to await the second launch attempt a few days later.
The second attempt was a copy of the the first attempt…lots of anticipation and long waits, and then another “scrub” due to fuel leaks. This was quite normal for the first flight of a new rocket but still a real disappointment for us. Interestingly, NASA had never completed a successful “wet” (fueled) dress rehearsal for the SLS in any of several earlier practices. And keep in mind, NASA had not flown the Shuttle for over 10 years, so NASA was learning lots from each scrub even if they could not launch SLS. Unfortunately, with no repair plan yet, the NASA Social attendees went back to their homes across the US awaiting a new launch date.
After the second scrub, NASA analyzed the data and decided to do some work on the fuel lines that connected the rocket to the fueling system on the mobile launch pad, replacing some problematic parts they thought were involved in the earlier leaks. After they did this work, they did a tanking test, fully filling the SLS fuel tanks. They then practiced some engine “chilling”, using the cryogenic fuel as they would just prior to launch to chill the main engines. While they did have more leaks during these tests, they learned how to manage around the leaks, so they were comfortable finally announcing another launch date. Unfortunately, mother nature intervened in their plans, and the rocket had to be rolled back to the VAB for protection from an approaching hurricane. This did allow NASA more time to do repairs on the rocket and recharge batteries on several systems.
Post hurricane, the SLS was rolled back out to Pad 39B only to be greeted by the approach of another tropical storm. This time, the projections for the storm’s strength and route allowed NASA to keep the rocket at the launch pad. Following the storm, the NASA launch crew prepared for the next launch attempt early in the morning of November 16th. The NASA Social group assembled in Florida once again for the launch. In the early evening of November 15th, we boarded the NASA Social busses and were transported back to our press area to await the launch.
We again set up our cameras and patiently waited. The countdown went somewhat more smoothly this time until about T-120 minutes when more fuel leaks were found. NASA sent a very special repair team of “Red Hats” to the launch pad to address the leaks. The Red Hats are NASA engineers specially trained to work in the very dangerous environment of a fueled rocket. They were successful in tightening some connections and the countdown continued. Then yet another problem developed, but this time not involving the rocket. The US Space Force radar system used on the launch “range” to insure there were no intrusions and to track the rocket after launch went off-line. So the countdown was “held” at T-10 minutes until this could be repaired. Some 70 minutes later, a local area network “switch” was replaced and the range was given a green light. The countdown resumed and everyone’s excitement and anticipation grew rapidly as T-0 minute approached.
As T-3 seconds, someone yelled that she saw smoke which hinted that the main engines had ignited and a few seconds later the solid rocket boosters ignited. With their ignition, there was an explosion of light and there was no question that Artemis was finally on its way. As the rocket rose from the launch pad, the light from the engines of the SRBs and the main booster lit up the entire press area like an early dawn. The most powerful rocket ever launched was on its way. At T+13 seconds the first sounds of the launch finally arrived at the press area (sound travels about 1 mile every 5 seconds and we were 3.5 miles away). The first few seconds the noise was about normal for other rocket launches I’ve attended, but then the roar of the SRBs reached us. It was so loud it sounded as if the atmosphere itself was being torn apart. We could even feel the sound vibrations in our chests. The rocket seemed to turn towards us slightly, passing almost overhead, and then headed straight out over the ocean going east. Interestingly, as it headed out, it was going in the direction of the rising half moon. Quite a symbolic view.
Just after two minutes, we watched as the SRBs separated from the main booster. At this point, the SLS was about 46 miles down range moving at 3400 mph. Quite a sight! We were able to follow the main booster for about 6-1/2 minutes until it was just a dot of light about 450 miles down range moving at over 10,000 mph. I’ve seen several rocket launches at Cape Kennedy, everything from a Delta rocket to the Space Shuttle to the first Falcon Heavy, but the Artemis certainly topped any of these launches. And by a big margin.
So the Orion was on its way. It was headed for a 26-day mission to the moon and beyond. It will splash down in the Pacific today, 26 days after launch. Orion has sent back pictures and data to NASA and the world during its voyage. It’s mission: to test the Artemis/Orion system and to prepare for Artemis 2, the first crewed flight. This one will orbit the moon with crew aboard in preparation for the first crewed landing on Artemis 3. Artemis 2 is scheduled to launch no earlier than 2024. Artemis 3’s mission is to put the first humans on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972. As NASA says (a bit too often), it will put the first woman and person “of color” on the Moon. This one is scheduled to happen no sooner than 2025. This flight will meet up with another rocket, the SpaceX Starship Human Landing System (“HLS”) being designed and built by SpaceX to rendezvous and dock with Orion in lunar orbit, land at the lunar south pole, and then return the crew to Orion for the return home to earth.
There are many things to be developed and tested prior to Artemis 3 including the SpaceX Starship HLS, mid flight refueling for the HLS, possibly a lunar space station (called the Gateway), and much more, but we’re off to a great start. The Artemis 1 mission will splash down the Orion capsule today and give the NASA scientists proof that the SLS/Orion is working and ready for the challenge. Check out my social media for more pictures and information on the program. And click HERE to check out the return of Artemis on Sunday, December 11.
Thanks for following along! Pete
P.S. If you want to see another post about a launch coverage, click HERE.
About Pete Foster
Peter Foster is an avid technologist, engineer and fan of US space operations. He has over 25 years’ experience as CEO of technology companies, 12 US Patents, has co-authored a book on speech recognition and is an instrument-rated private pilot with over 2500 hours.