I like to use π day, to remember a few things about science and technology that influence who I am. This year, π day is perfect for that. Let me tell a story of a kid who loves space.
When I was nine, living in France, I started clipping all the press articles I could find about the Space Shuttle. I cut them, glued them in a 5x5mm notebook, annotated them. Waiting patiently for the launch. I remember, to this day, the elegance of STS-1 taking off. With its white tank.
That’s definitely the crisper memory I had of space exploration and travel. In the end of the seventies and early eighties, we were leaving in weird times: I lived within a range of two days of a soviet tank invasion, France had this secret base with short range nukes just short of ten miles from home. The cold war triggered sales of nuclear shelters at the European fair of Strasbourg. In 1980 Reagan was president, his USSR counterpart was Brezhnev. They were both cow boys in their own ways. Space exploration was giving us a breath away from this dangerous world we were in – not sure the world we live in now is much safer. Skylab (I was too young to remember for sure) and the Apollo–Soyuz encounter helped believed in peace and harmony between people. Voyager 1 and 2 were going to discover deep space (and bring back new friends according to 1979 Star Trek motion picture.) Humans walked on the moon barely ten years before, but we’re not going to the moon anymore. Nobody (or at least I) was really thinking that we would have to wait more than forty years to get back.
Over the years, my passion for space decreased as the space shuttles (now with their ugly brown tanks) were routinely busing payloads. The cold war ended, so did the race to conquer space. Space seemed more than ever reachable but not hype anymore.
Fortunately, something changed. Is it climate change? Is it the Hidden Figures movie? Is it Obama or Trump’s space policies? I do not really care about the cause, I am just happy than humankind is back to exploring by itself, using robots, building almost cyborg ships where robots can take care of most of the routine including the maintenance of space stations like Gateway (any resemblance between the concept in this story and 2001: a Space Odyssey is unfortunate and scary – hey, luv’ you Hal).
And that’s been the case for me. My passion rebirthed. A couple of years ago, Jim Lovell was visiting the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill, NC. An occasion to binge watch Apollo XIII and meet a great American hero.
And my passion culminated and got rewarded last Monday.
One small step to Virginia
Last week, NASA invited me for a NASA Social event. This event was in conjunction of Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s presentation of the NASA 2020 budget and tagged #Moon2Mars. The event was taking place in Hampton, Virginia, a little less than four hours away from home. Doable.
Left home Sunday night to make sure I would be in time (and make sure I could get my Wawa hoagie on the way.) I did not have much sleep on this night from Sunday to Monday.
Virginia Air and Space Center
The team met at the Virginia Air and Space Center (VASC). The team was composed of so many different people, who shared one passion: space. I was really appreciative of the diversity and backgrounds of my one-day-friends-forever team. Natalie Joseph, social media manager at NASA Langley Research Center greeted us, along with Kristyn Damadeo, George Simones, and Andrea Lloyd.
We had the entire museum for ourselves: free to roam, touch (well…), chat, meet, greet, take pictures. VASC is not the Smithsonian, but, at the Air & Space museum, you are never alone!
VASC also serves as the NASA visitor center in Hampton, VA: as you can imagine, you cannot just roam on the base.
Have you ever touched an Apollo capsule? Well, I did not, but I was so close to one.
I must admit, as a French citizen, that there are two things that make me really happy and proud: the metric system and who actually flew first. Okay, don’t get me started on the beauty and majesty of the metric system. However, I was pleased to see that the museum displayed the correct artefact that defines “first in flight”: the hot air balloon from the Montgolfier brothers, who demoed a first flight to Louis XVI (in 1783, for the record, take that North Carolina).
Orion is the new capsule that will be launched on top of the SLS (space launch system). SLS in its first version, also known as Block 1, will be slightly shorter that Saturn V. SLS Block 2 Cargo will be a little bit bigger, more modern. Saturn V and SLS are often compared as their size and specs are really similar.
Seeing both Orion and the Apollo capsule next to one another is pretty rare.
Armed with our badges and security check (a little more for French citizen), it’s time to go in the NASA base.
Closer to the action
After a quick and healthy lunch, Rob Wyman, Communications Director for NASA Langley, detailed the history of Langley. Langley Research Center (LaRC or NASA Langley) is the oldest of NASA’s field centers. It was built in 1917.
I found it interesting that the motivation, at that time, was to create a research center to study aeronautics as the United States (not as powerful as a country back then) feared the development of those technologies by the German, French, and Brits during World War 1.
Langley does not send rockets to space but hosts so many of the critical services and labs servicing the science that helps send women, men, and stuff to space.
On a complete side note, I guess that every member of the team took a picture of the cafeteria trays. Completely geeked out by a tray!
It was time to hear NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine detailing the highlights of the 2020 budget.
NASA will continue its work on planes.
X57 is an electric plane, designed to demonstrate technology to reduce fuel use, emissions, and noise.
X59 is an experimental supersonic aircraft being developed for NASA’s low-boom flight demonstrator program. It is a modern version of the Concorde with one major advantage: silence. X59 will cruise at Mach 1.42 (1,510 km/h) and 55,000 ft (16,800 m), creating a low 75 Perceived Level decibel (PLdB) thump.
The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) forbids any supersonic flight (civil or military) above American land. This fact did not help Concorde back in the 70s.
The computers used to design its shape did not exist (obviously) back in the early Concorde days. Nowadays, they help reduce the thump. If successful, it could make Los Angeles only a few hours away from New York.
Sending payloads to the moon will not be the exclusive responsibility of NASA, as the administration welcomes private companies to offer commercial services. Anyone up to create a new startup?
This project involves a new kind of robot-managed space station that will be orbiting the moon. This station is called Gateway. As I was listening to Bridenstine, I could not avoid thinking that we were building the city of a thousand planets from Valérian and Laureline (did you notice this new subtle plug to French culture?).
Part of the budget include a helicopter. NASA will be sending a helicopter to Mars in one of the next missions. How should we call it MarsCopter? SpaceDrone? MarsFlyer? MarsFan? Marsipan?
Gateway will also help us learn more about deep space as the moon will shield the station from all the electromagnetic interferences Earth is generating.
Astrophysics and the cosmic dawn are not left apart in this budget: the James Webb Scope is fully funded. This could help make the United States of America the leader in physics for the next 30 years.
More is coming
In the next part of this article, I’ll bring you to the wind tunnel, experiments, prototypes, and more. After that, we’ll also crash a few things on the way, as one needs to. And we’ll discover the meatball!
Thanks to the won-derful team (in no par-ticular order): @stem_fem, @CreativeKinston, @NeusewayMuseum, @SrgntBallistic, HappytobeDee, @FarkasSTEM, @jasminentorok, @SydneyReising, @faridb2000, @CSJudd, @DullNathan, and of course, @NASASocial and @NASA_Langley.