KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--I'd just walked into the press center here the day before the scheduled landing of Space Shuttle Discovery and located Allard Beutel, the head of public affairs, when I sensed that something was wrong.
Apparently, some little piece of the shuttle had broken off in space. Now, reporters from around the world were barraging Beutel and his team of NASA PR folks with demands to know what was going on.
"'You're stranding your crew in space, they can't come home,'" Beutel told me was the common sentiment he was getting from the reporters on the phone. "Ahhh, I didn't say that."
Suffice it to say, it was decided that there was no threat, and later in the day, we heard the landing had been given the thumb's-up.
I had come to Kennedy Space Center on Road Trip 2008 for a series of tours of KSC, one of the most storied space sites in the world and the host of, counting Discovery's successful return Saturday, 69 landings over the years.
Of course, being here so close to the shuttle landing, I stuck around to watch what turned out to be a nearly flawless event, blessed with clear skies, perfect timing, and a smooth arrival.
On Friday, the first stop on my tour was what is known as Pad B. It's actually launching pad 39B, and it was originally designed for the Apollo program. It's rarely used these days for launches, while its counterpart, Pad A, is where most of the recent space shuttle launches have been from.
However, this October, Pad B will be set up for a launch because simultaneously, over on Pad A, a shuttle will be heading off into space for a Hubble Telescope repair mission. But Pad B is made ready with a second shuttle, just in case NASA has to undergo an emergency rescue mission.
Either way, the minute the Hubble Shuttle mission is over, NASA will begin modifying Pad B for the launch of the Ares 1X rocket, the first Constellation-era test rocket, which is planned for next April.
Constellation is NASA's next big space program. It encompasses a five-stage rocket, topped by the Orion crew exploration vehicle (CEV). And while there are still nine more shuttle launches planned through 2010, Constellation will supplant the shuttle when the first Ares 1 shoots into space, sometime in 2012 or 2013.
"Once Hubbell goes out, we need to start working as fast as possible to get ready for the launch of Ares 1X," said Jose Perez Morales, the Constellation pad senior product manager.
Next up, I was taken over to the VAB, a gargantuan building that stands 525 feet tall and takes up 8 acres of space.
The VAB was built in 1962 for the Apollo program, and it is still the building where the space shuttles are mounted to their external tanks and solid rocket boosters. The building has four "high bays," each a huge working area that rises all the way to the 525-foot height of the VAB, and where different kinds of work are done.
And, since NASA is transitioning to Constellation, the VAB will play its part there. According to product manager Phil Bennardo, high bay No. 3 will be converted for the assembly of the Ares 1 rockets. Similarly, high bay No. 1 will be converted for assembly of Ares V cargo launch vehicles after the Shuttle program ends.
Being that this was a day of tours, we had to hustle off to the launch control center (LCC) next. This is a complex with a series of large control rooms, called firing rooms, that are straight out of the movies: the huge windows, banks of computers, large numbers of chairs and sense that you could run a rocket mission from them.
Well, the truth is that NASA's missions are run out of Johnson Space Center in Houston, but the firing rooms at KSC are where the launch director and other top officials sit and monitor progress as craft like Discovery are on the go.
However, like much of KSC, the LCC is in a transition period, as it is being converted over from shuttle operations to Constellation.
We went first into firing room 1, which has the look of an office space after a dot-com has gone bust. It had lots of empty space, a stack of rolling chairs in the back, and a bunch of computer racks sitting empty.
In fact, though, this room is in the middle of being built-out for future Constellation mission operations.
Like Pad B, firing room 1 is getting ready for the April launch of Ares IX, and as a result NASA is training an entirely new team to work together in this room.
I was then escorted into firing room 2, which is still operational as a space shuttle support facility. During a shuttle launch and a mission, NASA will staff the room with several managers and chief engineers, but will not place any command and control people there. Essentially, it seemed like the place for managers to observe the mission while the folks in Houston run it.
However, there are two other firing rooms, Nos. 3 and 4, where the prime shuttle operations are run out of KSC.
Firing room 4 is also where the KSC shuttle landing team is based, though that part of a mission is still run out of Houston. But once a shuttle touches down and the team that processes the shuttle's cooling down, cleaning and oxygen, and hydrogen purging is finished, there is a formal hand-off of authority from Houston to KSC staff and the shuttle is then towed off the runway.
I was exhausted by now, so it was time for lunch. But afterward, the tour started right up again.
Next was a visit to the operations and checkout facility, one of the older buildings at KSC and now in the process of being completely gutted and retrofitted so that it can house the assembly of the Orion crew exploration vehicle that will top the Ares 1.
As mentioned earlier, the date for the projected first launch of the Ares 1 is scheduled for 2013, but as Richard Harris, the director and deputy program manager of the Orion initiative--a Lockheed Martin employee--told me, the date keeps slipping because of budget problems.
We took a walk-through of the building, and what was incredible was how fast Harris' team is working. Right now it looks like construction has just begun on the facility, but he said that work will be done by November, and that he is absolutely on schedule.
After our visit to the O and C, I was escorted to a nondescript building that, it turned out, is where the parachutes for Orion and the space shuttle boosters are made.
And when I say parachutes, I don't mean for the astronauts. I mean for the rocket boosters.
These are unlike anything I'd seen before. They're simply massive, and, according to Terry McGugin, manager of parachute operations, the three parachutes required to bring the solid rocket boosters gently back to Earth would cover a total of up to 2 acres.
One of the first things we saw here was the washing machine for the parachutes, which must be thoroughly cleaned after each trip into space.
This, of course, is not the kind of machine you'd find in a laundromat. Rather, it's more like a car wash on steroids. McGugin's team loads one of the parachutes inside it, leaves it in five feet of water for four to six hours and then is hung out to dry in an equally large dryer.
There are three parachutes utilized to bring the solid rocket boosters down: a pilot, which gets the process started, a drogue, which slows the booster down and gets it pointed in the right direction and the main, which lowers it to Earth.
One interesting thing was that there were industrial sewing machines arrayed around the facility. That's because, McGugin said, each parachute requires up to 400 repairs after a trip to space.
Further, the parachutes use extremely strong materials and Kevlar thread to ensure that they can resist the rigors of space.
I particularly enjoyed seeing one of the parachutes packed up and ready to go. There was one already packed for the April 2009 Ares 1X test launch, and it was jammed into a package about half the size of a Smart car. McGugin explained that the facility has a machine that puts the parachute into the package with 3,000 pounds of force.
There were still two stops to go on the tour, and if you're exhausted by reading this, imagine my day.
The penultimate stop was to the International Space Station processing facility, where engineering project manager Shirish Patel showed me around.
He pointed out the express racks, which are packed with equipment for experiments, making sure that every single inch of space is used. Sixteen of these racks go into the multipurpose logistics module, which is essentially a shipping container that goes on the space shuttle when making a mission to the space station.
The Discovery mission, in fact, had taken up Kibo, the Japanese experiment module, which was built by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, and which is designed to help that country's scientists do research on the space station.
One of the last elements of the space station that still has to go up is the cupola, an add-on that will give those spending time there a set of windows to look out of.
The very last stop was to see a prototype of the heat shield that will go on the bottom of the Orion CEV (see video below).
Made by Boeing, the heat shield is currently being tested to see if a custom robot built just for it can detect intentionally made defects in its construction. The idea is that if it can, it should also be able to find any unintentional defects in the heat shield that actually goes on the Orion CEV.
By now I wasn't seeing straight anymore, so it was time to leave. My gracious hosts had ushered me through one of the most intense tours I'd ever been on, and they, too, seemed ready to drop.
But how can you complain after getting to peek behind the scenes at some of the most advanced rocket science going on in the world today? I know that when the next shuttle launches, and when the Constellation program begins to get under way next year, I'll be looking at things a whole lot differently.