To infinity and beyond: what I learned in Cape Canaveral during the NASA SpaceX launch

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SpaceX launch. Photo by the author.

What surprised me the most was the air shaking. When you watch it from TV, you never really expect the atmosphere changing around you. Not only that, but the crowd gasping, shutters clicking, and the PA announcer’s countdown giving you chills. Those experiences are never possible unless you are standing there, witnessing the rocket launch then disappear into the clouds.

I flew to Cape Canaveral last Wednesday as a guest of NASAsocial and sponsored by Owen Software. The rocket launch (SpaceX commercial rocket Falcon9, carrying a Dragon capsule) would take place on Friday. Until then, I’d join in private tours and press conferences.   I was feeling out of place among all the mechanical and aerospace engineers, until I met this guy:

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Simon Gilmore. Photo by the author.

Sorry, I meant THIS guy:

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Aradbidopsis thaliana. Photo by the author.

The press conference on the research experiments onboard Dragon emphasized biology projects – that’s when they started speaking my language. One of the passengers inside Dragon was Arabidopsis thaliana, engineered to be more sensitive to oxygen conditions. Turns out that gene expression in plants is completely different once exposed to microgravity. Which genes are turned off and on? Gilmore’s lab may find out once the A. thaliana comes back from space.

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Michael Johnson. Photo by the author.

We also talked about protein crystals: a brick-shaped rack with 150 proteins (in 10k different crystallization conditions) was being transported on Dragon. Fingers crossed that the astronauts will be able to crystallize those proteins. Back in my day, some people hat to resort to adding cat hair to get a proteins to crystallize (true story). Will adding microgravity do it? Cats may be cheaper than space crystals, but that still won’t crystallize membrane proteins – which may be onboard future capsules.

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Where’s Waldo at Press conference. Photo by NASA.

Along with the other NASAsocial guests, I was taken on a tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Please include gasps of excitement:

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In front of the Vehicle Assembly Building

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Vehicle Assembly Building – Interior. Photo by the author.

Which is where I met one of my favorites: the crawler. The largest land vehicle on the planet, responsible for transporting the shuttles from the building to the launch pad. (While leaving a path of destruction behind. Kind of. Its weight completely compresses the road every time it passes by.) Please see chair for scale.

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Crawler at Vehicle Assembly Building. Photo by the author.

All of which culminated in Falcon9 launch on March 1st. It was a visceral experience. I never thought I’d be antsy and nervous listening to a countdown. The 40 minutes I stood there flew by. Next thing I know is: TEN-NINE-EIGHT and dozens of eyes focus on their viewfinders, fingers pressed to the camera triggers. SEVEN-SIX-FIVE and the photographing starts: it is a moment you can’t miss. FOUR-THREE-TWO and the puffs of smoke and engine grumbles tell you it will be soon. ONE — and liftoff.  I take a dozen photographs and stop to watch the show. A show that cannot be reproduced on TV or even in writing.

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