Ad Astra is Latin for the phrase meaning “to the stars”.
In late February of this year, I received a once in a lifetime opportunity to tour NASA and actually be part of the NASA SOCIAL team to cover the launch to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission!
This all happened with the aid of a very good friend. The program provides opportunities for NASA’s social media followers , space enthusiasts and digital creators to learn and share information about NASA’s missions, people, and programs.
NASA Social is the next evolution in the agency’s social media efforts.
I have always been fascinated by space exploration and the idea of traveling beyond this planet.
My father told me a tale about his time as a truck driver in Florida. He charged several people a quarter (25 cents) to perch on the top of his 18-wheeler on July 16, 1969, to get a better view of the launch of the Apollo 11. Buzz and Neil Armstrong made history when they were the first people to set foot on the moon four days later.
Fast-forward more than 40 years later, and I actually end up meeting Buzz Aldrin at an event in New York City!
While we were having cocktails I asked him what was it like being in zero gravity, and before have gave me his answer, he expressed that he really liked the red necktie I was wearing that day.
More recently, when I interviewed Richard Branson on top of the Empire State Building ,and he convinced me that space travel for the average citizen was going to happen very soon.
Now here I am in 2023, getting an exclusive behind the scenes look at the inner workings of NASA! so, I definitely got a great sense of pride being selected to be on the NASA Social team for the SpaceX Crew-6 mission. Prior to leaving from JFK airport I received an invite from a friend that I have not heard from in awhile to a party that weekend.
I messaged back and said I cant make it, I’m headed to NASA…lol.
That conversation turned to music where I learned that one of the producers of the 1975 Johnny Hammond album funk-jazz masterpiece Gears , worked at NASA.
Larry Mizell performed testing and reliability work on the Lunar Module for the NASA Apollo program. He was one of the first to do research on liquid crystals, which today are used in displays (LCD). No wonder the album is incredible. He is also a cousin to the Jam Master Jay of the world famous rap group Run-DMC.
As my friend stated, “So much history through frequency.”
If you get a chance definitely give it a listen.
Upon arriving in Florida, I gave the Uber driver the address to the Press Accreditation Building on Merritt Island that was sent via email. The driver repeatedly asked me if the address was correct, because it appears on Google Maps as a CIA building.
After picking up my official NASA SPACEX CREW-6 MISSION Badge, we were bused into Kennedy Space Center. The first place we visited happened to be the largest single-story building in the world, the VAB or Vehicle Assembly Building (originally the Vertical Assembly Building). It was designed to assemble large per-manufactured space vehicle components, such as the massive Saturn V, the Space Shuttle and the Space Launch System, and stack them vertically onto one of three mobile launcher platforms.
At 129,428,000 cubic feet it is the 8th largest building in the world!
Before our tour of the VAB began, we got a surprise visit by Kennedy Space Center director Janet Petro, the first woman to lead NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center!
Then I got the opportunity to get on board the Crawler- transport– which are a pair of tracked vehicles used to transport spacecraft from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) along the Crawlerway to Launch Complex 39.
They were originally used to transport the Saturn V rockets during the Apollo, Skylab and Apollo–Soyuz programs. They were also used to transport the Space Shuttles from 1981 to 2011.
It weighs approximately 6.6 million pounds (the weight of about 15 Statues of Liberty). It can load the weight equivalent to about twenty Boeing 777 airplanes!
I was allowed to take photos and videos of the interior, but for security concerns I promised NOT to post any of that content to the Internet. It is one of the most impressive vehicles I have ever been in, but the maximum speed is 0.8mph and it requires 4 people to drive it.
After the Crawler visit, the bus was able to stop at spot where we had a great view of Falcon 9 rocket on the launchpad with the SpaceX building in the foreground! (Btw, thanks Elon)
The NASA SOCIAL program was formerly called NASA Tweetups, during my visit to Kennedy Space Center, I had the opportunity to interview Allison Tankersley, Public Affairs Officer and NASA Kennedy Social Media Manager of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
JN: Hello, Allison. Can you tell me more about the NASA Social Program and how it evolved from the initial Tweetups?
Allison Tankersley: When the original NASA Tweetups started, we found that we had a really great audience on Twitter. People were interested in talking about the Space Program.
The first NASA Tweetup was held in 2009, at the JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in Pasadena, California. During the first one, guests were given exclusive tours and access to JPL scientists and engineers. From there it just kept growing and has brought thousands of people the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at NASA.
JN: What access do I get with my badge?
Allison Tankersley: The credentials grant you the same access as journalists in an effort to align the access and experience of social media representatives with those of traditional media. BUT… the NASA Social team will have access to some special areas!
You are really going to get a behind the scenes experience!
JN: How many people apply and how many are chosen?
Allison Tankersley: There are several hundred applicants, and about 50 people are invited to the Kennedy Space Center for this mission.
JN: Can you tell me more about the mission?
Allison Tankersley: This particular mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The main goal is to provide reliable, and cost-effective human transport to and from the International Space Station. Basically it’s a partnership between NASA and American private industry, in the case of this mission, the company of course is SpaceX.
JN: Thank you Elon. (laughs)
Allison Tankersley: This is the 6th mission (thus Crew6) with astronauts using the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket. Each Dragon is named by the crew, the previous mission (Crew5) was named Endurance, this particular Dragon is named Endeavour.
JN: You played some great music on the bus towards the end of the day, but when we were in the VAB, I was really touched by the memorial to the Columbia astronaut they in there. Since then a song has been stuck in my head. Are you familiar with the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud?”
Allison Tankersley: No, I’m not. I need to listen to it.
JN: (I pause the interview and play the song)
Allison Tankersley: I like it, a Beatlesque kind of song.
JN: Yea, I love The Beatles, it has that kind of vibe. This band is The Long Winters, and this song is about the Columbia disaster and the lyrics about the crew putting their suits on…
Allison Tankersley: Oh, I have heard this! I knew the story, I just didn’t know the title of the song, and of course I know the story.
JN: What do you like doing that is not Space related?
Allison Tankersley: I’m really big into fashion. I thought I was going to go to a fashion college. I was in SCAD. The day before I was supposed to go there and I got really nervous and I didn’t go, so I went to a different school. I really like anything to do with that and then just obviously being here in Florida, hanging out at the beach and of course coffee!
We then took a tour of the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum (formerly the Air Force Space and Missile Museum) located at the original site of Launch Complex 26.
Complex-26 is the launch site of Explorer 1, America’s first satellite.
Apparently, everyone smoked so many cigarettes back in the days, they actually had an ashtray installed into the control panel 🙂:)
Complex-26 includes artifacts from the early American space program and includes an outdoor area displaying rockets, missiles,etc. I saw the original couches where they launched monkeys for the Mercury program.
There was also the Gemini 2 capsule and display for the Manned Orbital Laboratory (MOL).
The MOL or Manned Orbital Laboratory was a joint project of the US Air Force (USAF) and the National Reconnaissance Office to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery during the Cold War.
This was a highly classified, top-secret military project and the USAF selected Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, Jr., as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots for the MOL Program.
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. became the first African-American astronaut!
The MOL program envisioned a series of mini-space stations in low polar Earth orbit, occupied by 2-man crews aboard modified Gemini capsules. This technology helped usher in the Space Shuttle program many years later.
Then we visited Hangar C, the oldest missile assembly building on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Next, after lunch, it was on to the International Space Station Processing Facility. From the outside it looks like a regular industrial building, but on the inside all the real magic happens. This is where the payloads go for final check before it gets onboard the ISS. There are a bunch of experiments going on, and I even learned that they are growing plants in Space!
This interesting whiteboard about “Space Crop Production-Feeding Exploration says it all.
We also received a briefing on the Artemis Program, the next step towards humans returning to the Moon!
It seems weird that the last time anyone has been to the Moon was 1972 (Apollo 17), but one thing I learned from this trip and about a government entity like NASA, is that space exploration is expensive!
On Saturday February 25, the day prior to the launch , we attended NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 NASA Social Panel, at Kennedy Space Center.
The panel was moderated by Jasmine Hopkins and included Bob Cabana, former astronaut and current NASA Associate Administrator , astronaut Raja Chari, Dr. Kurt Costello, ISS Chief Scientist, NASA Deputy Program Manager Dana Hutcherson and Patrick O’ Neil of the ISS National Space Lab.
I had the opportunity to ask the ISS team the following questions:
1. What is the most significant experiment to come out of ISS since it’s been in orbit?
2. What experiment from this particular mission are you looking forward to getting the results from?
You can view the answers in this YouTube clip:
After the press conference, I met astronaut Raja Chari who commanded the Space-X Crew- 3 mission to the ISS in 2021!
and the entire NASA Social Team took an awesome selfie with Bob Cabana!
The original targeted launch date for the SpaceX Crew-6 mission was Feb. 26, from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The launch carried two NASA astronauts: Mission Commander Stephen Bowen and Pilot Woody Hoburg, along with UAE (United Arab Emirates) astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, who joined as mission specialist.
The launch was scheduled for early Monday morning on February 27, with a launch window opening at 1:45am. Our check in was for 8pm on Sunday, February 26.
I had enough time for a pre-launch cigar. I found the closest cigar lounge to Kennedy Space Center in the galaxy, which is Smoke Rings 72!
I opted for a Arturo Feunte Gran Reserva of course!
What are you going to wear to a rocket launch? A suit of course, it’s definitely a special occasion!
and as Oscar Wilde said:
“You can never be overdressed or over-educated.”
I also chose blue suede custom “NASA cerulean blue” Belgian loafers designed by my friend Terry Corbett.
(In 10 years everyone on Mars will be wearing a pair of these, they feel better than sneakers)
Then it was back to Kennedy Space Center, where we got to witness the astronauts greet their families as they got into the separate Tesla cars that rode them to the Falcon 9 Rocket.
It was more exciting being close to the VAB at night. It felt like being on a movie set, New Year’s Eve and a family BBQ all rolled into one!
Someone even brought a Charcuterie board to share with everyone.
Along with the gift bag filled with awesome NASA gear, there were pins distributed for the launch, including an “Official Edition” pin given since this was an International Space Station mission.
Prior to the countdown, a few members of the NASA Social team who had brought portable HAM radios, were able to listen in on the NASA transmissions live!
I also learned that the ISS uses HAM radio as a backup system, and several astronauts have HAM Radio licenses.
ANYONE can actually listen to the ISS from Earth if you have the proper equipment.
(The proper equipment is a $20 Boafeng UV-5R radio available on Ebay or Amazon)
For future reference the following frequencies are currently used for Amateur Radio ISS contacts (QSOs):
Voice and SSTV Downlink: 145.80 (Worldwide)
Voice Uplink: 144.49 for ITU Regions 2 and 3 (The Americas, and the Pacific and Southern Asia)
Voice Uplink: 145.20 for ITU Region 1 (Europe, Russia and Africa)
VHF Packet Uplink and Downlink: 145.825 (Worldwide)
UHF Packet Uplink and Downlink: 437.550
VHF/UHF Repeater Uplink: 145.99 (PL 67 Hz)
VHF/UHF Repeater Downlink: 437.80
This was definitely inspiring. I started studying for my amateur HAM Radio license as soon as I got back home to NYC! 73
Photographer Jay Castro from our team took the cool pics of the Countdown Clock with the Falcon 9 on the launchpad!
It is hard to put into words all the excitement that was building the entire night until the early morning, then as the countdown got close….with 2 minutes and 18 seconds left, everything stopped!
The launch was scrubbed. NO launch.
(When a launched is scrubbed” that means that it has been decided that there will be no attempt to launch that day.)
At first we were all very disappointed, but after touring the facilities for the past three days and meeting all the engineers, scientists, pilots, administrators and astronauts, it was easier to comprehend the degree of safety that goes into a launch.
Later that day we received an email about the official reason:
“NASA and SpaceX scrubbed Monday’s launch attempt of the agency’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station due to a ground systems issue. Mission teams decided to stand down to investigate an issue preventing data from confirming a full load of the ignition source for the Falcon 9 first stage Merlin engines, triethylaluminum triethylboron (or TEA-TEB).
NASA and SpaceX will forgo a launch opportunity on Tuesday, Feb. 28, due to unfavorable weather forecast conditions.The next available launch attempt is at 12:34 a.m. EST Thursday, March 2, pending resolution of the technical issue preventing Monday’s launch.”
And on March 2, 2023 at 12:34am the launch was successful!
The Crew-6 launch had ignited not only a rocket but also a new spark of inspiration inside of me!
I met some very interesting and wonderful people who traveled from all over of these United States looking for a new adventure just like myself, and we all made it the NASA Social Crew- 6 team!
This experience was a reminder of the limitless possibilities that await those who dare to explore.
The mission launched on 2 March 2023 at 05:34:14 UTC, and it successfully docked to the International Space Station (ISS) on 3 March 2023 at 06:40 UTC.
The SpaceX Dragon Endeavour made splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, at 12:17 a.m. EDT after 186 days in space.
Photos by: Joel Kowsky, Jay Castro, Jonn Nubian