Sunday, July 6, 2014

Never Stop Reaching for your Dreams

OCO-2 heading south. Courtesy of Jeff Sullivan
At 0800 on June 30, 2014 I joined a group of fellow space enthusiasts (call them "geeks" if you must!) for an amazing 36-ish or so hours that I will never forget.  This is my story and I'm sticking to it...

Calling All Space Tweeps...

Let me start at the beginning.  Back in May there was a call out on NASA's Twitter stream for people interested in getting a Social Media Credential for the OCO-2 launch scheduled for 2:56:44 PST from Vandenberg Air Force Base.  Of course, I jumped on it.  What many of you probably don't know about me is that as a young girl, and until I met my first Calculus course in college, my dream was to work for NASA and become an astronaut.  Gene Roddenberry was my hero and Chekov was my secret heart-throb.  I loved Star Trek and watched every episode about a million times (according to my family).  But I digress.  Back to OCO-2.  I applied and was informed that I was placed on the wait list.  *Sigh. I later found out that there were over 500 applications so that wasn't sooooo bad. Hey, at least I threw my hat in the ring and tried to make a dream come true. Then, on June 17 I received an email from NASA-JPL that I was off the wait list.  Wa-hoo!  I was going to see a launch.  Check NASA off my bucket list!


Vandenberg or Bust!


Fast-forward to the morning of June 30.  Our group--we were roughly 60--gathered at the gates of Vandenberg.  We loaded on buses and set off for an amazing day on the base prior to the launch later that night (or early the next morning).  We began with a press conference with team leads from the OCO-2 Mission.  I have to be honest, when it started, I felt REALLY out of my league.  The science behind this mission makes sense to me but the description often left me scratching my head.  That didn't matter, however, because the people in the room were so inspiring that I just soaked it all in.  Two things that really stood out to me aside from the impressive collection of people who were in our group were: 1. the scientists were very "real", presenting the information about the OCO-2 Mission in completely understandable terms (for the most part!) throwing in great humor along the way, and 2. there were two women on the team.  As an Administrator for an all-girl's high school I was particularly excited to see women represented on the team who were intelligent, passionate, and approachable.  Two of my favorite lines were in my Twitter stream from the event: Pavani Palada's (@IamOCO2) encouragement to girls for getting involved in #STEM: "If you enjoy doing something, go after it! It is so much fun." And from Dr. Eldering (@Eldering_CO2): "At JPL if you can get the job done, it's yours." Essentially, the message from these two amazing women: the only thing between you and your dreams is YOU.

Following the NASA Social Press Conference, we set out for lunch.  We were given quite a treat as we enjoyed fresh BBQ prepared by a group of Air Force Officers who do this to raise funds for charities.  Great food and a great cause is always a win-win in my book!

A Little Cold War History

Then came sight-seeing on VAFB.  We were treated to an amazing amount of information by our chief tour guide, and keeper of knowledge extraordinaire Larry Hill, head of the Vandenberg Public Relations Office; and Jay Pritchard  curator of a fantastic collection of NASA history that includes a Titan rocket and old stations from the Mission Control we remember watching as kids in the 1970's, complete with rotary phones and standard-issue ash-trays at every work station!  The Cold War history that we took in on our tour was quite phenomenal.  I was especially intrigued by Project Emily (this is one of the more informative sites that I have been able to find on this joint USAF/RAF endeavor during the Cold War: Thor Missile Deployment in the UK)  and loved learning about the retractable housing that was used to "hide" missiles.  Here is a picture of the housing and the tracks used:


The missiles were stored horizontally and then if needed, the housing separated into two sections, slid back on the rails and the missile was tilted into an upright position for launch.  Sadly I wasn't able to get a good picture of the hydraulics but trust me, they were impressive!

We are first and foremost, a nation of pioneers...

NASA Administrator, Ret. Colonel and former Astronaut Bolden
The highlight of our afternoon was a surprise opportunity to hear Administrator Charles Bolden speak about the OCO-2 mission and the future of NASA.  He spoke about returning to our position as a nation of pioneers. He then pointed out that being pioneers means risk and loss and failure and new starts.  As a proponent of #growthmindset in our schools, this was music to my ears.  What a treat to have such an important individual recognizing the role of failure on the path to success!   Do you hear that all you perfectionists out there?  Success means you will have to try multiple times.  It isn't about the first try because you rarely get it right the first time.  Just look at the OCO-2 mission itself.  A perfect example of growth mindset, risk taking, and learning from failure.  Oh, and so is the story about the origins of WD-40.  Many of you might already know that it got it's name because the formula that worked was the 40th iteration.  But what many of you might not know is a little piece of NASA trivia that we learned on our tour: WD-40 was developed specifically for the Atlas rockets--also recognized as the grandfather of the Delta II rocket used to launch the OCO-2 satellite.  They needed a way to provide protection from rust to the rockets and paint would add too much weight.  Thus, WD-40 to the rescue, when they finally found the winning formula that is. Before I move on, let me leave you with this link on Bolden...it is an interview that he gave to the Washington Post earlier this year and is quite inspiring.

The Big Show
Photo Courtesy of NASA

Let me now turn to the heart of the visit: the OCO-2 launch itself.  This mission has been a long time in the making.  5 years ago OCO launched...and was aborted when the payload fairing (PLF) failed to separate.  Fast-forward to 2014 and the time had finally arrived for a second run at the mission.  Since I am not a scientist, I will not attempt to get really detailed about the goals of the mission.  Instead, I will attempt to summarize for the rest of you non-science types (follow the link at the start of this post to the NASA page for OCO-2 to get more detailed specs).  The bottom line is this: we are producing more CO2 than can be absorbed.  We need to be better stewards of the resource that is our planet if we as a species hope to survive long-term (well, at least until our sun burns out in a billion years, give or take).  So OCO-2 will be measuring the CO2 that is processed.  However, there are a couple of mysteries that need answering while OCO-2 is out there:

  1. The CO2 emissions from our planet do not equal the CO2 currently being measured in the atmosphere.  Where does the rest go?
  2. While we know that forests process the CO2 produced, we don't know which forests.  Using thermal imaging the hope is to better understand the cycle.
  3. The amount of CO2 that stays in the atmosphere differs from year to year. Why?
In addition to these interesting questions, I have some "fun facts" to share with you about OCO-2:
  • it is one of the last missions to be launched using a Delta II rocket
  • it is one of 5 earth science missions being launched this year by NASA
  • OCO-2 will ultimately lead the A-Train satellite constellation
  • the launch team was working with a 30 second launch window! (say WHAT?!) but that is not the smallest window that has been used for a launch
So the time finally arrived: 12:00 a.m. on July 1, 2014 my alarm went off.  I slowly woke up and then after preparing to brave the cold and damp of a central California coast summer night,  rousted my husband and son (who was about to get THE best story for his "What I Did Over Summer Vacation" obligatory report at the start of 3rd grade!).  We bundled up and set out to find the viewing area following some less than detailed directions.  We went a bit off course and tried to get through the Vandenburg Base Main Gate--BIG mistake but the young men standing guard soon had us on the right path.  When we arrived we joined the other eager onlookers from our group, along with their family and friends and locals who had also come to see the launch.  The audio from Mission Control was being piped in for us.  We joked, passed around lucky peanuts (a JPL tradition that we weren't willing to break), and eagerly awaited the big show.  As launch time drew near, we quieted as we heard the series of "Go's" from the various monitoring areas involved in the launch.  The Launch Commander gave the all clear and we cheered.  Now the waiting became intense as we prepared for the final countdown.  We entered the final minute of the sequence before launch when suddenly we heard "Hold! Hold! Hold!" and all held our breaths to see what would happen next.  It turns out, there was no water flowing to suppress audio vibrations which in turn keeps the launch pad from catching fire.  O.K., kind of important.  The launch was scrubbed.  We were a bit deflated.  And then Larry Hill asked how many of us could stay for a second attempt in 24 hours.  I didn't raise my hand.  We had to head home.  My husband and I both had to be at work on Wednesday.  We were 5.5 hours from our home in the SF Bay Area.  Staying was not an option.  However, my husband and son decided that this was too big of an opportunity to miss and they weren't going to stand in the way of me "living a dream".  So my son raised my had for me and we stayed.

The Second Night Group.  Photo courtesy of Mary Paolantonio
After a very uneventful day (Have you been to Lompoc?  No offense but it definitely isn't a vacation destination), we repeated the drill.  4 hour nap, wake up at midnight, bundle up and head to the viewing area.  This time were were not disappointed.  We counted down with Mission Control, we cheered when OCO-2 achieved lift-off.  We cheered again when payload fairing separation occurred.  We then thanked the amazing JPL team of Stephanie Smith (@stephist), Courtney O'Connor (@courtoconnor) and Veronica McGregor (@veronicamcg) for a fantastic time, and went our separate ways.  We immediately hopped in our car and headed for home (too bad those Jetsons auto-pilot cars don't exist yet!)  However, in the week since the launch, our FaceBook group has been very active. The event may be over, but the spirit definitely lives on.  We are all now part of a group of NASA Social Alums and I have made some pretty awesome connections that I look forward to keeping.

This was an amazing experience from start to finish.  While I got to check something off my bucket list, I got SO much more out of this opportunity than just a check in a box.  Learning about the work that OCO-2 and it's other earth science satellite "buddies" will be conducting was encouraging and exciting.  Learning some local Cold War history was a treat.  Hearing Administrator Bolden was nothing short of inspiring.  I was fulfilling a dream along with many others--the NASA-JPL team who had dreamt of a successful launch for 5 years, the NASA Social Media attendees who like me had never attended a launch before but have a strong interest in space and science, and the NASA organization itself as Bolden so eloquently shared with us.  If you EVER have the opportunity to get a Social Media credential for a NASA event, don't even think twice.  You won't be sorry.  But definitely make sure you have a little wiggle room in your travel schedule as you never know what might happen!

Safe travels to you, @IamOCO2, and thank you to all for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A few additional pictures compliments of some professional photographers in our group and NASA:

OCO-2 on the launch pad. Courtesy of Scott Buntner




We have lift-off! Photo courtesy of NASA


OCO-2 breaking through the marine layer.  Courtesy of Jeff Sullivan



And for fun, my video of the launch.  




















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