Today started by getting our press badges and then driving into the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). It was a foggy morning and watching the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) slowly appear out of the mist was inspiring. KSC has so much history and has seen so many momentus achievements just being here gives me goosebumps.
The morning was spent in a series of conferences about the experiments being sent up to the ISS on the CRS-4 mission. The first panel was about the RapidScatt module being attached to the Columbus module of the International Space Station (ISS). The RapidScatt, which was built by JPL, will allow around the clock observation of ocean winds as the ISS orbits. This is a long awaited opportunity to learn about rapidly changing weather patterns since it takes much more frequent readings of a given area than any past satellites. This capability will allow scientists to image hurricanes during their critical formation phase leading to a better understanding of their creation and allow for more accurate path and strength predictions. Another benefit of this scanner is that the ISS orbit overlaps with several other polar orbiting weather satellites, so researches will be able to cross calibrate the sensors leading to overall more accurate data. Once the Dragon capsule docks with the station installation will take only a few hours and calibrated data should be available to NOAA within 30 days.
What could possibly be cooler than 3D printing? 3D printing in space!!! This amazing additive manufacturing experiment is also being sent up on CRS4 to run the first complete microgravity build tests. They have done trials in the vomit comet, but that only provides 20-30 seconds of build time before gravity returns. So seeing how an entire build handles microgravity and what sorts of changes to material properties that result will be very interesting. The first printed pieces will be tensile and compressive test coupons built from ABS plastic, which will be compared to Earth printed samples and run through a series of ASTM tests. Didn't get to peek under the hood, but in looking through the clear build ports (so they can record the builds) it looks like a standard ABS style printer. Screw drive on the platform and the casing is machined aluminum...looks like you could drive a truck over it and it wouldn't mind. The extruder head wasn't installed, but the build platform looked like it was heated. If the initial tests go well they are already planning a follow up printer that can use more robust materials....hopefully metals and coatings so they can print fully functional parts in orbit. One benefit of printing it in orbit is you don't have to withstand the launch strains, so most of the weight can be removed. This is a really interesting experiment and I look forward to following their progress.
Next on the agenda was golf clubs. Golf clubs? In space? Turns out the golf club company Cobra Puma Golf is doing an electroplating coating test to see how microgravity affects the growth of crystals in coatings (in this case silver plating on an aluminum substrate). Potentially an improved bond or coating strength could increase overall strength, reduce galvanic corrosion, improve durability, assist in joining dissimilar materials, and lead to coating additively manufactured materials in space (yay more 3D printing!). I'm really impressed with this firstly because its awesome science and as an engineer with background in single crystal alloys and coatings I like the field....and also because for a company to have the vision and foresight to actually pay to put research in orbit....thats just astounding. I'm sure as many of you in corporate America can attest, its hard enough to get post it notes most days. So what would you boss say if you asked to put something on the ISS? Yeah thats what I thought.
The third and final panel of the morning was to showcase the biology experiments being flown on this mission. Bound for the ISS are 30 fruit flies, 20 mice, and a bunch of yeast. They expect around 6000 fruit flies on the return trip, but still only 20 mice (they are all female). Lets hope the fruit flies don't escape into the station.
After lunch we had a bit more time with some of the panelists for questions, and then started off to the VAB! Always having seen it from a distance I was giddy as a schoolgirl at the opportunity to go inside. It did not disappoint, it was HUGE. Perhaps its a Tardis...bigger on the inside? 456 ft high, with a volume that would take 250 billion ping pong balls to fill, and the largest doors on the planet....its the VAB. When condensation forms on the roof it feels like its raining.
One of the times when the image just doesn't do it justice. Though one of the fellow NASA Social participants was filming for Jaunt, which will provide this as a 3D immersive environment for Oculus Rift...... check it out and look for me over your left shoulder as you take in the view.