When I received the email from the NASA Kennedy Space Center media accreditation office that my request to attend the Artemis I launch was approved – I was beyond ecstatic. At the time, I was en route to my new home in Houston, Texas after having moved down south from Washington state. My new life and next chapter was about to begin and here was a dream come true email.
In the world of giant news corporations and other news websites, it’s just me. I am a federal employee by day and a writer by night. I pay for everything out of my own pocket. I am passionate about the mission of NASA and love telling their story in my own words. Having the opportunity to see the biggest rocket ever built take us back to the Moon was something I used to dream about. Now it was going to potentially be my reality.
I quickly made arrangements for my trip to Florida. A friend of mine offered to let me stay in her home in the Tampa area. My boyfriend used his massive amount of points to book me a hotel room in Orlando the day before the launch. Orlando was the closest he could get to Kennedy Space Center. I bought my plane tickets. The day soon arrived and off I went to Florida!
Ybor City and St. Pete
Flying on United, I arrived at the Tampa airport on Saturday, August 27. I rented my car from Enterprise before driving to my friend’s home in Brandon, Florida. This was only my second time visiting Florida and I had never been on the Gulf side.
My friend and her husband took me on a whirlwind tour, with our first stop in Ybor City. We ate a late lunch and grabbed a few brews at Ybor City Tap House. I also bought my boyfriend some well-deserved cigars from Tabanero Cigars. Ybor City was very unique and unexpected. To me, it gave off a very Prague + New Orleans type vibe, complete with chickens and roosters running around the streets. I’d definitely love to go back and explore more!
We then spent the evening walking around downtown St. Petersburg and I fell in love. The waterfront views, restaurants and bars, live music and overall atmosphere were divine. I definitely need to go back and visit for longer than just two hours on a Saturday night.
Day Before Launch
We got back from our little tourist excursion late and I had to get up early the next morning. My friend’s home in Brandon is about a two-hour drive across the width of central Florida to Merritt Island. Merritt Island is where I had to pick up my media credentials at the NASA Pass & ID office. I would then find my way to the Launch Complex 39A Press Site for my scheduled interviews.
Leading up to launch day, NASA invited media to sign up for interviews of both NASA employees and contractors involved in the Artemis I mission. I signed up to interview Mark Kirasch, the Deputy Associate Administrator for Artemis Campaign Development. I also signed up to interview Kirstyn Johnson, Orion Spacesuit Engineer. Finally, I wanted to interview Kathy Schubert, Deputy Director of Spaceflight Systems Directorate, Glenn Research Center. Each interview slot was for 20 minutes. I chose my times beginning at 11 a.m. and ending at noon.
Leaving my friend’s house at 7 a.m., I figured four hours was plenty of time. The drive would take two hours, giving me time to pick up my media credentials, parking pass and navigate my way to the press site. Then I could explore and conduct my interviews. I was excited and ready to start the day. Little did I know that equipment and Mother Nature had other plans for me.
About one mile into my trip, my rental car’s low tire pressure light came on. Pulling over into a parking lot, I got out and inspected the tires. None of them seemed low at the time, but I was not going to risk driving over 100 miles with that on. I called Enterprise about my situation and the representative said I could drop the car off at the nearest Enterprise location to exchange the vehicle. However, they didn’t open until 9 a.m. I had places to go and inquired about the airport, as that is where I picked the car up initially. That location is open 24 hours so I drove back up to the airport, which took about 30 minutes.
While the exchange was easy, Enterprise was very busy on a Sunday morning. The whole process took a lot longer than anticipated. By the time I left their parking garage in my new vehicle, it was 8:30 a.m. Now I only had 2 1/2 hours to drive two hours, pick up my media creds, find my way to the press site and get to my interviews. I prayed and sent the universe all the vibes I could.
With a smooth drive through Orlando and all the Disney World exits, my GPS was indicating I’d make it to the Pass & ID office by 10:47 a.m.
Me: I can do this!
Mother Nature: Florida could use some more rain.
Somewhere on the 528 highway, Mother Nature gave me the beautiful gift of a downpour. All the way to the Pass & ID office.
By the time I arrived, there was a line of other media picking up their credentials. And it was already well after 11. I had missed my interview with Mark. Maybe I’d make it to my interview with Kirstyn? Dodging rain drops back to my car with my Artemis media credential in hand, I plugged the Launch Complex Press Site into my GPS. I would definitely not be making it to my interview with Kirstyn. I still had another 15 minute drive ahead of me.
Me: Okay Kathy, I’m going to make it to your interview!
Other Drivers: We all want to go to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at the same time.
Yep, that 15 minute drive to the press site took about 25 minutes. I got caught in a traffic jam with all the visitors heading to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. I will say, it is well worth the visit. I eventually found my way to the Press Site and ran into the NASA News Center to use the restroom. It was there I discovered that all the interviews had been moved to a different location that I’d have to drive to. It was too late, by then Kathy’s interview time would be over.
I was so incredibly bummed, missing out on meeting three incredible employees. NASA communications had also continually reminded the media to not miss their interview times. Thanks to my poor planning and unfortunate circumstances, I missed all of mine. If you read this, I’m so sorry Mark, Kirstyn and Kathy. I had all my questions prepared, included some fun ones from my friends. One of the more light hearted questions was to ask if my friend Josh could help NASA design the first lunar music venue. He even thought to include a padded ceiling for the 1/6 gravity mosh pit.
I decided to stop moping and enjoy where I was in the current moment. Exploring the press site, I was just in awe. The Space Launch System rocket taking us to the Moon was three miles away, but also RIGHT THERE. Why does three miles seem like such a long distance when you have to run it? But when a 322 foot rocket is three miles from you, it seems so close? The famous countdown clock you see on tv was RIGHT THERE. All the big media corporations had their trucks and cameras out. Some of them, like CBS and Reuters, had their own buildings set up.
All I had was myself and my cell phone. I took some selfies, video and some pictures and just lived in the moment. All the work I had done over the last few years to continuously cover the latest and greatest NASA stories had lead to this moment. I had a media badge hanging from my neck and I was standing a mere three miles from the next rocket taking humans to the Moon.
The first launch window was set for the next day, Monday, August 29 beginning at 8:33 a.m. NASA encouraged media to arrive no later than 2:30 a.m. I figured it was time to go back to Orlando and get as much sleep as I could before the next day. I got to my hotel and after having to go back downstairs because my key didn’t work initially, I was able to grab a quick dinner. Closing the curtains, I tried to fall asleep by 7 p.m.
The 11:45 p.m. alarm went off faster than I wanted, but I think I had managed to get some quality sleep. I knew the NASA launch coverage started at midnight, so I began streaming NASA Live on YouTube. Listening to the voice of NASA launch commentator, Derrol Nail, he relayed everything happening in real time. Right away, the launch was already delayed due to weather and they couldn’t begin the initial tanking procedures. A small weather cell was producing lightning. Weather criteria for tanking says that the probability of lightning must not exceed 20% in the first hour of tanking.
I left the hotel at 1 a.m. and was actually surprised that folks were in the lobby. I got some weird looks with my hotel coffee in one hand and my luggage in the other, but I had a launch to get to!
NASA wasn’t kidding when they told the media to arrive no later than 2:30 a.m. My hotel was about an hour from the press site, and even at that early time, cars were already beginning to line up to find the best seat in the house for launch viewing.
While on my drive, Derrol announced that Artemis Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson had given the “go” to officially begin loading propellants into the Space Launch System rocket. I did a little happy dance in the car.
I made it to the press site around 2:05 a.m. and the parking lot was already much fuller than the day before. I pulled in, walked out to the grassy area to take some videos of the now brightly lit rocket. I felt all the excitement and nervousness surrounding a launch take over.
I decided to follow the lead of many others that I saw – sit in my car and wait. I continued listening to Derrol go through the process of what was happening. This included all of the issues launch controllers began facing. And the issues began to mount up more and more as time passed.
Launch controllers must first chill the lines for the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen before they start filling up the tanks. They start with a slow fill for each and then eventually start a fast fill.
The Space Launch System rocket liquid oxygen tank in the core stage holds 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen, cooled to -297 degrees F. The liquid hydrogen tank holds 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen cooled to -423 degrees F. The liquid hydrogen is the fuel and the liquid oxygen is the oxidizer in the combustion reaction for the rocket. As you can imagine, both take a very long time to fill. The hydrogen tank is where the second set of problems began.
During the transition from slow fill to fast fill of the liquid hydrogen, launch controllers saw a spike in the amount of hydrogen that is allowed to leak into the purge can. Engineers started reverse flow of the liquid hydrogen into the core stage to try and figure out why it was leaking.
By now it was approaching 5 a.m. and the food trucks and souvenir shop had opened! To pass the time, I got in line to buy some t-shirts for my niece and nephew. I also bought a shirt for my boyfriend and shirts for his two nephews. And of course, I also bought myself a cool Artemis tank-top. I picked up some breakfast at one of the food trucks and went back out to the grassy area to watch the sunrise!
It was absolutely STUNNING. Even with more ominous looking clouds off in the distance, I couldn’t take my eyes off the beauty surrounding me.
By this time, the media had begun setting up all their cameras and filming their segments. Folks were milling about and I saw a group of astronauts being interviewed with the sunrise behind them as the backdrop.
With the tanks filled, Derrol began relaying yet another issue launch controllers were facing. A problem with one of the R-25 engines (engine 3) and an apparent crack in the thermal protection system material.
Launch controllers have to condition the engines (which were previously used by Space Shuttles). They do this by increasing pressure on the core stage tanks to bleed some of the cryogenic propellant to the engines to get them to the proper temperature range to start them. Engine 3 was not properly being conditioned through the bleed process. Engineers were trying to figure out why.
We were quickly approaching the beginning of the 8:33 a.m. launch window. All across the grassy lawn, we all knew the inevitable. The rumors were spreading. There were too many issues, too many unknowns. We could all see dark storm clouds gathering in the distance as well. Time was running out.
The launch countdown clock went to a 40-minute hold while engineers continued to assess all the situations they were facing. We were right. At 8:34 a.m., launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson scrubbed the launch.
I was definitely very sad that the launch had been scrubbed. This dream come true day came to a sudden halt due to a myriad of issues beyond anyone’s control. I had booked my return home flight for September 6 in preparation for the potential of the launch getting scrubbed. This meant staying for the two additional launch windows on September 2 and then again on September 5.
Honestly, by the 8:34 a.m. scrub, I was ready to go home.
I wasn’t as exhausted as the launch controllers but I was emotionally and would eventually be financially exhausted. I couldn’t afford to keep a rental car that much longer, drive back to Brandon and telework for my actual job. That would also mean driving back and forth to Merritt Island for another launch two more times potentially. This would also include more hotel stays. I just couldn’t do it financially.
I was successfully able to change my flight back home to that evening. Passing many sad and frustrated faces back to my car, I drove to my friend’s house in Brandon. I needed a power nap before going back to the airport.
While at the airport having some dinner and a beer, I listened to the NASA press conference. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson (a former astronaut himself), Artemis I Mission Manager, Mike Sarafin, and Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, Jim Free all spoke to the media.
Maybe it’s because I have the unique perspective of both being an independent writer as well as a federal employee myself. Listening to these NASA leaders both publicly support their employees and be open and transparent in a time where the world was watching and scrutinizing? That is the ideal example of true leadership. NASA always ranks the highest on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey as the Best Place to Work and this was the perfect example as to why.
Administrator Nelson said, “This is a brand new rocket. It’s not going to fly until it’s ready. There are millions of components of this rocket and its systems. Needless to say, the complexity is daunting when you bring it all into the focus of a countdown…Understand that scrubs are just a part of this program. On the spaceflight that I participated in…36 1/2 years ago, we scrubbed four times on the pad. It was the better part of a month. In looking back, had we after the fifth try got off on the perfect mission, it would not have been a good day had we launched on any one of those four scrubs.”
He continued, “So when you are dealing in a high risk business – spaceflight is risky – that’s what you do. You buy down that risk, you make it as safe as possible, and of course, that is the whole reason for this test flight. To stress it, to test it, and make sure it’s as safe as possible, when Artemis II, when we put humans in the spacecraft.”
This rocket is eventually going to be taking humans to the Moon and back. Those are human lives we are talking about. Humans also work on the program, putting their blood, sweat, tears and time into every component. Everyone wants to keep our people safe.
No, the launch did not happen when I was there, but it eventually will. We are the #ArtemisGeneration and we are going back to the Moon.
“All civilizations become either spacefaring or extinct.” — Carl Sagan
Why are we going back to the Moon?