It’s the Great #Moonbuggy Race, Charlie Bolden!

(Originally published at Sprocketeers.org)

When I was notified that I had been selected to attend the #Moonbuggy #NASASocial, my immediate reaction was, “I’m going to Space Camp?!”

Like this funny hat!

Like this funny hat!

Fast forward just a few weeks, and I’m parking a couple hundred yards away from a 363-foot tall replica of Saturn V. After managing to tear myself away from the U.S. Space & Rocket Center gift shop, I sign in and am handed a bag with a schedule and some goodies.

The #NASASocial participants converge for the first time in an auditorium for introductions, where we learn that we have been invited to the VIP premiere of “Space Warriors.” Several of the film’s child actors, as well as those central to its conception and production, were introduced and then seated throughout the theater. As the movie began, I noted how surreal it was to see Thomas Horn on the screen, only to be able to look down one row and over a few seats to see him in person. After the film, a question-and-answer session was held, which allowed eight key people from the movie’s production, including three of the child actors – Thomas Horn, Ryan Simpkins and Grayson Russell – to share their experiences and insights from filming.

Morgan Proffer, the boy who inspired the film, Thomas Horn, Ryan Simpkins and Russell

Morgan Proffer, the boy who inspired the film, Thomas Horn, Ryan Simpkins and Grayson Russell

During the Q&A, the moderator pointed out the former astronaut Owen Garriott was in the audience. When he stood up to say a few words, I immediately realized that he’d been sitting two seats away from me the entire time. Suffice it to say, I and the #NASASocial participants seated near me completely geeked out over the whole thing.

Former astronaut Owen Garriott at the Space Warriors VIP premiere

Former astronaut Owen Garriott at the Space Warriors VIP premiere

The next day began bright and early with an overview of our schedule and a visit from Deborah Barnhart, CEO of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Patrick Scheuerman, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Jeri Buchholz from NASA HQ.

“Let’s let Hollywood continue to make the movies, and let NASA continue to make the history” – Patrick Scheuerman

When asked what they wished people were more aware of that NASA is doing, their answers included NASA’s science, aviation, and planetary protection missions (check out the Artemis and Juno projects).

Group photo of the #Moonbuggy #NASASocial participants!

Group photo of the #Moonbuggy #NASASocial participants!

We were then released into the wilds of the Great Moonbuggy Race. A small group of us began exploring, and three of us (myself, Mindy Rawls and Willie Weaver, a retired NASA engineer) ended up being interviewed on NASA TV about the #Moonbuggy #NASASocial and ourselves.

Myself, Mindy Rawls and Willie Weaver being interviewed for NASA TV / photo by Danny Sussman

Myself, Mindy Rawls and Willie Weaver being interviewed for NASA TV (photo by Danny Sussman)

I then found my assigned team, who were from the Cape Girardeau Career & Tech Center in Cape Girardeau, Mo., just in time to go through the race prep and start process. I shared pictures and information as we progressed through the compliance checks, which included very specific regulations for size and weight.

My team was optimistic, since they hadn’t encountered any major setbacks before the race. Unfortunately, they crashed and snagged on a hay bale during the race, which damaged their moonbuggy and prevented them from finishing the race. (On a positive note, one of the team members later won a book autographed by the team of original lunar rover engineers.)

After lunch, the #NASASocial participants regrouped and set out for the Marshall Space Flight Center. We were shown a newly-produced video that gave an overview of the work done at Marshall, then headed over to actually see some of it. First up – virtual image scanning. This technology allows NASA to reverse engineer practically anything.

Digital manufacturing at MSFC

Digital manufacturing at MSFC

Next up was 3D printing and laser cuttings. Two tables in the center of the room had dozens of items that had been created using these technologies, and two machines whirred as they created more items.

Moonbuggy made from epoxy via stereolithography

Moonbuggy made from epoxy via stereolithography

Made from a single piece of material using laser cutting, the chain moves like a normal chain and the wrench is fully functional.

Made from a single piece of material using laser cutting, the chain moves like a normal chain and the wrench is fully functional.

We then learned about some of the life support systems used on the International Space Station and other space craft…

Yes, that is a space toilet and hand wash.

Yes, that is a space toilet and hand wash.

Our last stop featured friction stir welding. A bolt is spun around and around, which creates friction that produces more and more heat, and actually stirs together the metals of the pieces being combined. This process creates almost 100 percent joint efficiency. Our tour continued at the ISS Payload Operations Center. We got to peek into the room where all of the real-time video and audio feeds from the station are monitored, and completed a repair activity in a replica of an ISS unit.

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Posted by the @NASASocial Twitter account

Posted by the @NASASocial Twitter account

Oh, and I accidentally bumped into a lunar rover vehicle.

Oh, and I accidentally bumped into a lunar rover vehicle.

When we returned the the Space & Rocket Center, several of us decided to hit the gift shop until it was time for the Pizza & Pioneers event. I should note that by this point, we were all thoroughly exhausted but still loving every minute of the experience. The Pizza & Pioneers event was basically dinner and a movie with the original lunar rover engineering team. They took questions from the audience, which was composed of moonbuggy competitors and the #NASASocial tweeps, delighting us all with their recollections of their experiences.

After a few precious hours a sleep, we returned the next morning for more moonbuggy race action before heading out to the Aviation Challenge area. We had three activities available to us there: a tour of the historic aircraft, flight simulations and riding the centrifuge.

Because the centrifuge doesn’t have windows, you don’t feel like you’re going around and around in a giant circle. Instead, you just feel more pressure pushing down against you. It’s effect is similar to that of working out with resistance bands. Aviation Challenge attendees usually have a week to practice with the flight simulators. We had about 30 minutes to learn the basic controls and take to the air. I’m proud to say I only crashed twice – the first time because I was tweeting while flying (hey, it was a #NASASocial, after all!) and the second time because it was time to leave and I wanted to crash into the ocean.

We took a quick lunch break, then met back at the Space & Rocket Center for a guided tour of the museum, a spin (literally) in the multi-axis trainer and a chance to explore the scale-models of various space craft.

Basically, we felt like giant kids running around playing with all the switches and communications systems. This was all a-OK our “camp counselor” Charlie, who said his favorite kind of camper is enthusiastic. As long as you’re willing to learn and are passionate about that, it’s a guarantee that you’ll love Space Camp – no matter if you’re 8 years old or 80.

Retired NASA engineer Willie Weaver prepares for his first-ever spin in the multi-axis trainer (photo by Danny Sussman)

Retired NASA engineer Willie Weaver prepares for his first-ever spin in the multi-axis trainer (photo by Danny Sussman)

To see more photos and information from my #Moonbuggy #NASASocial experience, check out my Twitter.

As a thank you for the opportunity to attend the #Moonbuggy #NASASocial, the participants pooled our money to fund a scholarship for a child to attend Space Camp.

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(Originally published at Sprocketeers.org)

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