Friday, August 7, 2015

Playing Tourist at Kennedy Space Center with FIRST Robotics

It's always fun to play tourist at Kennedy Space Center! No matter how many times I've seen the sights, it never gets old. The excitement is infectious. Sometimes I need a jolt of space geekery to remind myself why I do what I do in this industry every day.

My high school FIRST Robotics team, 709 the Femme Tech Fatale, began during my junior year. The next year, kind of by default, I was co-captain with one of my best friends. We were just beginning so we were figuring our way through the challenges of building a robot and competing. Additionally, we were an all-girls high school, so we felt the burn of sexism when we competed with the mostly male crowd. This was over a decade ago so I don't know how much of that has changed, but I do know that my high school team is going strong.

My friend Barry recently organized a regional FIRST Robotics alumni group, and with it, a fun day at Kennedy Space Center. I don't pass up chances to see cool space stuff no matter how many times I'd seen it before, so I signed up. Knowing that the group would be made up of mostly college students, I also put on my mentoring hat and packed some business cards.

What student tour isn't complete without a welcome from KSC Director Bob Cabana enticing us to work at NASA? The agenda began with a “networking event” but I didn't know what that entailed. I was surprised to see several tables set up with NASA and contractor stations for speed networking – what a great idea! We split into small groups and spent 5 minutes at each table. Most of the spiels were directed toward current students seeking internships, but I took the opportunity to learn about companies and programs that I didn't know much about.

Thanks for the welcome, Bob!

I'm holding a mini Orion, the first of many Orions I'd see today!

Standing next to the SLS scale mock-up. Will I ever stand next to the real thing?

Lockheed Martin was gracious enough to let us tour two of their high bays, including the area that currently houses the EFT-1 Orion crew capsule test article that launched last December. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed. Of all the sights on the tour, those were the only places I had never been, likely because I've never been on a tour sponsored in part by Lockheed Martin.

The Orion prototype was impressive and beautiful. I swear that when we first walked in, I could smell space! I was so tempted to reach out and touch the thermal tiles, wondering if they felt like space shuttle tiles, but of course that was strictly not allowed. I managed to ask one of the senior engineers what he thought the advantages of Orion is over Boeing's CST-100 or SpaceX's Dragon. Different missions, different design was his abbreviated response. He was especially proud that his capsule could fly in deep space.

Lunch at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex's Saturn V Center was under an Apollo lunar lander. Although I had been there many times before, I eagerly listened to former tour guide Barry explain the parts of the Saturn V rocket. Thanks, Barry!

The LEM landing on our heads at lunch.

Thanks for a great tour, Barry!

I don't remember ever seeing the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) so empty! There was some activity going on, of course. A crawler is being modified to accommodate the future Space Launch System (SLS) and the VAB itself being modified. It was odd to see the upper-level platforms for the space shuttle parts gone, platforms that I once stood on. The spare external tanks aren't even being stored in there anymore. All that was left was a basic mock-up of Orion standing alone in the huge high bay.

Looking up at the VAB makes my camera blurry.

The Space Shuttle still stands tall in the VAB!

Peering up at the VAB.

Orion mock-up in the VAB.

Crawler modifications in the VAB.

Walking around the press site, memories returned. My second space shuttle launch viewing was at the press site, STS-113 in 2002. So much has changed since then. Even the countdown clock has been replaced with a newer version. I can see how the old timers get lost in their memories out at the Cape and space center.

The huge building and the tiny unused launch pad beside it.

The KSC Press Site, where I saw my second space shuttle launch in 2002.
Thanks FIRST Robotics Alumni Network!

Thank you to Barry, Rich, Chris, and the other volunteers who contributed to a fun space day!


  1. Wonderful! A great article. Fantastic pictures! I really enjoyed it! Denise B.

  2. I hope more FIRST alumni are able to attend this tour in the future. I'm an alumni of Team 2477 The Rascals of Waipahu High School on the island of Oahu. I am currently attending the Milwaukee School of Engineering and majoring in Software Engineering (upcoming junior). Was there any Hawaii or Wisconsin people present?

    1. Glad to meet another FIRST alum! This tour was organized by the Florida FIRST Alumni Network, though there were some Georgians in attendance as well. I'm sure that if someone from Hawaii or Wisconsin or any other state happened to be in Florida during one of these events, they'd be very welcome! If you're on LinkedIn, you can connect with the Florida FIRST Alumni group for information about upcoming events: If you're ever on the Space Coast, I'd be happy to meet you!