What is a Nasa Social?

As NASA states, a NASA Social Event is “is a program to provide opportunities for NASA’s social media followers to learn and share information about NASA’s missions, people, and programs.” For my particular experience with the Crew-4 Nasa Social, we were able to watch two launches from the press site at Kennedy Space Center, tour the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), tour the facilities where they work behind the scenes to feed the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) and upcoming Moon and Mars missions, heard from experts from the ISS team, Commercial Crew Program, and SLS Ground Systems Team, got an up close view of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the Artemis 1 program, and toured the Launch Complex 26 Blockhouse, and Hangar C.

What was the launch?

While we were able to see two different launches from the press site, we were there specifically for SpaceX Crew-4 launch from the historic LC – 39A. This particular launch included sending NASA astronauts Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins, and ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti to the ISS aboard the Crew Dragon Freedom.

This was the first launch of the Crew Dragon Freedom, however, the fourth flight of booster B1067 (which had previously also been used for the SpaceX Crew-3 launch in 2021).

What did you do?

Day 1:

We started our day by heading to the press site and press building. There we first heard from Kenna Pell of the ISS team. This was followed by hearing from Dan Forrestal from the Commercial Crew Program and Lilli Villarreal from the SLS Ground System Team.

After hearing from our guests, we headed across the street to tour the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). This was one of the things that I was most hopeful that we would get to experience. We entered initially from the low bay and were then able to walk into the high bay and walk the entire length of the VAB. We were able to see the SLS bay (which was empty at the time as the SLS was on the launch pad), SLS components, remnants of the Apollo program and Space Shuttle.

After a (very) quick lunch, we were able to head back to the press site for to see the SpaceX Starlink 4-14 launch from SLC-40. While we were not as close as we would be to see the Crew-4 launch from LC-39A, it was still an amazing experience! This was my first launch from the press site and the closest I had ever been to a launch from SLC-40. I was also happy to have this practice taking pictures and videos for the upcoming Crew-4 launch!

Moments after the launch, we quickly packed our belongings and headed to tour the facilities where they work behind the scenes to feed the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) and upcoming Moon and Mars missions.

To end our day, we headed out to LC-39B. Here we got an up close view of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the Artemis 1 program. I had previously gone on the the up close tour from the Kennedy
Space Center Visitor Complex which drove right by the pad, but for this experience we were able to get off the bus and go right up to the fence! We spent about 30 minutes there and I took hundreds of pictures of the rocket and Crawler 2 which also happened to be right there (getting ready to return the SLS to the VAB for further work).

Day 2:

Our second day had been delayed several days as the AXIOM return had been delayed in returning. Because of this, our group was much smaller. We started off by heading out the LC-39A to see the Falcon 9 rocket that would be sending four astronauts to the ISS in less than 24 hours! Our initial view was from behind the strongback (the part the lifts the rocket vertical and then restrains the rocket until launch). While this was not the clearest view of the rocket, we were standing along the old crawler path that was used to take Saturn V’s and Space Shuttles from the VAB. We were also amongst a field of flowers where dragonflies were flying everywhere. This was very symbolic as the dragonfly was the symbol of Crew-4 (because of its good fortune and luck). After several minutes, we were able to board our bus and then go around to the other side of the rocket and get an amazing profile view. We spent another 20 – 30 minutes there before it was time to say goodbye to the Falcon 9 and move on to the next part of our journey. We were headed to the Air Force Space & Missile Museum at Launch Complex 26 Blockhouse and then to Hangar C. Along the way, though, we got to see several sites including going by SLC-40, the ULA complex, and the Beach House.

At Launch Complex 26, we were able to tour the blockhouse and see the control room where several launches happened. LC-26 was the location of Jupiter-C, Juno I, Juno II launches. From this pad on January 31, 1958, Explorer 1 was launched atop a Juno booster. This was the first satellite launched by the United States.

Our day 2 ended at Hangar C where we were able to get up close to several different rockets and missiles as well as see the spacesuits from SpaceX Demo-2 worn by Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken. We were also taken on a special tour of the office believed to have been Wernher von Braun. It is said that his office overlooked the Cape Canaveral lighthouse and whenever there was a launch, he would race to lighthouse from his office to watch the launch.

The Launch

After several delays because of weather prohibiting the return of the AXIOM mission, the SpaceX Crew-4 Falcon 9 launched from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A at 3:52 AM EDT.

Being able to watch a launch from the press site was a dream of mine; a dream that I did not think would ever happen so it was an absolutely surreal experience. To say that I am not a morning person is an understatement, so getting up in order to be at the press site at 2:30 AM was quite a shock, however, the adrenaline was pumping and I was hyped!

We started our launch day experience by first getting to be on the NASA live broadcast where one of my fellow NASA Social attendees was interviewed. After that, we headed to our spots along the water to prepare for the launch.

This was my first time photographing a night launch (in person and not from my backyard) as well as only my second launch from the press site. My gear included an iPhone and DJI Osmo gimbal for video recording, a Canon R5 with RF 800mm f/11 for up close pictures, and a Canon 5d Mark II with EF 17-40 f/4, and two tripods (plus a foldable chair because the grass was wet).

For about thirty minutes up to the launch, I was able to explore a bit including getting up close to the countdown clock. Once we were under ten minutes, I was glued to my previously claimed spot making sure all of my gear was set and ready to go. While ten minutes seems like a lot, I was still getting myself ready to go with just seconds remaining!

And then it was time… 3, 2, 1… and launch!

Watching a launch from LC-39A from the press site was essentially the closest (and obviously best) view of a launch I have ever had! As soon as the engines ignited, the sky lit up with a bright glow of daylight. Within seconds of the launch and as the rocket continued to ascend, the rumble reached us. Nothing beats that sound and rumble up close! After a few more seconds, the glow began to fade as the rocket continued its ascension towards the ISS.

I am lucky to live in Central Florida and therefore be able to see launches from my backyard or the coast all the time so being able to capture this particular moment through the lens of my cameras was important. I would add, though, if this is your first time experiencing something like this, then don’t be afraid to put the camera down and enjoy the sights and sounds of the launch experience!

After Thoughts

The whole NASA Social experience was one of the greatest experiences I have had. When I think back to everything we did, it is impossible to pick a favorite. Walking through the VAB? Dream experience. Getting to go so close to the SLS? Amazing. Seeing historic sites and going “behind the scenes” where guests don’t normally go? Remarkable. Seeing TWO launches from the press site? A dream come true. If I ever have to opportunity to do this again, I’ll be there in a heartbeat!