My #NASASocial Experience: Water Landing Test of Orion at Langley Research Center

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My NASASocial Experience at Langley Research Center

You know when you leave a concert and you’re pumped up after the performance you just watched and you listen to that band for weeks straight reminiscing?

That’s how I feel about my #NASASocial visit to Langley Research Center.

The day, start to finish, was amazing.  It was well planned and well coordinated.  It’s NASA. They know a thing or two about coordinating. I am so impressed with NASA’s social media presence and how they treated us during the entire day.  It was just awesome.

My love for space and exploration didn’t start until I was an adult.  I missed out on a lot of space exploration just by being young and naive about how cool it was.

As an adult, it’s really become a major player in our lives.  My husband, John, was always interested in space and calls NASA’s launches “the best fireworks on earth.”  My love for space really bloomed during out relationship.  We were married on the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower in 2013 and named our son Orion. We are also members of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, or NOVAC. A lot of acronyms in space, so get used to that.

NASA’s first test launch of Orion was December 5, 2014.  We were hoping to see it before we had to leave for the hospital to do our anatomy scan as I was twenty weeks pregnant.  Orion launched successfully that morning and we waited patiently until it reached space.

At the anatomy scan, we would find out if we were having a boy or a girl.  We found out we were having a son and he’s been Orion since that day.  He was born in April 2015 and we try to share our love of space with him as much as possible, even though he’s too young to understand.

He will one day soon.

John sent me a link to apply for a #NASASocial at Langley Research Center for the ninth water landing test in a series of ten a few weeks ago.  I applied and hoped for the best.

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail from Eric at Langley saying I had been selected to be part of the #NASASocial day at Langley on August 25. I was incredibly excited.  I mean, my son’s name is Orion!

The water test wouldn’t be until later in the day and Langley had a full day of fun planned for us at the Langley Research Center.

The morning started off bright and early at 8am with checking in and heading to the Integrated Engineering Services Building for our morning session with speakers.  Our first speaker was Dave Bowles, Director of NASA Langley Research Center.  Dave has been with NASA for thirty six years and was appointed Director in June 2015.  He spoke about all the amazing things Langley is working on and how much they’re all looking forward to celebrating 100 years of research at Langley.

100 years of aeronautical and in the late 50s space exploration right here in Virginia!

Dave Bowles, Director of Langley Research Center
Dave Bowles, Director of Langley Research Center

Our next speaker was Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space and current Director of Johnson Space Center. This would be Ellen’s first live viewing of a Test Water Landing for Orion!  She said she’s watched them all via the internet. I’m glad I share this in common with her!

Ellen Ochoa, Former Astronaut and Current Director of Johnson Space Center
Ellen Ochoa, Former Astronaut and Current Director of Johnson Space Center

Our next speaker was Mark Kirasich.  He’s the Orion Program Manager at Johnson Space Center.  He updated us on the Orion program’s progress and told us exactly why this water test was important.  I’ll get into that in a bit!  I also told Mark the story of how we named our son and he was so happy we named him after the Orion program.

Mark Kirasich at the NASA Social at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA
Mark Kirasich at the NASA Social at Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA

James Corliss of NASA and Mark Baldwin of Lockheed Martin followed up with more in depth analysis of the vehicle and the safety of the interior and seats.  I found the seats of the Orion vehicle particularly amazing.  Mark said they have taken information on seat safety from NASCAR to help create the safest seat for each individual astronaut.

James Corliss

I would seriously love my own safety seat designed for me in my VW.

The speakers really got us pumped up for the test and for touring Langley Research Center.

Langley is built like a campus and reminded me a lot of a military base.  The buildings were walkable, some farther than others,   and the lawns were nicely kept. We were divided into two groups and toured two places separately before joining back up for lunch.

The first stop with my group of a tour of inflatable habitats.

Inflatable and expandable habitats are important to the Journey to Mars because they are lower in size and lower in weight without losing any integrity. NASA will have to send cargo flights to Mars prior to the arrival of the astronauts and will need to include a habitat that’s as lightweight, compressible, and easy to assemble.

There is an ongoing test right now of an inflatable habitat on the International Space Station (ISS) called BEAM.

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Our next stop was the National Transonic Facility, or NTF.  The big get here, and one of the things Langley Research Center is famous for, is the wind tunnel. The wind tunnel uses cold nitrogen gas at high pressure to replicate flight aerodynamics.

The wind tunnel is large and expensive to run.  It can cost up to three million dollars for one test alone!

Pocket change, right?

We had a science experiment with the nitrogen and it was awesome.  I even got to eat a freezing Cheez It and my tongue burned for at least an hour after.

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During lunch we had Mike Rodrigues of the Structural & Thermal Systems Branch telling us about the Orion Launch Abort System, or LAS.  The LAS is designed to bring the crew safely home should there be an issue on the launch pad or during descent. Everyone hopes it is not needed, but it’s a huge leap forward in space exploration and bringing our astronauts back to Earth safely.

We boarded our bus and headed over to learn about the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM.  After following Philae, this mission brings me a lot of hope in learning more about asteroids. The rocket will travel to an asteroid near earth, collect a boulder, and pull that piece to orbit the moon. Astronauts will analyze the piece in orbit.

Personal thoughts – astronauts should land on the moon, too.  If there’s one guaranteed way to get people excited about NASA – SET FOOT ON THE MOON!

But I digress.

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The social media crew then headed to the Langley Research Hangar. Anytime you are given the opportunity to go inside any hangar, take it.  There’s always something amazing to see inside of one.

Your eyes are immediately drawn to the C-130 in the hangar.  This plane is huge compared to the other NASA research planes. These planes are used for research on the planet we live on and how to keep us living here for the time being and long after my generation is gone.

C130 At NASA Langley Research Center Hangar

During our time in the hangar, there were F22s flying by –  the sound of freedom while learning about American technology and innovation in NASA’s oldest research center.

Something that I was really interested in was the presentation on SAGE III on the ISS which studies Earth’s ozone layer. SAGE stands for Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment. NASA is collecting information to help preserve the ozone layer we have and even undo all of the damage we did before we had laws in place to protect our planet.

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Our next stop was to visit the robot ISAAC, which stands for  Integrated Structural Assembly of Advanced Composites.  This giant tool will be used to make lighter and stronger composite components for space vehicles.

Here’s a cool video of this big white machine in action!

ISAAC is one of just a few in the entire world, and is furthering research and development at Langley.

It’s almost show time folks!

We then head over to the Landing Impact ResearchFacility, or LandIR.

We pulled up and our eyes immediately started searching for the Orion module inside the imposing 240 foot high, 400 foot wide gantry steel structure.  Orion was bright white and stuck out.

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Fun fact: this is exactly where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained for Apollo 11’s moon descent.

The social media crew took some photos of Orion in the air attached to a giant cable system.  We were then off to a short presser before the test with Dave Bowles, Bill Hill (Exploration Systems Development), Lara Kearney (Orion Crew and Service Module Office), and Mike Hawes (Program Manager from Lockheed Martin.) There was a short Q&A then a mad dash to the front of the line.

A Close Up of Orion at NASA Langley Research Center before the Water Drop Test
A Close Up of Orion at NASA Langley Research Center before the Water Drop Test

This capsule is a mock-up but featured the heat shield from the December 2014 launch and flight in space.  I named my son after this program and I was standing 30 feet away from the exact heat shield I watched on December 5, 2014. So cool.  Cool doesn’t even begin to describe it!

The were a few things NASA was testing with this water drop test.

First, the angle.  The 90 degree angle in which the capsule was dropped would not be the ideal angle. NASA wants the capsule to “knife” the water, but they know from their history they need to account for every possible scenario. When we pulled up, we could see the belly of the heat shield.

Second, a failed parachute.  Looking to not repeat history, NASA took a page from its storied past with Apollo 15 and tested how the Orion capsule would react if it had one failed parachute.

Third, we have to put humans inside! Inside the capsule were two dummies – a 105 pound female and a 225 pound male.  The dummies had sensors and were dressed as an astronaut would be.  The dummies would provide key information to analysts as to how a human would react in the same conditions.

NASA is always on time. The countdown began and I felt like I was in Times Square waiting for the ball to drop.

10, 9, 8…

The test went off without a hitch.  The boom of Orion splashing down into the Hydro Impact Basin was much louder than I had expected.  I guess that’s what 20,000 pounds of awesome sounds like dropping 20 feet into water.  The waves even reached our toes!

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We had a short Q&A with the awesome Ellen Ochoa and our day at NASA Langley Research Center was complete.

The experience was amazing.  Yes, I got to witness a test of our future in space – something most people will only get to view in a video or live feed.  But the day was fantastic.  I cannot say enough about how NASA Langley treated us.  We’re just space geeks who love what they do.

I hope the people working at NASA who continue to explore, teach, and invite us into their world.

The next step for Orion will be in 2018.  Orion will be flying on the new SLS rocket in an unmanned mission that will last roughly 25 days.  Orion will orbit the moon and journey back to Earth.  In the 2020s, Orion will perform a similar mission but with astronauts!

We are already planning (and hoping everything stays on track) to go to the next Orion launch.  My Orion will be 3 and a half years old and old enough to start learning about space and exploration.

If you’ve participated in a NASASocial, I’d love to connect on Instagram and Twitter!


4 thoughts on “My #NASASocial Experience: Water Landing Test of Orion at Langley Research Center”

  1. Awesome! Langley is one of the NASA centers I haven’t yet been to. I appreciate all the pictures and the overview! Sounds like it was such a fun experience.

    I laughed at your comment about NASA always being on time. NASA is rarely on time. Almost everything NASA does is delayed. 😉

    Orion is an awesome capsule! I saw it around a year ago at the Boeing hanger at Kennedy Space Center. I’m looking forward to finally seeing that thing launch! Someday.

    ARM is unlikely to survive into the next presidential administration, though. It’s unpopular and Congress zeroed out the funding for it in its latest budget draft. It’s a neat idea if NASA had a much larger budget, but it doesn’t, so we pick and choose. Hopefully Orion will move forward, though, with SLS or with another rocket. Maybe you can see a launch! Are you far from Wallops Island, Virginia? Launches should start back up there soon.

    1. Ashley @ Spit Up and Sit Ups

      Thanks for the comment!

      I was more or less referring to the timing when things DO take off. NASA is awfully precise throughout launch through landing safely back home.

      I know all about the funding unfortunately, but the NASASocial is to get people excited about what NASA is doing and this is certainly included. NASA just approved moving into the next phase a couple weeks ago. A lot of NASA’s future is based on funding and they really need us, the general public, right now to generate excitement about going to Mars and the things that will help us get there. People are passionate about space exploration. We need to speak up and get congress on board. The mission has not been tabled yet, so there is no reason not to get excited about it. You don’t stop research because it might get cut. Check out

      We go to neighboring Chincoteague every year for vacation and were just there in July. You need to drive right past the Wallops VC to get there and we always check out what’s going on over there. It’s a small VC. We’ve been to Antares launches and will go in the future, but stayed home for the catastrophic anomaly that occurred in October 2014. I was pregnant at the time so it ended up being for the best that we didn’t go. That was devastating to watch.

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