It is now Thursday morning and it has been a busy 3 days for our spaceflight preparations and I only now have a few minutes of time to let you know what we have been doing and what the current plan is.
Monday: So Monday was a travel day. Four of us drove from Indianapolis to Cocoa Beach, Florida (where our hotel is located) and it was a very long drive, about 16 hours. We drove primarily to insure that our equipment and instruments needed for surgery made it safely, but we also drove to reduce expenses associated with changes of 4 airline tickets and shipping all of the equipment. Five other team members flew in the afternoon, arrived to Orlando, rented a minivan, and drove to the hotel and went grocery shopping to stock up both the boys condo and the girls condo. We are all staying in lofts that group house people (6-8 person occupancy), again to reduce the expenses.
Tuesday: We left the hotel at 6:10 to drive to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for badging. The badging facility is just East of the KSC Visitors Center for those familiar with the area. At badging, our group of 9 and a group of 5 Army colleagues, and 1 NASA integrator met, we all waited in two separate lines to get badges. While we successfully were badged and headed to our building by 8:30a, there were a few hiccups. My badge was only good for 2 days (as it had apparently not been properly updated from the January launch date). Another member of my team was issued a “pink” access card. All of us had to have a white badge with photo and a pink access card. Somehow his badge request did not have that on there. We then learned he would not be able to get into the required buildings without this card, so I began calling all of the people I had contact numbers for as did our NASA integrator, Carolynn. I finally was able to get ahold of someone that straightened things out and off we headed to the science building.
At the science building we were shown to a large office space area where each of our team members were given a small cubicle to place backpacks, computers, snacks etc. There is also a conference room where we can all crowd in. If you recall from a previous blogs, Blank Slate Part 1 and Part 2, one of the many things we had to do to prepare for this mission was to create from scratch all of the work areas we required for success of this mission. From office space and equipment to the kitchen/breakroom, to the laboratory space. Now we were able to see for the first time whether we had made all of the requests we needed and whether we had purchased or shipped all of the equipment and supplies we needed to make this successful.
After setting our things down in the office area, we were brought into the conference room where the NASA lead project manager and several other staff members from NASA were introduced to the 9 IU and 5 Army team members. At this meeting we were told that word had arrived late last night that our launch was to be delayed to February 17th. Immediately my mind started racing as to what changes needed to be made. But I could not start implementing them as we were taken off to have our safety training on NASA policy. As 2 of my team members are Green Card Holders (not yet US citizens), there was additional training as they require an escort since we are at a Federal Facility. Training ended at about 11am. Then the NASA management and I met while everyone else got to know each other and were able to get lunch. At our meeting we discussed the implications of the delay and what should then be accomplished on this first day on site. I decided we should proceed with our original schedule and set-up all of the laboratories to make sure we have all of the proper supplies/equipment. I rationalized that if we were missing anything having the extra days will give us more time to have it shipped to KSC.
I then quickly ate whatever snack I had packed as I did not have time to go to the food vendor and then off we went to the clean room facility. For most of us this was the first time in a clean room facility, but most of the items you wear are what we wear when we work with the mice at IU or the Army so it was fairly easy to familiarize ourselves with the procedure. We entered the facility where there is a larger cabinet containing all of the sizes of special jumpsuits that I requested for all of our team members from small to 3XL. We also collected hair nets, face masks, beard guards for those with facial hair, booties etc. Then the males and females went into separate locker rooms which are about 2.5 feet wide by 6 feet long (so only about 5 at a time can go in and change). We were advised to wear shorts and tshirts or tank tops underneath the jumpsuits as we will get hot. Then there is a secured door with a code that allows you to enter the facility. None of us in either locker room had the code. I don’t know about the guys, but when I discovered this I tried knocking on the door, but nobody heard the knock. Fortunately there was a phone and phone list on the wall next to the door and I called every number until finally after about 5-10 minutes someone answered. I was on about the 4th to last number, so I am glad I finally reached a person that could let us out of the door….we sort of had our own “escape room” experience. The guys were stuck too, so we opened their door from the other side and now we could all proceed with putting on sterile gloves. This was not new for the IU team as we complete surgeries on a regular basis and many of my team members are medical students where they have learned this or are orthopaedic surgeons etc. But this was new for the Army team, so it took a few extra minutes of instruction. And then we just split up into 3 main groups and started moving tables, chairs, and equipment into proper places and unpacking all of the supplies. There were 2-3 people from my team in each of the 3 rooms and the 3 primary NASA integrators and the 5 Army team members were divided into groups to work together to help get everything done. We had people work in the room they would later be working in so they were familiar with where everything was and how it worked. NASA staff had placed tables and larger equipment in locations we had on drafted plans we had sent previously, but once we got into the rooms we realized that in some cases things needed to be moved to allow for better access to a different piece of equipment or for the flow of the procedures etc. It took us until 7p to finalize all of the preparations, but we were happy as 3 of the 4 rooms were set-up and ready to go after the long day of work.
After finishing work, the Army team left together and half of the IUSM team went home to eat quickly from our grocery store run and were in bed by 9:30p while the other half of us went to dinner at a tasty restaurant serving fish with one of our NASA integrators and at the restaurant we ran into another NASA staff member and she joined us for dinner. Then the remainder of us went to bed, a long, but successful first day at NASA!
Wednesday: Since we stayed late to get things done on Tuesday, we had a free morning on Wednesday and the NASA manager nicely arranged a car tour of part of the KSC facility for us. Some of the pictures from our tour will be posted on the blog. We saw the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where the Space Shuttle was assembled. I learned that each stripe of the American Flag you see painted on the building is 8 feet wide – that gives you some indication of how large the building is. I also learned it is so tall, that it can create its own weather system. Clouds can form and it can rain on the building itself as a result. We also saw the crawler (literally the equipment that crawled from the VAB to the launch pad with the Space Shuttle on it) and we saw the stone path that the crawler travels. We then went to the SpaceX facility where they assemble the rocket (we were only allowed to see the outside) and the SpaceX launch pad. It is inside this building that the “Transporters” or the cages housing our spaceflight mice will be brought one day before launch to be packed into the Dragon capsule. We were also taken to the SpaceX gift shop which literally only allows 5 people into it at a time, it is a very small room with all things SpaceX. I think I spent the most money of everyone….including purchasing new clocks for the lab that say SpaceX as well as assorted t-shirts and sweatshirts for myself and as gifts, but I think every team member came out of the store with something, prices were not bad – $10 for most t-shirts and no tax!
After our time touring we then had to go to work. As we have not worked with the Army folks we had to train everyone in their roles and we did a run through of all of the equipment and positions to make sure all the equipment worked and everyone knew what their role was and what to do. While we were in the rooms training, we were all called together where we were notified of yet another launch delay, now the launch is scheduled for Feb 18th. The test run was successful and the day ended for everyone except for me and the NASA management team by 8p. The IU folks all went out to dinner while the NASA management and I reworked the schedule for our preparations with the launch on the 18th. As a result of the delays the IU and Army teams will get Thursday, Saturday and Sunday as off days. Although, my students and I are taking advantage of this time together to work on our manuscripts that are in process! We have some preparation activities on Friday and will do another test run and training on Monday with 2 new Army team members that will be joining us (this will give us more time to make sure everyone is clear on their roles and everyone is ready). We have some additional preparation activities planned for Monday as well. On Tuesday, assuming the launch is not delayed again, the remaining 9 IU team members will join us (they will arrive Monday evening), they will badge and train on Tuesday morning and then on we will do one final test run to make sure we are ready for the spaceflight mice.
As you can imagine the constantly changing schedule is frustrating, and requires much time and flexibility, but our entire team is taking these changes in stride. Based on the success I saw in our test run, I believe we are well-prepared for our upcoming spaceflight and I believe that we have done everything we can to have a successful mission!
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.