My NASA Story
By: Johnathon Wright on: April 01, 2020
I was a junior nerd well before I was a senior nerd. I was in a weekly program at our local planetarium -- the "Young Astronauts" run by the still-awesome planetarium director David Hostetter at what is now the Lafayette Science Museum. I went to space camp and vividly remember snickering when my friend and I ordered "dehydrated water" from the snack bar, much to the confusion of the people behind the counter. So you could say I've been amazed by NASA for as long as I can remember.
In late 2010, as the Space Shuttle era was coming to a close, I realized how important it was to me to see a launch. I planned a trip to see STS-133. Coincidentally, it had one of the coolest patches. :)
So, we took the kids out of school (shocking!) and drove to Florida. Due to some technical whatnot, the shuttle didn't end up launching that trip. We did visit the KSC visitors complex, which was very much a Disney World for nerds.
My wife and I drove to see the second launch attempt without our kids in February ( they had to choose between the space shuttle and a field trip to "big kids" school... so obvious. ) We saw the launch from about 7 miles away... the only thing disappointing about the experience was that there was no thunderous blast. But just hearing something from seven miles away was pretty impressive. And it was sooo bright!
Professionally, I had been working as a freelance web developer for several years. I had two primary clients, with whom I had been working for at least two years each. But I had been working with a tool called Ruby on Rails for at least 5 years, almost since its beginnings. Rails makes it less painful and faster to create web applications than many existing tools. (insert caveats, disclaimers, etc.)
I was sitting in my home-office in early May of 2011 when I received this email:
subject: Ruby on Rails Expert Hello, ... I am the project manager for the Launch Control System Development at the Kennedy Space Center. We have a need for a Ruby on Rails expert with Cucumber experience. I am interested in speaking with you about this need. Please contact me at one of the two numbers. Michael Turner
I think I stared in confusion at that email for about 10 minutes. My sister is constantly prank-calling me in the middle of the night, and I thought it likely that this was her doing. After all, I had just been to the launch, and that could easily have brought idea to her. But it was a particularly authentic joke, and didn't feel like her. And as I said, she prefers prank phone calls to emails.
At the time, I had no idea that area code 321 had been specifically assigned to the area around Kennedy Space Center. It "refers to the coundown sequence which has launched many spacecraft."
So then I went out to the kids' swing-set... which is something I often do when I'm pondering work. My wife came to discuss something and I said something like, "I'm confused. Go look at the email on my screen and tell me what you think." A minute or so later she came back.
"Did you call them?" "No." "WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THE SWING? GET IN THERE AND CALL HIM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
My first comment to Michael was, "Nonsense. NASA wouldn't launch spaceships with Rails. What would happen if you submitted the form twice?" It turns out that launching a spaceship is a rather complicated task. The broader project was called Launch Control Systems (LCS). They're writing the software that will launch the next generation of NASA spaceships. But there are more than 20 teams within LCS. The team using Rails was called the Information Architecture team (IA). The role of IA is critical to the system, but will be completed weeks or months before the ship blasts off, so no, they will not be launching from a website. Which is good.
It turned out that I had some expertise that they genuinely needed, both in terms of using Rails and in terms of process management. And so, in June of 2011, I found myself pulling up to the gates at NASA and showing my identification. I sent a text to my wife:
Arrived at KSC... and they let me in!
That day I learned about the IA project, met the team (about 10 people), and started to learn about all the components they were tracking relating to launching a spaceship. That evening, my dad called to check on me. I remember it vividly. I was standing with my back against the wall of a hotel room. Just standing there. Absorbing. Mentally exhausted.
"Well, how was it?!?!" "Dad, I feel like my brain ate too much."
My contract was to work with the team for three months. It was a joyful time!
You can imagine that with a NASA badge, your access is a excellent. After work, I would drive all around Kennedy Space Center, looking at the beautiful beaches, the wildlife sanctuary, the old rocket test equipment, and some abandoned buildings used (I suppose) to support previous missions.
For the final shuttle launch, I was within earshot of the launch control center's loudspeakers, 3 miles away -- the "minimum safe distance." I suspect it's the minimum safe distance because people in poor health might think they were having a heart attack if they were any closer; people in good health might not come away with their hearing. It's hard to describe the chest-throbbing intensity of the sound. The light from the rockets is almost difficult to look at... almost. When the epic blast of the launch subsided, all I could here were car alarms in the parking lot behind me.
After the launch I got the opportunity to tour the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). It's one of buildings they show on the news when they talk about NASA. It's hard to understand from the pictures just how large this building is. But imagine this. My 2000 sq ft house could fit inside the blue field on the American flag. I was told it is the largest single-story building in the world. If Wikipedia can be trusted, it's the fourth-largest in the world by volume. It's really big. I don't have a word to describe it that's better than epic, though that barely does the job. When you enter those doors... and you... look... up... and then... you ... bend your back some more and look up, and then you bend your back yet again to look up... some more... and then ... oh, yeah, there it is... the top... oh... wait... neck... hurts... gotta... stop... looking!
It turns out that when you're looking up, you're rarely holding your neck at an actual 90 degree angle... it's more of a 45 degree angle... and that just doesn't cut it.
Every time I see that building I think about the guys who operate the crane in that building... they pick up the space shuttle. "How was your day at work honey?" "Oh, not good. I dropped one."
I was working at Kennedy Space Center, living in a condo on Cocoa Beach, and having an amazing time. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive... so it's been a real win-win. Then one day I got an email. Paraphrasing:
Now that the shuttle Atlantis has returned from her final flight, if you have an @nasa.gov login, click here to sign up for a tour.
There aren't any of my office... not because it's classified (generally speaking, it isn't)... but because even NASA offices don't make for interesting photos. Offices are visually boring. Except of course that everyone has NASA posters and shuttle models on and around their desks. Even the janitors had space shuttle stuff hanging off of their trash-and-supplies carts.