Eleven sophomores in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (aero/astro) got a chance to tour space launch facilities at Cape Kennedy in Florida during IAP.
Peter Young, senior lecturer in aero/astro, had originally invited six students enrolled in the department's Unified Engineering program to attend the countdown and launch of the Center for Space Research's HETE (High Energy Transient Explorer) satellite. But when the launch date slipped, the tour agenda and group were expanded.
During their busy two day stay, the group visited NASA, Air Force and commercial space facilities and were briefed by several launch base engineering groups about their work. On the NASA side, the group saw space shuttle launch processing facilities, the assembly room where International Space Station modules are being prepared for launch later this year, and various historical sites including a display of the 520-foot Saturn V, which flew Apollo astronauts to the moon.
At Air Force facilities, the group donned clean-room "bunny suits" to see two Lockheed-Martin global positioning satellites undergoing final systems testing prior to planned launches in a few weeks. "The elaborate precautions taken with the clean room and the lengthy test procedures seem ridiculous compared to the wild abandon with which people treat cars," commented student visitor Will Buford. "But in a business where billions of dollars and years of work are instantly worthless because of a single-digit software error, overkill is somewhat necessary."
The students also visited the launch pad where a Lockheed-Martin Titan IV rocket was undergoing final checks before its imminent launch of an Air Force Defense Support Program early-warning satellite. "For us to tread there was to step into history and into the future in one delightful synchronicity," said Ryder Robinson.
Boeing engineers gave detailed briefings to the students about the Delta IV, the company's next-generation launch vehicle designed as a low-cost, high-performance, commercially oriented satellite launching system.
"There is nothing more amazing that people do than send people and objects into space, then control their operation and return," said Shana Diez. "The discussion with the Boeing engineers about their decision-making processes in coming up with cheaper ways to create a launch vehicle was really interesting mainly because that's what we are eventually going to have to do."
Other sophomores on the trip were Abran Alaniz, Eric Coulter, Katie Dunn, Rogelio Garcia, Mark Monroe, Alexis Mozdzanowska, Paul Nicholson and Ayanna Samuels.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 16, 2000.