Editor’s Note: The USA TODAY NETWORK is auctioning its inaugural non-fungible token (NFT) inspired by the first newspaper delivered to space in 1971. Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, transported a special edition of TODAY, now FLORIDA TODAY and part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, to the moon and back. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s visit, select stories from that edition are being republished, and visual journalist Pat Shannahan assembled more than 300 photographs, illustrations and front pages from five decades of space coverage to re-create the cover as an interactive mosaic. The collection includes an exclusive behind-the-scenes Space Coast tour with FLORIDA TODAY Space Reporter Emre Kelly. In this column, Ray Soto shares his experience on a similar tour Kelly hosted in support of the development of USA TODAY’s AR app, 321 Launch. Auction proceeds will benefit the Air Force Space & Missile Museum Foundation in Brevard County and the Gannett Foundation. More information at nft.usatoday.com. Ad astra!
In January of 2018, our newly formed Emerging Tech team was in the early exploratory phase of our first augmented reality project that would eventually become 321 LAUNCH. To build an app that resonated with casual and hardcore space fans, we needed to immerse ourselves in NASA’s rich history with a visit to Kennedy Space Center.
I began the app’s production with a series of emails and conversations to build a better understanding of the project’s goals as our friends at FLORIDA TODAY had envisioned. My team and I were confident in our ability to develop the app, but we needed details relating to launches, rockets, and even NASA’s history.
“You just have to get down here.” Bob Gabordi, then Executive Editor at FLORIDA TODAY, stated in what might have been our second group call. Bob recognized that it would be best to visit Kennedy Space Center as their guests to understand how we might virtually capture the excitement of a launch within the app. It didn’t take much to convince me to apply for KSC press credentials and book flights for my team.
I arrived in Orlando and met with the others from my team at the airport’s baggage claim. We hopped into our rental car and made our way to Kennedy Space Center to pick up our press badges and meet with Emre Kelly, FLORIDA TODAY’s lead space reporter. We briefly discussed the goals for the trip and reviewed our latest app build to ensure everything was in a good state for testing – after all, we only had one shot to compare our virtual experience against a live launch. While the project build was ready, we weren’t prepared for what we were about to experience.
I turned on to Nasa Parkway and was immediately struck by the importance of this particular road leading up to Kennedy Space Center. I couldn’t help but think of the brilliant NASA engineers and astronauts that drove to and from work on this same stretch of pavement. We had arrived at the epicenter of America’s historic race to the Moon.
After picking up our press badges, we met Emre and followed him through KSC’s security gate. I drove past several unassuming gray offices, but my eyes were glued to a large white building in the distance emblazoned with the NASA logo. “Is that the VAB [vehicle assembly building]?”, I asked the guys on my team. I hadn’t realized that we were driving directly to the VAB, very near to FLORIDA TODAY’s press box where we’d be working for the next few days.
We dropped our things off at the press box and we made our way to the VAB to meet with Matt Miller, NASA’s Media Coordinator. Matt would be our host for the next few hours.
The team and I stood just outside of the open bay doors discussing the tour’s agenda to ensure we had the opportunity to ask questions and view areas that could be integrated into our app. It was difficult to ignore the enormity of the architectural marvel standing in front us.
Upon entering the large open space, I was immediately struck by the height and large crane systems. Similar to my experience driving to KSC, I couldn’t help but think of the history within. This was the facility that supported the Apollo and the Shuttle programs. The VAB now was being prepped for another historic milestone – the construction of the Space Launch System (SLS).
We made our way up an elevator to walk an enclosed catwalk positioned high within the building to make our way from one side of the VAB to the other. In a true test of nerves, I stopped midway through to view the open area of the building from above. From this vantage point, you could see the scaffolding that would support the SLS’s rocket and fuel stages.
Our host unlocked a door and asked us to follow them up a series of stairs that lead to the roof. Blinded for a moment, our eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight to reveal a breathtaking view. We stood high above KSC overlooking several of the launch pads that have been updated over the years to support new missions. Our interest was on Launch Complex 39A which would eventually become a vital component of our interactive project.
We continued the journey by van to drive past a handful of launch pads to better understand KSC’s layout. The long, secured stretch from the VAB to 39A was as impressive as the facility we had just visited. We pulled over to hear about the process and machinery that slowly moved rockets into place for launch.
My team asked specific questions about the composition of the crawler path, time required to move, and about the launch pad itself. We discussed Alabama River Rock, which is used because its density can support the immense weight of the rocket and crawler without sinking. We also learned that the water tanks seen at the launch pad are used to dampen the vibrations during a launch to keep the pad’s concrete foundation from cracking.
The van drove past a few more facilities when we noticed SpaceX. At the time, SpaceX was prepping the Falcon Heavy for its first launch. Unfortunately, the bay doors were closed so we weren’t given a sneak peek.
Our final stop on the private tour was to visit the Command Center that supported legacy missions over the past several decades. Seeing rows upon rows of old computers we began to understand the complex nature and importance of every person involved in a mission’s success.
We thanked Matt and left the NASA facilities with a greater understanding of what we had set out to create.
Emre had one more idea that could inspire how we visualize the rockets in augmented reality. We made our way to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to see a Saturn V up close.
Upon entering, the sheer scale of the largest and most powerful rocket ever sent to space was a sight to behold. We spent about half an hour snapping photos and taking notes to guide the creation of our app’s user experience. Seeing details this close made me wonder something this big was able to fly.
With the informational component of our visit over, we spent the following day working in FLORIDA TODAY’s press box to prepare for the afternoon’s Falcon 9 launch. Our goal for the launch was test the live component of our app and capture omni-directional audio.
I stood on the roof of FLORIDA TODAY’s press box, eyes focused on the horizon. My team anxiously watched our test app as the countdown began.
3. 2. 1… The Falcon 9’s powerful engines hit me harder than expected. Even from miles away, the engine’s light was brilliant, and the sound was almost deafening.
As the Falcon 9 quickly faded into the sky, I heard my team behind me. I looked back when one of them yelled, “It works! We did it!” From this vantage point, you could hear applause from throughout KSC as they celebrated a successful mission. We celebrated our app’s successful feature test.
There are many exciting perks to our job as journalists. Visiting Kennedy Space Center in support of the development of our app was an experience I’ll forever be grateful for. This once in a lifetime tour provided us with unique access that inspired our projects for years to come.
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