Inside a bright, cavernous room, a giant white metal box is rising toward the ceiling. A cable and pulley system tugs the box upward, and it ascends at just an inch a minute.
I’m staring at this box along with 30 or so other people, all of whom are wearing white. No, not wearing white — covered in white. Every person sports a white cloth onesie. No hands or shoes can be seen; all are shrouded in gloves and booties. Even hair doesn’t exist here. Every head is veiled in more white cloth. The only exposed skin I can see are the small slivers of flesh around each individual’s eyes. Mouths must be hidden, too.
I’m wearing the same odd outfit. I had to put it on before I was allowed in here — standard procedure when you enter a spacecraft clean room. And the clothing is extra important today since the box we’re all staring at isn’t just a box. It’s a shipping container. The clean room crew is lifting off the top of the container to reveal the box’s precious cargo: NASA’s next Mars lander.
The spacecraft is InSight, and if everything goes as planned, it will be out of this box and sitting on Mars by the end of the year. NASA plans to launch the vehicle in May; it will land in November. When InSight does take off, NASA wants very little Earth germs on the spacecraft. Our planet’s microbes are resilient; many can survive the harsh trip through space, and NASA doesn’t want to risk contaminating Mars with some big, bad Earth bug. That would make it difficult for future Mars missions to know if there is truly indigenous life on the Red Planet — or if we just put it there ourselves.
Hence, the funny outfits: we have to keep all our resident microbes on our skin and clothes to ourselves.
Unlike NASA’s Curiosity rover, InSight is a lander. That means it won’t be roaming around on the planet. It’s meant to stay in one spot on the surface, where it will measure Mars’ quakes. Yes, just like Earth, Mars might have quakes, though they’re different. Earthquakes are caused by shifts in tectonic plates on our planet, whereas “Marsquakes” are likely fueled by magma moving under the surface or the vibrations of cracks in the crust. InSight is designed to detect these quakes and use the wobbles to figure out what Mars is made of.
InSight will be the first interplanetary mission to ever take off from the West Coast. So far, every US mission to a planet or moon in our Solar System has launched from Florida. Rockets that fly to the east from Florida get an extra speed boost, but InSight is fairly small It doesn’t need the boost as much as heavier spacecraft do. And since Florida is a busy place for rockets launches, NASA plans to launch this vehicle on May 5th, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, which is usually pretty open. That’s where we are now: a clean room on the base only a few miles from where InSight will launch. I’ve just spent the last day with Lockheed Martin — InSight’s manufacturer — and the US Air Force getting InSight over here.
How exactly does one move a spacecraft across the country, you might ask? Very carefully — and with a big plane.
Lockheed Martin built the majority of InSight at the company’s facility in Littleton, Colorado. Most of the manufacturing was completed three years ago. NASA originally hoped to launch InSight in May 2016, but one of the spacecraft’s instruments wasn’t working. In order to be sensitive to Marsquakes, InSight’s seismometer has to be sealed inside a vacuum chamber, and back in 2015, NASA found that this chamber was leaking. So the mission was pushed to 2018 — the next time when Earth and Mars line up on their orbits — to allow engineers time to fix the instrument.
So Lockheed Martin has actually moved InSight once before. The company transported the lander after a big snowstorm in mid-December 2015, before learning that the mission was delayed and that the spacecraft would need to go back to Colorado. Fortunately, the weather in Littleton is much nicer for our trip to Vandenberg. There’s barely a cloud in the sky, and it’s a nice 28 degrees Fahrenheit, which feels warmer than it does on the coasts. The air is super dry, and with the Sun shining, it all makes for a beautiful crisp day.
Our itinerary begins at Lockheed’s Littleton facility. From there, we’ll caravan in buses to Buckley Air Force Base. I’m traveling with a few members of the InSight team from Lockheed and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as well the crew tasked with handling the spacecraft. InSight, sealed tight in its white shipping box, will follow behind us, pulled by a semi truck. The container takes up a couple of lanes on the highway, so Lockheed has snagged a sheriff’s escort to drive in front of and behind the lander. Once we get to the base, the crew will load up the container on an enormous cargo plane provided by the Air Force, called a C-17. And when that’s done, we’ll head out to California with the spacecraft.
It’s going to be a long day since InSight can’t move very fast. Inside its box, the lander is surrounded by a large metal cage — referred to as the “birdcage” — that keeps it in place. But jostling in transit isn’t Lockheed’s biggest worry; the real struggle is keeping InSight at the right temperature and humidity level. If the temperature inside the shipping container gets too cold and the level of moisture gets too high, condensation might start to form on the spacecraft, like how dew forms on grass in the morning. But if water starts to form on InSight, the moisture could damage the vehicle and put the entire mission in jeopardy.
Lockheed is using an environmental control system to keep the temperature steady, so InSight’s shipping container has tubes sprouting from its back, attached to a heater and gas tanks. And if things start to get too moist inside the box, the company can purge the air with nitrogen gas. Nitrogen doesn’t hold moisture, so adding the gas to the box pushes out wetter air and keeps things dry. The only problem is that the tanks and heating system have to be disconnected in order to load InSight onto the plane.
“When we’re loading it on the plane, there’s not much we can do to keep the temperature warm,” Scott Daniels, the assembly, test, and launch operations manager of InSight for Lockheed, tells me. “So the temperature can start to go down in the spacecraft when we’re going on.” Daniels says he isn’t too worried since the weather is being cooperative today, and the crew will constantly monitor temperature during the load.
We all file into our buses at about 8AM and travel an hour to Buckley. Once there, Daniels gets a text that one of the panels sporting the InSight logo has fallen off the side of the container en route. Its velcro came loose — not a big deal, just a change of aesthetic. If it’s the only hiccup today, the team will be happy.
We step out of the buses, and in front of us is the C-17, a truly massive aircraft with four huge engines attached to its wings. We all mill around the tarmac for a bit, while a couple of F-16 fighter jets take off on the runway next to us. Eventually, InSight arrives, and it’s time to get this box on the plane.
It takes about five hours to lift the container off the truck with a forklift and then drag it into the cargo bay of the plane with cables. Every move has to be precise. The box inches forward toward the plane, and the move is frequently stopped so that someone can adjust the wheels of the container. When the box reaches the plane’s on-ramp at last, small metal inclines are placed in front of the wheels to help the box get over the hump of the ramp smoothly. Gary Napier, the representative for Lockheed who has been escorting me, tells me that those little inclines are made just for this operation. I silently wonder how much they cost.
Dozens of people handle the spacecraft, while the rest of the onlookers stand around the plane. One of them is William “Bruce” Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission. If the science of InSight were a movie, he’d be the director. I ask him how it feels watching his lander — a design that he has been working on for the last decade — get loaded into the belly of a C-17. “I feel nervous all the time,” he says, adding that “one little slip now, we just don’t have time to recover from it.”
Around 3PM, it’s finally time to fly. I walk up the staircase to the plane’s cargo bay. The interior looks just like the military planes do in the movies, though less polished. Tubes and machinery I don’t recognize line the walls. Everyone sits in metal chairs attached to the hull. There aren’t very many windows. A set of stairs is located at the front of the plane, leading to the cockpit. I ask a media relations officer if I can go up. She says I can ride in the cockpit for takeoff if I want. Um, of course I do.
I’m strapped into my seat, but I’m still thrown back against the chair when we zoom down the runway. It’s truly a stunning view, watching Colorado’s mountains grow smaller from the cockpit’s windows. I ask the pilot what it’s like to fly this plane. He says it takes him all over the world. Last week, he was in Africa dropping off military personnel. Tomorrow, he’ll be transporting another spacecraft to Florida — though its identity is a secret.
Two hours later, we touch down in California and step off the plane. A crowd of Air Force personnel, Lockheed employees, and NASA engineers are there to greet us. I’m asked if I want to stick around to see the crew unload InSight off the plane. I tell them I’ll just imagine the morning’s events in reverse. What I’m really looking forward to is the next day, when the crew takes InSight out of its box, and I can finally see the lander up close.
After spending the night in the nearby town of Lompoc (pronounced “Lom Poke,” as I’m frequently told), I head back to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Lockheed has a clean room facility on the base called Astrotech, where its spacecraft are processed before launch. That’s where InSight will stay for the next couple of months. Not only do I have to suit up to go inside, but I have to pass through a room that douses me in a clean air shower beforehand to blow off all the particles on me.
Once the top of the shipping container is removed, InSight is at last exposed in all its glory. Well, sort of glory: it’s upside down, bundled up underneath a big shield. That’s how it’s going to launch on the rocket: with its legs pointed up, or toward Mars. During the descent to the surface, the shield will protect the lander from heating up before InSight deploys its parachutes to slow its fall. Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult; the planet’s atmosphere is very thin, providing little cushion for incoming spacecraft.
Seeing the lander outside its box, I have an overwhelming urge to touch it. Would I be tackled? Can they arrest me? Plus, how would they decontaminate the Loren germs off of InSight? Perhaps they would launch anyway, and my microbes would make it all the way to Mars. I don’t touch the spacecraft.
After taking the necessary selfies with InSight, I’m forced to say goodbye to the spacecraft, but I know I’ll see this little lander again soon. I’ll be watching when it launches on that Atlas V in just a few months. It’s funny the extremes that this spacecraft gets to experience during its lifetime. For most of its time on Earth, InSight is treated so delicately, like a porcelain doll that is transported with utmost care. All in the service of strapping it onto a missile and shooting it into space at 10,000 miles per hour.
And if its landing goes well — or even if it doesn’t — then Insight will never travel anywhere else again.
Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge