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Monday, 28 July 2014

Space Center Houston

Welcome to Embrace Space! Today, I'm going to take you on a tour of Space Center Houston, and a little of NASA's Johnson Space Center. I have been enjoying my internship here, but it was finally time to get out of the office and see the sights!

The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center was established in 1961 and has a proud heritage of being NASA's center for human spaceflight. All American astronauts are trained here, and all astronauts set for the International Space Station conduct part of their training at JSC. 

The main center is a secured site, however, and even though I'm working here this summer, I've been unable to roam around freely, forced to be escorted everywhere I go. While I have been enjoying the work I've been doing, the limited access has bothered me quite a lot. 

I know there is a difference between expectation and reality, but to not have been given a tour, to not be able to go see some of the cool things I had heard of, this was really hard for me, and even more difficult when people from back home would ask me how things were and what I was doing. My internship has been more like a typical job and while I enjoy the autonomy and subject of my work, I have not been happy with just sitting at a desk for 9 hours a day. My mentor, while a nice guy, is far too busy to take me around, so I have been trying to find out about events ahead of time and arrange some way of seeing the sites.

However, after finally setting aside the time, I decided to check out the Space Center Houston, and I'm glad I did! Located right beside the Johnson Space Center, it is a public facility which features information and exhibits about JSC, and also provides tours.

The main building features a great hall inside of which are currently exhibits featuring Mars. NASA, along with several other space agencies, has set Mars as the next target for human space missions and exploration, but the dream is far from reality. While I have been researching various Mars missions concepts over the past year, I was surprised at the focus on the Red Planet at this facility. There were puzzles, games, information booths, all describing features of Mars and how people may need to live and work when they get there. There was a dust simulator, which was a cool concept but didn't really look that impressive. There was a "bouncy castle" of sorts with a harness which would let you experience that 0.39 Earth gravity featured on Mars. Unfortunately, I was so busy looking around, that I didn't get pictures of everything.

There was one "puzzle" which made me laugh. It was a pile of seemingly useless scrap metal, with a solar panel and overhead laps which changed with time. The idea was to construct a structure which could support the solar panel, absorbing the most light as read off on a display. I thought it a silly "exhibit", clearly appearing as an afterthought, but once some kids had tried, failed, and grew bored, I dove right in. After a very short time, I not only made a structure but used the left over parts to reflect more light onto the panel. It was fun and silly. 

The International Space Station, it was very hard to get the full model in the frame with the name in the background
The Orion, NASA's next human space vehicle
I really liked this ISS model, it was huge!
After checking out the Mars exhibits, and looking up at the occasional spacecraft model, I turned around to get a better look at the exhibit hall.

There are many things to see in these pictures, including the Apollo model, a lunar lander, a suspended astronaut, and a model of the Cupola (a windowed area on the ISS from where astronauts often gaze down at Earth).

Rounding a corner, I was pleasantly surprised, in one of the nerdiest ways. There, before me, was the Star Trek Original Series shuttlecraft Galileo!

For those of you unfamiliar with it, shuttlecraft were small vessels which could carry crew and cargo between a spaceship and a planet's surface, since the spaceships/starships were assumed to be too large to be built on Earth. The Galileo was the first one written, designed, and made for the Star Trek franchise and preceded the real life Space Shuttle and Buran designs by the American and Russia space agencies, respectively.

While not a real spacecraft, the shuttlecraft was really cool to see, especially since this was the actual prop used in the franchise; bought, rebuilt, and donated by rich fans of the series. I continued my tour feeling the combined feelings of nostalgia and dream-like optimism that the space industry and Star Trek often inspire within me.

After this, I went aboard a real-life shuttle, and got to take a look at all the cool controls!
This was the payload control panel

There were more toggles, switches, and buttons here than I have ever seen in one place in my life!
As I stood there, reading off the controls for the Space Shuttle, I thought how cool this last year has been as I've had the chance to see both the Space Shuttle and the Buran, up close. I have always felt a strong connection and interest in the space industry but until this year, everything I had seen had been in books. To be able to see the objects I had read about, dreamed about, that has been one of the most wonderful things of this last year.

After this, I sat down in a theatre of sorts and listened to lectures on different rover missions, most notably the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers used on the surface of Mars. Most of the information I already knew, but it was interesting to hear more about it.

Next, I hopped on a tram and took the audio-guided tour. As the trolley rolled along, and everyone sat quiet, eager, excited, listening to the narrator's voice, I felt an odd sense of excitement. It was like sitting in a theatre, as the curtains are pulled back, and you feel anticipation and relief you did not know you were holding on to. We rounded a corner and I saw the back of the Rocket Park building.

While I had been driving past this building, albeit on the other side, every day of my internship, I had not had the chance to see it up close. As you can see in the above picture, the building features a painting of the Saturn V, the rocket used to send humans, repeatedly, to the Moon.

Promised that we would return to the park at the end of the tour, we continued past it on our way to the old Mission Control Center!

I'm not sure why the architecture looks like this, but I thought it was interesting
After climbing several dozen steps, we were admitted to the Mission Control theatre. There, there were 6 rows of seats behind glass, overlooking what you see below.

This is it, people. This is where history was made, time and time again. From the Gemini missions in 1965, through the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, all the way to 1998, this room served as the primary mission control center. When astronauts needed assistance, or reported in, they were speaking to the people in this room. When Neil Armstrong said his iconic words upon first stepping onto the Moon, his words were first heard here. When astronauts onboard Apollo 13 said, "Houston, we've had a problem", this room was Houston.

Some interesting features of this room. The first thing to note is that there are no computers in this room. The computers used for this center were larger than the room itself, and so those are merely monitors you are seeing, being fed the information from elsewhere. To the left of the photo, you can see 6 holes with a tube sitting inside one. This was actually similar to the pneumatic system for mail delivery in offices, and was used to transport documentation, and sometimes even food and drink to the mission control operators.

The flag you see in the centre of the above picture was the backup flag brought along on Apollo 11. After the mission, Neil Armstrong presented it, thanking Mission Control for their tremendous work. Afterward, one of the astronauts from Apollo 17 decided that while it was interesting that the flag had been to the Moon, it would be more interesting if the flag had been placed on the lunar surface! He took the flag, planted it on the Moon, saluted it, and brought it back for mission control.

While there have been many human space missions other than the Apollo program, I was visiting on the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing. As such, much of the trivia on the tour, and provided here, is focused on Apollo missions. Sadly, I was not able to see inside the new Mission Control Center, the Mission Control Center for the International Space Station, but perhaps I will before I leave Houston.

The above picture was taken from the trolley on our way to Rocket Park; I was very surprised that it turned out so well as we were on the move and I was merely using my cell phone's camera.

The trolley made its way along the winding road toward the rockets. The right side of the path featured small trees and memorials of people who had worked at JSC, and the left side featured larger trees honouring all the astronauts who had died in the pursuit of exploration. As the narrator from the tour reminded us, accidents happen, although we do our best to reduce the chances. Space is the next frontier for exploration and everyone involved knows the risks, and choose to risk it anyway, for the pursuit of knowledge, expansion of perspective, and the wonder of exploration. It was a sombre, but respectful part of the tour, and I appreciated that.

Finally, to Rocket Park! I wish I could say that it was like entering Jurassic Park, but I guess that was what I felt at the start of the tour. Outside the Saturn V building, there were a few rockets including the Little Joe II and the Mercury Redstone.

Unfortunately, the Sun was interfering with my ability to get a good photo of the Mercury Redstone, but I'm sure what you're really looking forward to is the Saturn V!

Now, I could sit here and tell you every amazing interesting detail of the Saturn V, or I could invite you to read that Wikipedia link I just posted, but instead, I'm going to focus on my experience here. The first thing I noticed and remarked upon was its size. Human beings are interesting creatures. We have adapted to being able to judge horizontal distances fairly well, but not vertical.

This is clear when you ask your really tall friend to lie down. When you see them lying on the floor, you think, they're not that tall, but when they stand up, they're towering above you. This was similar to what you see below for the Saturn V. It doesn't look that big, but trust me, standing up, it would be. According to the tour guide, this was the Saturn V which was going to be used for Apollo 18 however, due to budget cuts, it was never flown.

Budget cuts. Just 3 years after humans had landed on the Moon, the United States, arguably the entire world, had grown bored of it, and the program was terminated. This makes me shake my head. Perhaps you are not that interested by this stuff. Perhaps, you wonder why so much time, money, and effort are and were invested in such space programs, but the landing on the Moon is one of humanity's single greatest achievements, and it makes me angry and sad to think that it could be so easily swept away as assumed, commonplace, boring.

As I listened to the tour guide, I leaned forward and touched the Saturn V. As I did so, I was reminded of this scene from Star Trek: First Contact, discussing the experience of being this close to history. (Apologies for the poor quality)

Don't they make a cute couple? It's funny because these two pieces were coupled together

As you may or may not know, many rockets are composed of stages, or sets containing engines and propellant. In many ways, it is more efficient to design rockets this way, and so they are. In the shot above, you can see the first two stages of the Saturn V. All of this mass, and all of the propellant inside, this only got you to orbit, you needed the rest to break free on your hyperbolic trajectory which would cause you to leave Earth's orbit, if you didn't intersect with the Moon, that is.

Along the way, we heard all kinds of interesting stories about the various Apollo missions. My two favourites are as follows:

The Apollo 12 mission apparently had many mishaps and near misses, but it also had an adaptable crew and a diligent team of engineers. However, just 35 seconds into launch, the Apollo craft was struck by lightning, twice, causing almost all of the circuitry to shut down. They had communication with the ground, but not much else. They had less than a minute to decide to abort the mission or fix the problem.

However, during one of their many rigorous tests, the onboard electronics had shut down rather unexpectedly. While the problem was quickly fixed, one spaceflight controller had sought out to discover the root of the problem. Recalling this one particular test, among hundreds maybe even thousands, the controller was able to suggest a rather odd command. As can be seen here in the video clip from the miniseries, "From the Earth to the Moon", the command, a simple flip of a switch, was an odd one and made astronaut Pete Conrad say, "FCE to AUX? What the hell is that?" Thankfully, Alan Bean knew the command and after flipping the switch, onboard electronics and telemetry came back online, and the mission carried through to success.

The next, concerns Neil Armstrong. During one of the early testing phases, Armstrong was up in one of the spacecraft modules. During a countdown sequence, the entire apparatus started to lean, and then fall. As its falling, the only safe course is to escape via an ejection seat, however, if you do it too late, you will thrust straight toward the ground. Armstrong ejected at almost a horizontal trajectory, landing far and away from the launch pad, which had been all but obliterated in the subsequent explosion. Later that day, one of his coworkers was phoned at his desk, asking if he had heard from Neil. The man seemed confused, of course he had heard from him, Armstrong was just down the hall, eating lunch. The man walked over to Neil and said, "You're not going to believe this. They say you destroyed the launch pad, almost killed yourself." Neil looked up and said, "Yeah, that's true. I'm filling out the incident report now." True astronauts rarely make for good drama. Their years of testing gives them the training to see past confusion, beyond hesitation, and far beyond drama. Instead of reacting wildly, astronauts are tested far beyond their limits so that when accidents do happen, they have either dealt with them before, or are ready to adapt to new experiences. When you have to rely on clockwork performance and precision flying, astronauts like Neil Armstrong get the job done.

Above, you can see the capsule, next to the escape tower.

And that concluded my time at Space Center Houston! I really enjoyed taking a walk through history, and it was amazing to see the space industry alive and well. I learned quite a bit on this journey and I hope you did too! I have one month left in my internship, with lots to do, but I'm going to make it count!

Here's hoping you have clear skies, thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Dallas! I sent you another letter on Saturday. This post answers most of the questions I had for you, though. I hope to hear from you soon :)