Last week my folks flew down from Canada for a visit, and I wanted to do something extra-special for the parental units while they were in Texas -- I pulled a few strings with a friend at NASA, and he generously arranged for us and a couple of friends to go on a special tour of the Johnson Space Center last Saturday.
For the first half of the tour we were guided by a man named Tom, who trains the shuttle astronauts. Just a terrific guy. (He personally trained the seven astronauts on the doomed Columbia mission, which is understandably a sore subject with him.) Tom would end up giving us personal insight into what the astronauts go through, both during training and during the missions.
OK, let's get this tour started!
Our first stop was the facility where astronauts train aboard STS mockups...
Here we are at the Shuttle Mission Simulator. "The Untouchables" are the latest crew, who were scheduled for yesterday's scrubbed Discovery launch. Presumably they are untouchable, because nobody wants to make the crew sick before a launch. NASA makes a big deal about germs and bugs in the training facilities, and there are signs everywhere. I liked the one that says if you are feeling even remotely crummy, stay home. That's one heckuva sick-day policy.
The simulation center feeds the shuttle simulator and command center with problems during the simulated missions to see how well the crew deals with them. The runs are scripted, but the simulator guys get pretty devilish and like to throw in a few unscripted problems, as well. Tom tells us that once they start feeding problems to the crew, they just keep 'em coming one after the other. Yikes! Oh, and for you geeks out there, NASA uses IRIX. Who knew?
Next is the mockup of the shuttle cockpit. It's a high-fidelity representation of the interior of the shuttle. Lemme tell you something -- the habitable part of the shuttle is tiny
. Claustrophobics need not apply. Also, you'd better really
like your fellow astronauts. Tom tells us that the crew spends quite a bit of time training together before a mission, so they are practically family by the time they go up.
Here's the exterior of the simulator
And the interior. That's Commander Stapers at the controls. Actually, I think he's in the pilot's position. (Factoid: the commander flies the shuttle, not the pilot. Go figure.)
During shuttle missions, the crew spends virtually every second doing work. Each crew member gets a total of 10 hours of "off" time during a mission (which is usually 10 days in duration), and the astronauts spend all
of that time looking out one of the windows at the earth. It must be the mother of all views.
The crew really does use all of those little timers. Every single operation is timed to the second, so there are no surprises. There are also procedure manuals everywhere -- one of them is sitting next to the flashlight.
More switches 'n' stuff, which we were asked not to touch.
Here's Kfir of Protest Warrior
fame at the controls. I like the idea of Protest Warriors in space.
I had to turn the flash off the camera in order to get a photo of how cool the cockpit looked with the monitors.
The next thing we got to do was check out the toilet facilities on the shuttles. Scary stuff. You strap yourself onto the toilet, and then there is something like an in-the-bowl cam (no lie) so you can check to make sure your derriere has made a good seal with the toilet seat. You really don't want anything escaping from the toilet in zero-g. For going potty, both male and female crew have to use that scary-looking suction tube thingie in front. (Fun fact: the Mercury astronauts just wore diapers. The cabin must have smelled pretty bad after seven days of a grown man sweating and soiling himself. Which is probably why NASA had the capsules land in the ocean. They could just dunk the smelly astronaut in the drink. Har har!) Here's Tom showing what a fun experience it is to relieve yourself in the shuttle lavatory.
Next up was the shuttle motion simulator. The astronauts use this to practice landing the shuttle. Here Mr. Stapers and Kfir alternate commanding the shuttle as it lands in Florida. Mr. Stapers' first attempt got us lost over the ocean (not his fault -- the simulator went kinda wonky), but all subsequent attempts were successful. Tom told us that the technology exists to have the auto-pilot land the shuttle all by itself, but the higher-ups at NASA prefer humans to do it -- something about the machismo factor.
Here's a view of the simulated graphics while somebody's bringing the shuttle in for a safe landing. Normally the simulator moves around to give the crew a realistic sensation of flight, but we couldn't find anyone who was checked out to do the motion stuff. Nevertheless, the simulation graphics were realistic enough to make me a little dizzy.
Thus concludes Part I of our tour. Next time, I'll show photos from the full-size shuttle mockups and my favorite part of the tour, Mission Control.