Feeling like a VIP at NASA
When fellow writer Amy Sisson suggested that her husband Paul Abell could get a group of us a VIP tour of NASA, it was pretty clear our 2013 vacation would be in Houston. After last year’s small but successful gathering of Star trek authors, we knew we wanted to reconvene and this opportunity was too good to pass. While our spouses easily eschewed Kansas and endless barbecue, they all signed up to come south.
Amy and I spent months wrangling the authors, getting commitments, coordinating flight arrangements all to make certain the weekend went smoothly. Amy then went on to work with Paul to figure out the itinerary, find us a block of hotel rooms and a series of restaurants that could accommodate a large group. The bar was the easiest to find.
Thursday we all traveled convening at the hotel, with hugs and grins and an energy of anticipation. Our intrepid group included Kirsten Beyer, John Coffren, Peter David, Kevin Dilmore, Dave Galanter, David R. George III, William Leisner, David Mack, Aaron Rosenberg, Dayton Ward, Amy, and yours truly. Just about all of us were accompanied by spouses, significant others, or friends.
Friday, the caravan drove from hotel to NASA and we parked near Rocket Park then met our guides. A trio of red-shirted members of the media relations department gave us backgrounds and our all-too-cool badges, replicas of the flyers posted around the campus to announce our coming. They picked red for the obvious reasons and so they would be easily identified by the 20 of us.
Our first hour was spent touring several of the Mission Control rooms, starting with the currently active one monitoring the International Space Station. As we sat in the gallery, the timing allowed us to watch sunrise, illuminating the exterior of the station and the Earth below. The huge tracking board showed the station was crossing the Atlantic, passing over Ireland and into Europe. We were told about the functions of most stations and how call signs for Fight Directors were retired with the person, plaques commemorating their tenure. Each control room was filled with the insignia from each mission they oversaw.
We then went into the original control room, the one that watched over Gemini and Apollo flights, immortalized in the film Apollo 13. We marveled at the rotary dials for phones and pneumatic tubes for messages, the seeming primitiveness of the technology but still sophisticated enough to get men to the moon and back.
The other rooms were redundancies, designed for flexibility with one being thoroughly revamped with the most up-to-date technologies available. Among those acting as guides was Dr. Stanley Love, an astronaut, and Ed “Carbon flight” Van Cise, a flight director.
We then crossed to another building, an auditorium where six of us were being asked to sing for our supper, as it were. The staff wanted to hear from us and arranged a round table discussion led by John Connolly, Deputy Manager, Exploration Mission and Systems Office; literally a rocket scientist as he designs next generation craft. Kirsten, Dayton, three Davids, and I were questioned by John before a crowd of 200, many of whom had emailed questions in advance or lined up at the microphone to ask us about Star Trek, writing, and the connection between space reality and space fiction. The time flew by and people seemed genuinely interested. The panelists were geeking out at the location and audience.
NASA pulled out all the stops and we were had a VIP tour unlike any other including our next stop, which was on the 9th floor of the administration building. Apparently, no one ever goes to the 9th floor. There, we were greeted by Deputy Center Director Steve Altemus, who saw we were coming and insisted on meeting us. He spoke with great enthusiasm about what NASA is doing, where it is going and how much they could accomplish despite their tiny budget and struggles to maintain support in Washington.
Our next stop was at the cafeteria where we grabbed box lunches and were scattered around tables, getting to sit and chat with staff. We were lucky enough to have Dr. Jon Olansen, Project Manager for Morpheus and Dr. Eileen Stansbery, Director of Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science at our table so the conversation was quite stimulating.
Dr. Olansen then took us through the cavernous facility where Morpheus is being tested. In short, Morpheus is creating artificial intelligence and tools that will allow spacecraft to land on a surface, detecting where unforeseen obstacles might be and locate a safe landing spot. We were shown the current model being readied for test and then taken to the remains of last year’s test where a critical connection failed sixth tenths of a second after takeoff, causing it to crash.
From there, we were brought to a different building and shown the current developments in spacesuits. The first floor had an impressive display of suits actually used from Gemini forward, including Gus Grissom’s flight suit, which touched me deeply since I had previously written a young adult Gus Grissom biography. Space Suit and Crew Survival Systems Branch Chief Raul A. Blanco talked about these suits and then showed us the new suits being currently tested. We watched as one of the staffers moved about in a thinner, more flexible suit, under the direction of one staffer and watched closely by a camera. We then were brought to check out the robotics research where Casey Joyce, Robonaut Deputy Project Manager, introduced us to the robonaut. A second generation unit is currently on the ISS and earlier we watched it at work, taking air samples for testing — relieving the astronauts themselves from the frequent and tedious task, explained Cady Coleman, an astronaut who joined us on the afternoon portion of the tour. We all got to shake hands with robonaut, demonstrating its dexterity and firm grip.
Across the floor, we were shown current work being done with exoskeletons, taking the robonaut research and applying it in new ways. We were shown how the legs and backpack were relatively formfitting and lightweight enough to help the injured. They also learned that by essentially reversing the programming, it could create resistance, allowing astronauts in flight gain invaluable exercise. Our “model” also identified how Star Trek, both books and film, led to his current career with NASA, a recurring theme for the day.
The bulk of the afternoon was then spent checking out the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility where we got to look at the current designs for Orion, the next capsule to bring men into space, a look a Commercial Crew, the private operations that will resupply the ISS and bring tourists into space; and mockups of the ISS and Soyuz spacecraft. As tight as Apollo and even tighter in Soyuz capsules are (especially for someone as tall as Dr. Love, he pointed out), the ISS is surprisingly roomy. Cady Coleman walked us through the ISS, talking about how the three Russians tend to keep to their side of the station while the other three members worked throughout the craft, so could go hours without seeing other people. We heard about the schedules and work being done. Dr. Tara Ruttley, Associate Program Scientist, told us about the kinds of experiments being done with humans on the ISS, to better understand what being in space does to the human body. Cady soberly pointed out that while the tech is reaching the point where reaching Mars is feasible, the long-term effects on the astronauts remains a mystery so we’re not ready to send anyone to the red planet.
Eagleworks Lab’s David Brady gave us a brief primer on where current science is with regard to developing real world warp drive. The methods he talked about were ones I cribbed from to explain Lightstream engines in the After Earth bible so I was pleased to see how close I was. It was astonishing to understand our far our thinking has come and delighted to see a model warp-capable ship designed by Mike Okuda on the presentation.
We were given a close look at the various rovers being designed and used, primarily by robonauts but how they differed for various terrain.
Our final stop was Paul’s building where we got to see work being performed on moon rocks and meteorites. We were greeted by Dr. Stansbery who gave us a brief overview before turning us over to Dr. Ryan Ziegler, Apollo Sample Curator, and Kevin Righter, Antarctic Meteorite Curator. For the former, we got to see various encased samples of moon rock from the various Apollo missions with a detailed explanation for how they are parceled out around the world for study, still learning new things about the moon and Earth. Kevin then had us don hats, gloves, gowns, and booties, took us into a chamber for a high pressure air bath, then led us into the rooms where meteorites are studied. He talked about how they became acquired, catalogued and examined, unlocking some of the universe’s secrets.
Tired and flagging, but highly stimulated, we were then taken back to Rocket Park and inside the building where on the three remaining Saturn V rockets sits on its side, stage by stage. The enormity of the engines, and the overall size of the ship compared with the tiny part where the humans sat was amazing. The various Apollo missions from the disastrous first test to the final mission to space, were memorialized with pictures, stats, and quotes along one wall.
Suddenly, ten hours had flown by and we were all posing under the NASA “meatball” for final group shots.
I grew up in the 1960s, during those heady times when the national couldn’t agree on much except we needed to beat the Russians to the moon. And in 1969, a magical year in many many ways, we accomplished that. Since then, space has beckoned and we have been sluggish to respond. Thankfully, the ISS is there to regularly remind us of what is beyond our sight and other nations are sending men into space. We are finally making concrete plans to return men to the moon and beyond and bring asteroids to us. Hopefully this will mean a new generation of enthusiasm for space will emerge.
We need it. We need space’s resources and we need to find ways to survive off this planet. As our resources dwindle and our population swells, we clearly need to know what’s out there and where else we can find a place to call home. I certainly won’t be around to see that goal achieved, but I want to know we’re striving to obtain that goal to the best of our abilities.
While the twenty of us were in awe of the work being done at the Johnson Space Center, the enthusiastic and committed staff was equally excited to see us among them. They wanted to express their appreciation and recruit us to help spread the word that there’s exciting work being done. Consider this the first such repayment of that debt.