by Chris Tobias
I let my wife Richelle choose the destination of our family vacation this year. I figured she’d more than earned that right. After all, she had been willing to let me go off to a major con in Philadelphia for four days in late spring, and had put up with my taking over the job of organizing Pittsburgh’s annual Can’t Stop the Serenity events. She also agreed with the idea of our traveling to Germany next summer with a group of my students and their parents instead of taking a family vacation.
When she said she’d like to go to Houston, Texas for a few days to visit her sister Laurie and her family, I was on board without hesitation. My previous experiences in Texas were overwhelmingly positive, and I enjoy spending time with Laurie, her husband Steve and their two kids, who are both about the same age as my son. Since this would be the first time we visited them since they moved to Houston from Austin, I was also looking forward to seeing what the city of Houston had to offer, and I was especially enthusiastic about the prospect of visiting the Johnson Space Center.
As vacations go, this one did not disappoint. We got to spend time with family we don’t see often enough, and they were willing and generous hosts who did a wonderful job of showcasing their hometown for us. We flew into Houston on June 26 and flew back to Pittsburgh early on June 30, and although it was a short trip, we packed a lot into four days. It wasn’t so much relaxing as it was invigorating, but I enjoyed just about every minute of it. The daylong excursion to the beach in Galveston and seeing the Astros play the Los Angeles (Anaheim? California?) Angels at Minute Maid Park were very memorable, but it should come as no surprise that the real highlight for me was our trip to the Johnson Space Center on June 29.
It was difficult for me to control my excitement when we arrived at the Space Center, since the static displays of T-38 Talon jet trainer aircraft and the mock-up of the Space Shuttle that was used for training when the program was still active are impossible to miss when one pulls into the parking lot. Being in a group of eight, I had to resist the urge to go running off to look at them as soon as we parked, and I reminded myself that there’d be time to see them later. (I never did get back to see the T-38’s, but as a veteran spectator of many air shows I’ve seen my share of them, so that’s really no big deal.)
In reality there are two facilities adjacent to one another on the site. Space Center Houston is the official visitors’ center that welcomes the public, and it is operated not by NASA, but by private companies that have contracts with the government to do so. It is located next to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and serves as the staging area for tours of the Johnson Space Center itself, which is NASA’s facility and the spot where the real work is still going on.
As we moved to the ticket window at the entrance of Space Center Houston to purchase our admission tickets, the uniqueness of the place really hit home with me. Truthfully, it didn’t feel like we were about to enter a site where so much hard science is conducted on a daily basis. The mobs of tourists and the box office-style ticket window with its various package deals had the feel of a museum or an amusement park rather than a site that is crucial to the exploration of space by our nation and, in fact, the world. That awkward feeling would stay with me for a good part of our visit, because there are a number of exhibits at the Space Center that stretch the definition of “space science.” On one level I understand that flashy exhibits of live animals that have links, however tenuous, to experiments that have been done in space and an “Angry Birds” theme for a hands-on exhibit that explains the physics of traveling and working in space will help attract and maintain the interest of the general public. On another level, though, I am sad to think that such an approach would be considered necessary, because the real value of a visit to the Space Center lies in the fact that for a little more than the cost of a trip to the movies the average American citizen can have access not only to an amazing collection of artifacts from the history of American space exploration, but also one of the key sites at which our country’s current and future space missions are planned and executed. Shouldn’t that be interesting enough? Am I being overly critical, or have we become so accustomed to the need to be entertained in all aspects of life that even the most intrinsically fascinating things don’t hold our attention unless they are properly marketed to us?
The museum wing of Space Center Houston is an awe-inspiring place. The tour begins with a short documentary film of American space exploration in a little theater that now houses the podium from which President John F. Kennedy vowed that our nation would go to the moon. As I watched the newsreel footage of that historic speech, I found myself longing for a repeat performance. Not that I’m specifically interested in seeing Americans return to the moon (though I’m certainly not against it), but rather I’d just like to see, at least once in my lifetime, an American president commit to meaningful objectives in space and set a deadline for them that will be up before the end of his time in office (or at least not long after it), rather than making vague statements about the future of the US space program or setting lofty goals with timeframes that are so broad that the next administration is almost sure to contradict or nullify them anyway. I’m not trying to lay the blame on any one man or administration. I don’t have to. There’s plenty to go around. The simple fact is that we have not seen a meaningful commitment to an aggressive, goal specific pursuit of manned space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit since the Apollo program, and that ended when this middle-aged Browncoat was still in diapers!
Frustration wasn’t the only emotion I felt though. The film was very well produced, and the quality of the editing and music made for a very moving account of the US space program from Mercury all the way to the International Space Station. The way the Challenger and Columbia disasters were covered was particularly powerful. Even though I’d mentally prepared myself for those moments as the film approached those spots in the timeline, I nonetheless found myself with tears welling in my eyes and a lump in my throat. As the film reached its climax, complete with a transition from the ISS to CGI renderings of what future NASA projects would look like when they come to fruition, it was impossible not to feel a sense of pride and hope in what we have accomplished and still have the potential to accomplish out in the black. Then the doors opened up, and we were ushered into the museum wing itself.
The collection of artifacts from the history of American space exploration that is on display at Space Center Houston is reason enough to visit the facility. Within seconds of entering the gallery, you’re staring at actual Mercury capsules (America’s first, one-man spacecraft) that orbited the Earth, one of which actually hangs above you! When we see them in photographs, we automatically assume all spacecraft are big, but compared to the Space Shuttle, the Mercury capsules are positively tiny! I got a feeling of claustrophobia just looking at them, and my admiration of the men who were willing to be shot off into the unknown inside them increased exponentially once I saw how cramped the trip must have been. They say the joke among astronauts was that you didn’t fly a Mercury capsule, you wore it, and now that I’ve seen one in person I understand that completely. I’m pretty sure I have more room when I drive in my Mercury Mariner than John Glenn had in Friendship 7 on his Mercury-Atlas 6 mission!
The gallery is arranged chronologically, from the first unmanned flights all the way to NASA’s present day contributions to missions aboard the ISS. Along the way you get the chance to get a close look at a lot of the vehicles and equipment that has taken men to space and back again. Though most of the exhibits are protected behind layers of glass, some of them are interactive. It was fascinating to walk through a simulation of the interior of Skylab (America’s manned space station, which orbited the Earth from 1973-79) and see what life on that early space station must have been like. (I think that meant more to me than to my son or his cousins because I still have childhood memories of how anxious everyone was about how and where Skylab was going to fall to Earth when it did not burn up on re-entry as fast as expected.) As a Browncoat, I was happy to learn that the moon rock we were permitted to touch had come from the Sea of Serenity. (A docent informed me that Space Center Houston is one of eight places where you can touch an actual moon rock, though he admitted he couldn’t name all eight. I know one of them is the Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, and another is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. I’m relatively certain another is in the town of Nördlingen in the German state of Bavaria. If anyone can name all eight, please comment on this post and provide a list.) Though the important parts are protected by plexiglass, it was still possible to touch one of the original consoles from Mission Control, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t actually encouraged. I also enjoyed coming face-to-face with Robonaut, the robot that is used to perform tasks in space at the ISS. His head has evolved over time, but the one on display in Houston looked like someone found a way to combine the helmets of Iron Man, Thor and Boba Fett.
There were also a couple of exhibits that stood out to me simply because I am a Browncoat. One was a small toy dinosaur that was taken into space on board Space Shuttle Columbia in 1994. The other was a Hawaiian shirt worn by Dick Covey when he served as the pilot of Space Shuttle Discovery in 1988. Of course, both of these things reminded me of Hoban “Wash” Washburne, the pilot of Joss Whedon’s Serenity. Prior to my visit to the Space Center, I’d always assumed Wash’s love of dinosaurs and Hawaiian shirts was just the product of Joss’ imagination, but now I have to wonder if he didn’t take some inspiration from the crews of some real-life transport ships when he was developing the personal style of the character that Alan Tudyk would make so popular.
To see the Johnson Space Center itself, where the real work is still being done on a daily basis, we had to board a tram for a guided tour. I was disappointed to learn that we would not be permitted to see Mission Control, which was closed to the public for some reason on the day we visited. We did get a glimpse of the building from the tram though. The American flag flies from its roof whenever a US astronaut is in space, and since NASA has had a near constant presence on the ISS for years now, that’s pretty much all the time. We also saw the building that houses the world’s largest collection of moon rocks, but again we couldn’t go inside.
Our first stop was the astronaut training facility, where we got a look at some of the vehicles and equipment that NASA is developing for our astronauts to use in space, as well as some mock-ups of actual spacecraft that are used by astronauts to train for future space missions. Since it was a Saturday, there wasn’t any actual work going on for us to witness, but we did get to see where it all happens. On the floor were mock-ups of several of the Russian spacecraft currently in use, as well as the Canada Arm of the ISS and the Orion capsule that was originally proposed to replace the Space Shuttle.
I was thrilled to see a simulation of the hatch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which astronauts use to practice procedures for docking the Dragon with the ISS. Just seeing it there triggered a deluge of hopeful thoughts that a manned Dragon named Serenity will dock with the ISS within the next few years. While I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more floor space devoted to the Dragon and other elements of NASA’s Commercial Crew Project, I realize that my feelings were a little unfounded. While NASA astronauts need to know how to use the vehicles that are being developed as part of that program, it stands to reason that the actual research and development is being carried out at the facilities of SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada rather than on the grounds of NASA’s space centers.
The docent’s comments about SpaceX and the Dragon were… intriguing. She said that NASA hopes that one day all flights to the ISS will be handled by private companies like SpaceX, so that NASA will be free to concentrate on deep space exploration and “missions to the moon, asteroids, the moons of Mars and Mars itself.” I wanted very badly to ask her why we would bother going to the moons of Mars before we explored the Red Planet itself, as her statement seemed to imply. I also wanted to know if NASA had determined this planned division of labor in conjunction with the private space companies involved in the Commercial Crew Project. She gave no indication that she intended to field questions though, and as a docent who gives weekend tours to the public I doubt she was the person to ask if I wanted real answers to those questions anyway, so I didn’t push the issue.
I think the most impressive aspect of the training center (at least the part we were allowed to see) was the many manned and unmanned rovers that are currently in development. They ranged in size from that of a remote-controlled car to somewhat larger than a delivery truck, the latter being capable of sustaining astronauts in the field for at least 48 hours. One of them even made use of the upper torso of the ever-versatile Robonaut. We saw photos and video clips of some of them being tested in the deserts of Arizona, and I secretly hoped that wasn’t as far as most of these vehicles would ever manage to travel. During the Apollo program, our nation designed and built equipment that was goal-specific. We knew where we wanted to go (the moon) and what we wanted to do there, so we set about getting the tools we needed to do it. But today’s NASA has been given no specific objectives by Washington, and those goals that have been outlined in recent years were doomed to failure due to lack of funding. As a result, they’ve basically been given the task of researching, designing and building things like manned rovers in the hope that someday someone may designate a use for them. To quote Jubal Early (the eccentric bounty hunter from Firefly, not the Confederate general), “Does that seem right to you?”
Our next stop on the tram tour was a warehouse building that housed a Saturn V rocket. There were a few rockets and engines from the Mercury and Gemini programs standing on display outside, and I don’t mean to downplay their significance, but they honestly paled in comparison to the behemoth lying prone behind those warehouse walls! The rocket is on display divided into its various stages, so visitors can get a sense of how separation would occur as it headed into space. As with the Mercury capsules, you don’t have a true appreciation for the scale of the vehicle (in this case its gigantic size) until you’ve walked along its length (nearly three and a quarter football fields long) and stood beside its massive engines, which I swear are bigger than some dorm rooms I’ve been in! Along one of the interior walls of the building were descriptions of the many missions that were flown with the Saturn V and the men who were carried into space by it. There are many words I could use to describe it all; awesome, heroic and epic come readily to mind. I wish I could have been around to experience the wonder and excitement of it all. I realize now how much I took the Space Shuttle program for granted growing up.
At the conclusion of our tram tour we returned to Space Center Houston, where we took in a few exhibits that were outside the museum wing. These included the Red Bull Stratos platform and suit with which Felix Baumgartner made his historic supersonic parachute jump last October, and a mock-up of the interior of the Space Shuttle cockpit. It was here that I saw Dick Covey’s Hawaiian shirt, as well as the T-38 flight suit of the late Judy Resnik, who was killed when Challenger exploded during launch in 1986. That had special meaning to me because I had a bit of a crush on her in high school. Like me she was a fan of the actor Tom Selleck, and she even had ties to my hometown, having graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University. For most Americans it was the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe that put a face on the Challenger disaster, but for me it was the loss of Resnik that really hit home. I found myself just standing in front of her exhibit for several minutes, my gaze alternating between her slender blue flight suit and that beautiful NASA headshot, my thoughts transported back to my high school years, remembering where I was when I heard the news and how my young life was affected by her untimely death. I know my eleven-year old son was growing impatient with me, but I couldn’t expect him to understand. Besides, it was almost time to leave, and we wanted to visit the gift shop first. Nothing chases away morbid and depressing thoughts like shopping, I guess.
So we headed on over to the gift shop, where we contributed more than our share to the Space Center’s annual income! I bought NASA magnets for the refrigerator at home and the desk in my classroom, a NASA sticker, a Space Center t-shirt with the Space Shuttle and the famous “Failure is not an option” quote that is often attributed to Gene Kranz, a JSC Christmas ornament for our tree and replicas of the mission patches for the doomed Challenger and Columbia flights. I also picked up a book, the Human Space Flight Mission Patch Handbook. (Anyone who knows me well can tell you that I am practically obsessed with logos, crests and coats of arms, so this book was a must-have for me. Of course I’ve read it already. Perhaps I’ll discuss it in more detail at a later time.) And those were just my purchases! Add my wife’s and my son’s purchases to those, and you’ll understand why I’ve blocked the memory of the credit card bill!
After we exited, we made our way over to the static display of the training shuttle for a couple of quick photos before we walked back to the car. A few clicks later our trip to the Johnson Space Center had come to an end. I came away from the experience with a real sense of admiration for the brilliant men and women who are the backbone of our country’s modern space program, and I have every confidence that they still have the right stuff to lead us to new frontiers in space. If our nation shows them at least as much support and enthusiasm as we had for their predecessors, there’s no telling what they can accomplish. Chances are, though, that the next giant leap for mankind will not happen unless we, the people, make it clear to our leaders that a future beyond the boundaries of Earth is one that we still truly care about. After visiting the Johnson Space Center, I am convinced now more than ever that it should be.