Monday, April 1, 2013

Exploring NASA

As you know, I declared March NASA month, and spent every day on the blog celebrating all the wonderful ways NASA has been a part of my life--from the inventions to the exploration, inspiration to dedication. NASA seriously is my favorite government program (is it weird to have a fave government program?), and I really, sincerely, believe that the world is a better place because NASA exists.

But another reason why I wanted to celebrate NASA was because I got the chance to explore the Johnson Space Center! This was such a dream come true, and when Kate offered me the chance to see the center, I jumped at it. I happened to be in Texas on a retreat with several fellow writers, so I grabbed Victoria Schwab and Carrie Ryan and roped them into coming, too. (Note: all pictures courtesy of NASA, unless they're crappy and noted as mine.)

Here we are in the lobby of the Mission Control Center,
along with our informed tour guide who patiently answered all our questions. 

I don't think it'll be possible for me to express in words just how much this trip meant to me. It's one thing to read about the dimensions in the space shuttle; it's another to nearly have a panic attack from the claustrophobia inside it! I was left with such a strong impression of what it means to be a part of NASA, both in terms of the history-making legacy and the extreme conditions the astronauts put on themselves just for a chance to slide into the unknown of space. 

Inside the live control room, as they prepare for a live show
with Commander Hadfield on
board the International Space Station.
Here's Commander Hadfield just before he goes live on NASA TV.
He's just, you know, chilling in anti-gravity. Like you do.
I'm probably going to be way too sappy for this post. But the thing is, it was sort of overwhelming to imagine the lives of the people involved. I love to slip into other people's lives--it's why I write--and of course I spent the entire time envisioning stories.

There were definitely times when I totally zoned out while our tour guide was speaking--not because what she was saying wasn't interesting, but because I was so caught up in where I was, and what could happen here, and what had happened, that I slipped into the stories of this world. At the live Mission Control, I started thinking about what would happen if the lights suddenly flashed red. If, on the screen with Commander Hadfield, we heard a tap-tap-tapping...from outside the space station. This was a place filled with possibilities, and possibilities are the best kinds of stories. 

One of the desks in Mission Control is THOR.
Thermal Operations and Resources.
With a Thor Hammer.
Because NASA is cool.
After viewing the live Mission Control room, we went to visit the historic Mission Control, the one used for the Apollo launches. 

I found this room just as fascinating. While the current Mission Control room is full of possibilities, this one was full of history. So much happened in this room. The first launch. The first tragedies. The highest of highs. "Houston, we have a problem." Breathless prayers. Crushed hopes.

Peering into the inside of one of the computers.
This is the picture I took of the inside.
It really amazes me how much NASA did with so little. Guys. See the inside of the computer above? I mean. I'd be willing to bet that my MacBook is more powerful. And you don't see me sending people to the moon.

Notice the rotary-style phone system built into the consoles.

I also found this feature hilarious:

Tubes! Like the little tubes and canisters that some banks use (and also, by the way, the inspiration for Amy and Elder's grav tubes on Godspeed). There were these stations of tubes on several of the consoles. Our tour guide told us that often, the people in Mission Control couldn't leave. Their jobs were too important; they had to stay at their station. So, anything that could fit in the canisters could be sent up to the people working. Not just important papers or other business-y things. Sandwiches. Sodas. Live frogs and snakes. Whatever. 

Oh, those whimsical NASA scientists. :)
But of course, this Mission Control isn't just a place where scientists mailed frogs to each other in canisters. It's also a place where some of the most important historical events of our age happened. 

Apollo 13 is one of those moments. Apollo 13 encountered trouble en route to the moon when one of the oxygen tanks exploded. This is, as you can imagine, quite serious. Whether or not the astronauts could even survive landing became a question. Survival came down to the stamina of the astronauts and the ingenuity of the people in mission control. 

I just...I can't imagine that moment. Ever since I first learned of the Apollo 13 mission, I always imagined what it must be like for the astronauts, to realize that they might die on this mission. But here, in the Mission Control room, what I realized was the horror of the men and women on the ground. To hear "Houston, we have a problem," and to realize that you're hearing the words of men whose lives depend on you

Over the water fountain in this control room--the same water fountain used during that time period--there's a framed plaque, with a mirror affixed to the top. The mirror came from the Apollo 13 module. The plaque reads: 
This mirror flown on Aquarius, LM-7, to the Moon April 11-17, 1970, returned by a greatful Apollo 13 crew to "Reflect the Image" of the people in mission control who got us back! --James Lovell, John Swigert, Fred Haise
High emotion always captures me. It was so easy to blur my vision here, and think of the people who sat in those seats (those original seats--none of this was a recreation! It was all original, from the desk chairs to the water fountain...including the big red phone at the Flight Director's seat!)

When we first saw the phone, we all approached it reverently. We gathered around and took pics. Then they offered to let us take a picture with it. Victoria sits down prettily and smiles. Carrie picks it up, all charming. Then I go and make a complete ham of myself. NO REGRETS YO.

The best picture of me ever.
Photo credit: NASA.
Best photo credit for the best picture of me ever.
We got a chance to walk around this room, and it was just so awe-inspiring. Everything is original, down to the chairs and the water fountain. It truly was being in a place of history. I stood in history. I sat in history's chair. I played around on history's telephone when I should have been paying attention to the tour guide telling us about history.

Speaking of history, see those framed papers behind my and Carrie's heads? 

Right there. Upper right. Story about them below:
Each of the Flight Directors is basically king of the Mission Control room. What he (or she--yes, there have been women Flight Directors) says goes, absolutely, without question. In such a dangerous situation as NASA missions, you have to have one person to make quick decisions that are absolutely obeyed. This person carries the weight of everyone's lives on his or her shoulders.

Funny story: each Flight Director has a color code-name. The first three were Red, White, and Blue. Since then, nearly all the colors have been claimed, including Indigo and Chartreuse! Each color can only be used once--those framed documents in the picture above are the retired colors of past Flight Directors. They've since run out of colors (except Pink--no one's claimed Pink), and now use other things, such as minerals and rocks (Iron and Granite) as code names for the Flight Directors.

Not-so-funny story: Remembering that some of the Flight Directors--who are very real people--carry the weight of NASA's tragedies on their shoulders.

After Mission Controls of the Present and the Past, we headed to the NBL--the Neutral Bouyancy Lab, a.k.a. the astronaut swimming pool.

I love the center badge. A scuba diver and an astronaut. Awesome.
I didn't get a good picture of it, but one of the first things we saw was the hypobaric chamber and hyperbaric chamber. In the photo below, these two chambers are under the "Welcome to the NBL" sign.

The hyperbaric chamber is on the left, and looks like a submarine. This is used to treat people with decompression sickness (a.k.a "the bends")--very needed for the scuba divers in this massive pool. But Victoria and I were totally enamored of the hypobaric chamber, the rectangular building to the right. The hypobaric chamber basically recreated the effects of altitude sickness. And then they give you a written test. No, really. When you get altitude sickness, you apparently don't know things you normally know, like colors, shapes, or something random, like which states start with the letter M. Knowing what information you lose when you get altitude sickness helps you know when you're sick--and unable to make the key life-or-death decisions an astronaut needs to make. (And also, it helps you know about how long you have until you pass out. Because you're totally going to pass out.)

Now behind the chambers is the biggest pool I've ever seen. far as the eye can see...
Guys. This pool. It's huge. It holds...wait for it...more than six million gallons of water. (More fun facts here!)

And inside the pool? A full-size replica of the American part of the International Space Station. Just sitting there underwater. The ISS underwater.

Look how clear the water is. It was beautiful.
The pool actually freaked me out a bit. It's hard to see in the picture because the water's so clear, but the water's depth and the reflective surface actually created this weird optical illusion. I couldn't look at the water while we walked beside the pool. I had to look at my feet while walking, and only look at the water while standing still. Weird!

I 100% took this picture because it looks a little bit like an AT-AT from Star Wars. 
So, why is the ISS underwater? BECAUSE IT MAKES FOR THE COOLEST POOL PARTY EVER, AM I RIGHT? No, seriously, it's because the astronauts can simulate the feel of anti-gravity in the water using weights. It's that whole "neutral buoyancy" thing. The astronauts suit up, go under water, and train, simulating typical tasks they'd need to do outside the space station. They get the effect of anti-grav and practice doing the actual tasks they'll need to do in space. All because of one super-awesome pool!

A typical picture of me: looking around like a star-struck child the whole darn time. 
Of course, it's pretty hardcore to work on the ISS, event underwater. Here, our guide's explaining the way the astronauts suit up. After stepping into the lower-half of the suit (aka "astronaut pants"), they get into this rig, where the upper part of the suit is attached with the help of others. It's considerably easier to get the suit on when you're in anti-grav!

The rigging the astronauts use to suit up.
One difference between me and an astronaut:
An astronaut requires rigging to suit up for work.
I'm doing good if I'm out of my pajama pants by noon.
When getting into the pool involves a crane, you know you have a cool job. 
The astronauts all start here: the hatch that leads from the space station to outer space. The scuba divers help the astronaut get into this hatch, which is just where the astronaut will start his mission when he's in orbit. From there, the astronaut has to maneuver him or herself around the outside of the ISS using tethers and the yellow handlebars in the picture below. 

Of course I thought of Harley every time they mentioned the hatch. 
The NBL is just for the astronauts to train on the outside of the International Space Station. The inside is an entirely different training situation. Not underwater.

Click to embiggen--a panoramic view of where the mock-ups of the shuttles and space station are. To the right, under the American flag, is the ISS mock-ups. To the left is the shuttle mock-up.
The mock-up of the ISS used by the astronauts for training.
Because the astronauts only wear space suits when they're outside, they don't need the NBL to train for the inside--there's more room and it's easier to maneuver around (although, of course, there's also no gravity in the ISS, so throughout the inside of the mock-up, there's "handlebars" for the astronauts to use while they move around).

The ISS was surprisingly large--I mean, I would definitely get hives if I had to stay there long-term, like the astronauts do, but I've lived in smaller apartments. 

Me, Carrie, and Victoria, in the Japanese research lab section of the ISS,
in front of the hatch that leads to the American hub.
To give you an idea of the size of the ISS, this model hung from the ceiling. Near the center (click on the pic to embiggen), there's a little astronaut in a space suit. The entire model is scaled to size.

Hello, astronaut!
The thing that really struck me while touring the ISS was how economical the engineers were with space. Every single square inch had a purpose. It really does require a different mindset. Of course the space station is in orbit, in a zero-gravity environment. Of course that means there's not really an up or down. There's not a ground or ceiling. Which means there are storage compartments and useful space on all four walls--up, down, left, right. 

Example: the sleeping compartments. The quilted white boxes in the picture below are the individual sleep compartments of the astronauts. Each astronaut only has this small "room" as his or her private space. There's one on the ceiling and on the floor (below the glass, which is only there because we were walking on it, and we have gravity) because there is no up or down, floor or ceiling in space.

The four sleeping chambers for four astronauts.

The inside of the sleeping compartment. Tiny!
Watch out V! There's a sleeping astronaut over your head! 
Like the sleeping chambers, the hatches are all around--up, down, left, right. Each one leads to a different section of the ISS.

Can't you just imagine an astronaut floating through? 
One thing I didn't realize before this tour was just how different the American/European/Japanese part of the ISS and the Russian part of the ISS was. I knew there were different sections of the space station, and that Russia was in charge of one and America in charge of the other, but those sections are vastly different. While the Japanese research lab and the American hub of the ISS was clean, white, and streamlined, the Russian side was...

You can almost see the Iron Curtain.



Floor-to-ceiling beige carpet.

I still don't know why.

But there you have it. Russian space stations are carpeted. Don't say I never taught you anything.

Click to embiggen, and see the switches with Russian labels.

Additionally, the only table on the whole space station is in the Russian side. Whenever the astronauts celebrate something--such as holidays--or just have the free time to share, they share a meal at the table. Of course, when they share a meal, they float. They hook their feet on bars under the table, and snap their metal trays to the magnetized surface of the table.

Me, Victoria, Carrie, and Kate, all ready for our astronaut ice cream! 
The Russians really did make their entire side of the ISS different. Even the sleeping compartments are different--not quilted things bolted to the wall, but a sort of walk-in closet. 

Personally, I think the Russian sleeping chambers are bigger than the American ones. 
After the space station, we got to go into a mock-up of the space shuttle! 

See the blue-and-glass walkway in the background?
Everyone else had to watch from a distance! I felt like a rockstar as I got to go inside the shuttle! 
I couldn't stop taking pictures of hatches.
(Although this was taken by our NASA photographer. Her pic was much better than mine.) 
While the ISS surprised me by how big it was on the inside, I have to say that the shuttle shocked me by how cramped it was. The ISS used every single bit of free space, but it allowed room for living, too--space to live, move, breathe. No such space existed on the shuttle. It was achingly claustrophobic.

The shuttle was split into to sections. The lower part held the sleeping chambers, storage for experiments, food, etc. The upper part was the operational controls of the shuttle.

The red bumps on the floor we're all looking at indicate where more chairs for the astronauts to use during take-off and landing would be. The rectangular lockers to the right held all the research materials, food, supplies, etc., the astronauts needed. Each astronaut could bring up only what would fit in one locker.

A sleeping bag in the shuttle.

The entire kitchen. Above our tour guide's hand is a water system that could directly inject hot or cold water into the dehydrated food. She's indicating the small oven used in later space shuttles for additional cooking.

You are looking at an astronaut's bathroom.
Bet you didn't expect to see that when you woke up this morning. 
After climbing a (very difficult to maneuver around on) ladder, we reached the upper section of the shuttle, which holds more switches than I knew existed. 

So many switches that they had a stick just for using them from their seats. 
I got to pose with the switcher-stick!
I had another one of those tingly awe-inspiring moments when I saw where the captain sat. The seat was narrow, with a joy-stick type thing in the center between the legs, and buttons and switches and dials everywhere.

Victoria and Carrie take control of the shuttle...
...until I shoved them out of the way. You may call me Captain Beth. 
With Kate as my co-pilot!
I cannot express just how claustrophobic this part of the tour was. I honestly had a little-mini-freak-out. I had to stare at the windows and remind myself that I could leave, and I wasn't stuck, and they weren't going to send me into space, and I could totally escape if I had to, and breathe.

Ugh. I am definitely not cut out to be an astronaut.

We're all standing as far apart as we physically can. 
Honestly, I wish I could adequately express what this was like. But the best I can do is this: Behind all those thousands of switches and buttons and dials and Very Important Looking Things, there is a very definite sense of the thickness of the walls. And they are thick. Steel and steel and more steel. It is reasonable for me to think that, if I had to, I could break free from my house. I could punch out the windows or saw through the wood or something. But I knew with every sense of my being that, should the hatch be locked, I could not ever escape the thick steel walls of the shuttle.

That was what the trapped feeling felt like. 

Needless to say, I was rather relieved when we left! After the shuttle, we had a chance to look at the module the NASA engineers are currently working on. 

It is named ORION guys.
It was even smaller and more claustrophobic than the shuttle mock-up.
Fortunately, we weren't allowed inside.
I 100% took this picture because this dude reminded me of Boba Fett. 
 We had one last stop before the end of the tour: Rocket Park!

Best park name ever.
Open to the public, the Rocket Park has the actual Saturn V, restored and there for everyone to see.

It is large.
Very large.
Me, Carrie, Victoria, and Kate posing behind the thrusters.
That sounds bad.
Carrie and Victoria chatting with HUGE GIANT ROCKET SHIP THRUSTERS BEHIND THEM as you do. 
Birds and a rocket.
Oddly appropriate for two different books I'm working on now. 
I was fascinated by the birds flying around the rockets. 
I am so, so, so lucky to have had this chance to explore NASA. If you are ever in Houston--go. See this highlight of American history. Immerse yourself in the possibility of exploration. Discover all this world--and the universe--has to offer.

Never stop dreaming. Never stop reaching for the stars. 
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