“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard (…)
These words are probably the most quoted of Kennedy´s historical speech at the Rice University Campus on September 12th 1962, following his address to Congress one year earlier, which in turn came after his decission to go to the Moon. It was so inspiring I posted about the letter exchange that led to that decission in this post.
So, when this year I planned a trip to the US to visit my sister Beatriz, I took the opportunity to plan kind of a tour tracking the history of the american space flight programs. The route across the US more or less followed the chronological evolution of this fabulous quest into the space. In addition, I had recently read Failure is not an option, from NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, so the elements were in place to enjoy a great ride on space history.
Hampton and NASA Langley Research Center
Hampton was the first place to be visited within this tour, as I had just arrived from the July 4th festivities I had enjoyed with my sister in Washington DC. By chance, precisely this year marks centennial, or the 100th years of NASA Langley Research center, the oldest facility of this administration and the main office to the Space Task Group, which in 1958 started the management of the manned space flights, such as the Project Mercury.
Since 2001, it turns out, NASA Langley is not open to public, being located inside the Langley Air Force Base perimeter. To cope with this constraint, a visitor center, the Virginia Air and Space Center , or VASC, was erected the town of Hampton for outreach activities. Then I had to pay a visit to VASC on my way to Langley. The exhibition shows both historic vehicles of the space race and the aerospace research activity for which Langley is also famous (see references in my posts about NASA aeronautical research here). I had hoped to see a special exhibition for the 100th years, but I could not find anything worthy of that anniversary. In fact and as opposed to, for instance, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I would not recommend a visit to this museum unless one is visiting the area for other reasons.
I drove further to the Base and the Research Center and, even if not open to public, I could not refrain myself from stopping close to the base limits, where one can still spot the Wind Tunnels, and took a picture of the entrance.
Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral
Next to NASA Langley, I took a plane to Orlando, and from there a car heading towards Cocoa Beach, the famous enclave in the coast of Florida where the first generations of astronauts found hosting. The Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in the nearby Merrit Island was home the historic launch platforms of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, but also of the Space Shuttle. Currently it hosts the operation of the rockets for capsules to the ISS and comercial launches of United Launch Aliance and SpaceX . The complex has evolved to a real “gateway to space”, as they claim with good reason. The center covers a wide area on both sides of Banana River:
Merrit Island and KSC Map (credit to TravelersinOrbit,.com)
Staying in the area for a long weekend, I could savor the magic of the space race. Alone driving through the roads to the Visitor Center (the A1A Florida state and the 3 N Courtenay Parkway), reading the road signs announcing the Kennedy Space Center was an experience. It was reinforced by the sights in the distance, from many miles away, of the launch platforms and the famous Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB. For enthusiasts of space and aeronautics, I would say that experience had the features of a pilgrimage to the temples of engineering. The fact that on those roads many batptist and methodist churches can be spotted, just adds to that espirtual sensation.
From the days that I visited the KSC, the main highlights were the Atlantis Shuttle exhibition at the visitor center, the special tour “Fly with an Astronaut” and the Launch Control Center tour. Fly with an Astronaut is a very recomendable “VIP” visit, guided by a real astronaut along 5 hours making stops beyond the standard tours. I just note here that our “host” was Shuttle Astronaut Tom D. Jones, with Extra-Vehicular experience in his four missions in space, who shared many insights of an astronaut´s live. We even had the chance to share a lunch with him, discussing the prospects of future space and Mars exploration. Below follow some pictures of those days:
KSC Visitor Center Entrance, about to live history
Two main attractions of KSC public visitor centers are these real vehicles, one made it to space, the other got its mission cancelled:
Saturn V with stages intended for Apollo missions finally cancelled
Atlantis Space Shuttle, shown by Tom Jones, who flew in it
In best american show-business fashion, the visits to both crafts are preceded by inspiring short movies that put the visitor in the best mood for what comes next.
KSC tour buses take visitors, both with normal admission tickets or special tours, inside the space center, where many historical spots can be visited:
The “Beach House” was used by crews and KSC personnel to relax prior to launches
Astronaut Tom Jones shares personal stories by the beach near The Beach House
Driving some miles, one gets to see very close the launch platforms, the VAB and the famous “crawler” that moved the space vehicles from the VAB to the platforms (an operation that took from 8 to 10 hours):
The “crawler” with VAB in the background
Tour guides claim that the crawler drives even slower than some of the other “inhabitants” of the ponds of Merrit Island, the turtles. These, along with aligators, are easily spotted in these bus tours.
Launch Pad 39A with nearby SpaceX facilities
Closer look at VAB
The Launch Control Center tour is another special visit, also recomendable, which takes the visitor to the “Firing Rooms” from which both Apollo and Space Shuttle launches were controlled. At specific dates (I was not that lucky) this visit is hosted by famed Launch Director Mike Leinbach. Along with the mythical Firing Room 4, the other rooms are being prepared for the upcoming launches of the Orion missions to Mars.
Windows of the “Firing Rooms” at Launch Control Center, close to VAB
At the entrance of LCC, with VAB in the back
The Firing Room 4 with Launch Director console
Launch procedure a the Director´s console…
Patches to all missions launched from LCC. The center was intended to serve up to Apollo 11. It lasted longer…
Patch to STS-95 mission with national hero John Glenn and spanish astronaut Pedro Duque (also fellow engineer and professor at ETSIA Madrid)
Apart from the evident significance of all the spots and vehicles shown at KSC, there was something that really impressed be. Size. The dimensions of the Center, with distances in the range of miles between one spot and the other, the size of the VAB and Saturn rockets…even the sight of the VAB and platforms…that I could see from the Pier cocktail bars at Cocoa Beach!! I enjoyed the visit to KSC and Cocoa Beach inmensely, so much that I would try to prepare a visit for the launches of the Mars missions as soon as they get scheduled.
Houston Johnson Space Center
After having enjoyed also the beach and live music at the bars of Cocoa Beach, I flew to the city of Houston. There were some historical spots to see there from the Independence War with Mexico, such as San Jacinto Battleground memorial or a visit to El Alamo in San Antonio. But clearly the highlight was the visit to the Johnson Space Center.
The history of this center is traced back to the early sixties. With the manned space race already started with Project Mercury, the mission control facilities located in Kennedy Space Center soon began to be too small to cope with the growing staffing needs for the upcoming Gemini and Apollo programs. Then, a confluence of factors led to establishment of the Mission Control Center in the outskirts of Houston: the texan roots of then vice president, and chair of the presidential space council, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the offer from Rice University of land of its property for a bargain deal. Johnson Space Center, or JSC, was created in a campus-like area and the Headquarters of the space programs gravitated to Houston.
My visit to JSC included, as in KSC, a VIP tour called “Level 9“. This tour makes reference to the 9th floor of the Building 1 of the campus, where the top management of the site is located and is thus associated to “full access” to the facilities. I was fortunate to be in a small group of six people with a space historian and enthusiast, Sean, as guide. Following pictures give account of an exciting tour through places that have marked history of manned space flight:
Saturn V with stages for cancelled mission Apollo 18
The JSC also hosts a Saturn V exhibition. The dimensions of the mighty rocket are just dramatic. The visitor can only stare in awe before this magnificent vehicle.
Our guide Sean, took us to different buildings, marked with numbers, including Building 7, where the Crew and Thermal System Division is located, responsible for the design of the space suits and after that, drove us to share a meal in one of the campus cantines among NASA personel.
Next stop was one of the highlights of JSC, the Mission Control Center, named after legendary Flight Director Chris Kraft. The building hosts the current mission control rooms, where the operations of the International Space Station are managed, but also the historic control room for the Apollo program. From this room the controllers guided the first landing on the Moon with the Apollo 11, and it witnessed the “finest hour” of NASA during the Apollo 13 crew rescue efforts.Because of these historical feats were managed there, the room is now a national landmark:
Lobby of Mission Control Center, so much history behind that doors
Mission Control, with operations management of International Space Station
Historic Apollo Mission Control Center, now US national landmark
The Level 9 tour gives full access to the room, so the visitor can take time to observe every detail. Having read the book “Failure is not an option”, and working in a technical role related to flight operations, I perceived this room as a pinacle of an engineer´s career. It got me goosebumps, for instance, because of details like this:
Water tab for the controllers to refresh inside MCC. With a mirror and a placard…
Goosebumps reading the placard.
Our guide Sean noted my emotions in this room, which he shared, and we ended up recalling passages of the book and other anecdotes. Then, as we had some time and we were a small group (and I want to think that as a reward to the moments in the MCC), he took us to Building 16, the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL). Still being readied for visitors, it hosts the real Shuttle simulator that astronauts trained on…including my guide in Kennedy Space Center, Tom D. Jones. I was “sort of” stepping in his footsteps! I could not contain my emotion:
Shuttle Simulator Cargo Bay, with all wirings and avionics.
Happy as a child in a real Shuttle flight deck. All systems “simulated” functional.
The simulator has even a real vehicle identification number, the so called “orbiter vehicle” designation: OV-095.
After the simulator experience, a quick halt in Building 2, the former visitors center, which hosts the Auditorium. Not a technical facility, but still with some surprises and a story behind it:
Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, a unique craft
The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, with only two units built, helped to simulate lunar gravity conditions by offsetting earth gravity via thrusters compensating for a fraction of the vehicle weight. It is exhibited in Building 2 along with memorabilia from Lyndon B. Johnson.
The Auditorium hosted many press conferences during the Apollo years:
Building 2 Auditorium
But beyond its normal function, it was loaded with emotion as well. This room is where Flight Director Gene Kranz addressed his controllers and NASA personel after the fire of Apollo 1. In “Failure is not an option” he recalls it with these words:
“I climbed the four steps to the stage, looking at all those faces of people I knew so well. I wanted them to get beyond shock, then say, as St. Peter did in on of his epistles, ‘ Let us get good and angry-and then let us make no mistakes”’
So, having stepped onto the stage of the picture above he went on with his speech:
“When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control“
I was amazed again to be there. What a “historic” ride so far.
The final stage of the tour took us to no less than Building 9, the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, in essence a huge hangar with mockups and training replicas of past and current space crafts, of all nations, for astronauts to complete part of their training. The standard visit to Building 9 runs through an elevated glass-gallery, while the Level 9 tour gives full access to the floor and interaction with the engineers working there.
When walking along the mockups of the ISS modules, the Soyuz, and so on, I recalled my visit with brother Javier to the Research Gallery of the National Museum of the Air Force (post here), which I dubbed as “a candy store” for an aviation geek or engineer. Well, this facility was clearly its equivalent for the space engineering:
Overview of ISS modules
The Orion capsule, intended to take astronauts to distances beyond the Moon and to reach Mars, was at high pace to be ready:
One of the mobility unit prototypes of the early days of the Shuttle was stored in a corner there:
Old Mobily Unit with thrusters for Extra Vehicular Activity.
On the other side, a prototype for the future, the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle, with a clever solution to ease the use of space suits. The suit has an interface with the vehicle and remains outside, saving space inside the SEV:
But even beyond these crafts, NASA and its industrial partners, such as General Motors, are already working in the automation of some exploration activities, with “robotnauts” like the R2 or the Valkyrie:
As the pictures indicate, the tour through the JSC Campus, including the interactions with the NASA employees, were a “festival” for my engineering “soul”. This visit was not characterized by the size or dimensions that caused awe in Cape Canaveral, but it was richer in some sense. I felt fulfilled by this tour. The story, however, was not complete, and Houston had more to offer in this regard.
I had drawn a large part of the historic context for this visit from Gene Kranz´s book, so I had to pay visit to the source of his inspiration: Kennedy´s historic Rice University speech. But before leaving Johnson Space Center I still took a picture of Kranz legendary vest for the last Apollo mission, number 17…
Gene Kranz´s vest for Apollo 17
… and a replica of the podium of Kennedy´s speech in advance of the next visit:
He is saying: “… we choose to go to the Moon…”
Finally I drove to the southwestern suburbs of Houston, to a lovely and elegant neighborhood where the Rice University campus is located and, in particular, its football Stadium. There, on a September day of 1962, John F. Kennedy inspired a generation:
JFK stood on this grass and he spoke inspiring words…
Making some references to Rice´s football team, he went on narrating a poetic and beautiful parable about the high pace of the technical evolution of mankind as if it was compressed in a timescale of 50 years, with the latest and greatest accomplishments occurring just in the last moments before the speech. Then, the minute 8:25 of the video comes, and the rest is history:
I wrote once that I had childhood dreams of space just with a Challenger Space Shuttle model toy. There I narrated that my career had been directed rather into a “lower” level among flying things, but still this wonderful tour has had a part of fulfillment of that dream and I am very happy about it. The best thing is, there is even more to such a dream, let me share a last beautiful story.
At KSC I was sitting next to astronaut Tom D. Jones during that lunch I mentioned on the VIP tour. At the table there was, among others, a family of three from Washington DC. Two parents and a young lady of about 10 years old, not more. She had been encouraged by her parents to take part in NASA’s Space Camp program and was curious about all things STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). The young girl threw very good questions at Tom regarding the use of russian space technology in american space programs and planet geology and materials mining. I was just amazed. I looked at how serious Tom was answering to her. I work in aircraft flight operations and ended up talking to Robonaut engineers in Houston because of a Challenger toy model. This girl of 10 was discussing space technology with astronaut Tom D. Jones. If I ever see a astronaut really flying to Mars, it won´t surprise me that it is a young girl from Washington DC.
What a ride into Space here on Earth.