Sunday, March 29, 2009

Day 3 Redux, and Rollercoasters

Friday began with a walkthrough of the Rocket Park at Johnson Space Center. After squeezing through an unassuming door, we were in the presence of the Saturn V rocket, massive and silent inside its tomb. Used during the Apollo program and designed under the direction of famed rocket physicist and astronautics engineer Wernher von Braun, it is the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever brought to operational status from a height, weight and payload standpoint. And it definitely looks the part. The students were like specks next to its grand bulk, beautifully scarred with so much history.

Then it was into the hands of Mike Fox, manager of the Human Test Support Group at Johnson Space Center. He introduced us to the physiological training schedule for the day and to Juan "Chico" Moran, a crackup who has logged 30 years with JSC. He started us off with lectures about atmosphere, respiration and circulation and the symptoms and treatments of hypoxia and hyperventilation. Three more lecturers led us through trapped gas and decompression sickness, spatial disorientation and motion sickness before we went to the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory) for an oxygen equipment lesson and briefing for our simulated flight in the dreaded "chamber."

Dan, Ryan, Alex, Jim and I sat in our respective seats and got comfortable breathing in oxygen masks. Before the chamber pressure changed, we breathed almost 100% pure oxygen for 30 minutes to expel some of the nitrogen in our blood to help protect against decompression sickness. Then we were climbing, virtually, to 25,000 feet, where the density of oxygen molecules is dramatically thinner than it is on the ground. We were instructed to remove our masks and breath the altered air, paying close attention to the onset of any symptoms of hypoxia. One side of the chamber watched as the other gradually began to react. Affects ranged from sensations of heat and tingling to confusion, muscle spasms and immobility. The chamber crew made sure everyone was safe, but we learned a lot about how to take corrective action in case of emergency. During the debriefing, we got to see videos of ourselves during the training, and Dan won the prize for obsessively trying to check his peripheral vision by following his own finger. Before we left the facility, we were able to see a prototype of a lunar habitation module and the enormous pool where astronauts train for their missions. Much like the Saturn V, the pool was breathtakingly huge and filled with machinery, like a sunken city.

Saturday was our first break from the action, and the team headed to Kemah for some roller coasters (aka Zero G training apparatus), aviator glasses and classic seafood gumbo.
Later today we'll participate in the homecoming celebration for the crew of Discovery, and then it's back to the grindstone on Monday. Stay tuned.

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