Thursday, April 2, 2009

Inside the Nerve Center

Mission Control. The holy grail. All of the students in the program were treated to a tour of JSC, but this was no ordinary trot around the grounds. We started in a hallowed place, the command room where flight directors Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney and Cliff Charlesworth and a vast support staff helped Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins successfully complete the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. It was the technical core of many other missions over the years -- including the infamous Apollo 13 -- and is a National Historic Landmark of epic proportions.

Sitting behind the consoles looking almost exactly as they did on that fateful day in 1969, it was almost eery. Of course, everyone took a turn in the flight director's chair. 

It didn't quite hit us how special our tour was until we looked back into the enclosed viewing room and saw the people on the traditional tour. It was really something to be able to place a hand on such an indelible piece of history. 

We went on to several other control rooms, including one for the international space station. Our guide told us that nearly all of the people working in these rooms are engineers.

"NASA is looking for people who think a certain way," she said.

Observing the Motion Base from the outside, we couldn't help but imagine the astronauts inside dealing with high-fidelity flight simulation while a room full of instructors comes up with all sorts of ways to make things go wrong all day long. But such monkey wrenching is crucial when it comes to building an astronaut's proficiency.

Also crucial is the ability to conquer the space toilet, a necessary and intriguing piece of equipment. Thanks to Matt for giving it a try. 

Along the way, we got to see mock-ups of the international space station and its labs, the space shuttle, the Russian Soyuz and engineering marvels that are being developed as part of the Constellation Program. Once again, we were down on the floor of the bay while other tourists were confined to perimeter catwalks. It was such a thrill.  

Tomorrow, the day will be split between saying goodbye to Ellington Field and going on more tours. This trip is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we intend to take full advantage.

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