I am back home again after my trip to Houston, Texas and the opportunity I had to get a behind the scenes look at our U.S. Space program at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) and Space Center Houston (SCH).
Over the last two days I have shared some images of my tours of JSC including the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL), Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF), and the current ISS and historic Mission Control rooms. I have also shared images from my tour of SCH including many of the artifacts that are on display including space flown hardware and the center’s space suit collection.
For a fan of space and science there is a lot of eyeball candy as you walk around these places. For a geek like me it was all I could do to keep up with the sensory overload.
However, as I walked around I was looking for the obvious technology that helps drive the space program and what I discovered is that some of it is right there and obvious. One clear example of this is ISS Mission Control which is in the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Building.
In a space like this it is very easy to see the tech because there are so many monitors on each desk for the various flight controllers plus, the high-resolution images that are across the front wall of the room simply can’t be missed.
Those systems are running a combination of Windows and Linux based on their primary purpose and of course there are a lot of screens at each station because there is a lot of data, aka telemetry, coming down from the space station.
Another easy way to see the technological advances around the gear NASA uses for flight operations is to visit the historic Mission Control, just one floor above the ISS MCC, to see the ancient analog consoles and CRT screens that were key to controlling those early space flights including Gemini, Apollo and early Space Shuttle missions.
As we continued our tour around JSC and visited the NBL and SVMF the technology such as computers and large screens faded into the background and were replaced by the physical aspects of training for space flight. Technology was still at its core but now we were seeing more mechanical engineering instead of the flashy electronics.
The scale spacecraft and ISS elements that were submerged in the 6.2 million gallon NBL for training astronauts how to space walk and make repairs on station were built to specification for size, dimensions, etc. This was critical because it allowed astronauts to become familiar with exactly how they would move around and work in space. Obviously, NASA does not want an astronaut’s first experience in space to also include hours of familiarization, but they want them to get to straight to work so that consumables in their space suits are used to get work done.
The same thing applies to the SVMF and all the scale modules that are there from ISS including the Japanese Experiment Module, Columbus Laboratory, and Destiny. Although they are not floating in the micro-gravity environment of space, astronauts can see the layout of these spaces and equipment configuration to gain that same familiarity and experience in the station modules before they go into low earth orbit where ISS is circling the planet.
You can go all the way back to the days of our early space program from Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle to see earth based mockups allowed astronauts to learn and gain experience before they launched off the planet for their mission.
Now the SVMF at JSC contains mockups of Soyuz, SpaceX Dragon cargo vehicle, and the upcoming Orion manned space craft that will carry astronauts to the moon and beyond. Each one of these high-fidelity items continues that capability for NASA to train its astronaut corps and help them gain valuable experience before they go into orbit.
My biggest take away from the day onboard Johnson Space Center is that sometimes the whiz bang technology that we are so used to seeing hit the market every day, while exciting and dynamic, is no substitute for the solid steady strain physical environments that give astronauts practical experience for their missions in space.