HOUSTON--"Houston, we have a problem."
If there is a five-word phrase more recognizable than that in the annals of modern science or space exploration, I want to hear it.
For my entire life, the "Houston" in that phrase was an abstract term, a reference to a disembodied place where people wield God-like powers--or don't, as the case may be--over the astronauts who were themselves abstract to me. I'd never seen them, and I wasn't old enough to have watched any of the mythical rocket launches prior to the Space Shuttle.
But earlier this week, I finally was able to put a face to this "Houston" name. That's because, as part of Road Trip 2008, I spent a big part of a day at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) here, the very center of everything in that science-fictional image of space exploration.
Today, JSC is in the middle of preparing for one of the biggest transformations that exists in the space business: the roll-over from one major program to the next. That's exactly what's under way, in one form or another, here and at every other NASA center, as the agency begins to move from the Space Shuttle--which most likely has just nine more launches in its future and which is planned for a 2010 phase-out--to Constellation, the let's-go-to-the-moon project scheduled for official launch around 2013.
But for now, the shuttle is still king of the hill here, with the International Space Station, of course, whose constant stocking with parts and modules and supplies is one of the major jobs of the shuttle program these days, playing the role of, er, prince? Queen?
Where history was made
My first stop was taken at Building 30, Mission Control.
That meant starting with a swing past the current Mission Control room, where every Space Shuttle mission since 1995 has been run. It's actually a much smaller room than I had imagined. It's compact, and packed tight with computers, desks, people, and chairs, yet it still maintains a much-deserved aura as a room where really important and historical things are being facilitated.
Nearby was the Mission Evaluation Room, where a posse of technicians go over data coming in from the shuttle when it's above the Earth. These people are called the "chit kickers," because a chit is an open data-processing work order, and their job is to close them.
We also visited three other mission control rooms, including the original International Space Station (ISS) flight control center, which it outgrew not long ago. This is now being used to train the teams that will run the October shuttle mission to work on the Hubbell telescope and is also the spot for ISS mission control training.
Next up was the current ISS control room, which, back in the day, was used as mission control for the early Apollo launches and was later, until 1995, the spot for running the shuttle. The very first Space Shuttle mission, in 1981, was run out of this room.
As we peered into the room from an observation deck above, we noted that Shannon Lucid, herself an astronaut from 1979 to 1996, was working CAPCOM--or spacecraft communicator--for the crew currently on the space station.
Before there can be astronauts in space, however, they have to train their tails off. And JSC is a very, very big part of that process.
That's why our next stop was the home of the fixed space simulators.
As with much of JSC--and Kennedy Space Center, for that matter--this facility is finishing up its shuttle work before moving on to Constellation. But right now, everywhere you look on its huge main floor, there are very visible reminders of where NASA is in its evolution.
In the building, there is also a series of training rooms where instructors take the future astronauts and lead them through what amounts to classroom work.
Among the elements covered are communications, data processing, control aerodynamics--that is, rocket motors--and more.
One thing that's good about these facilities is that they can be fully integrated with training rooms and simulators at any NASA center--or even foreign partner center. That means that specialists can be brought in via video link to any training, as necessary.
While I was there, several crew members, including upcoming STS-125 shuttle mission commander Scott Altman--who did a lot of the stunt flying in Top Gun, I was told--were inside the Shuttle Motion Base Simulator, a mock-up of a shuttle cockpit that can be shaken or tilted to give the crew a little bit of experience of a launch.
There's also a fixed base simulator, which is aimed at giving the crew a taste of running the shuttle in zero-G conditions.
From my perspective, because I got to go inside it, the best part was the cockpit simulator, a full replica of a real shuttle cockpit that is designed to present the astronauts with exactly what they will be dealing with at launch and while in space.
"We have to have it the way it is," said Jerry Swain, the Fixed Space Simulator facility manager. "They'll be strapped in and...get used to the way it is in the real vehicle."
I can't really comment on the veracity of that, having never flown a Space Shuttle, but it was pretty cool being in this faux cockpit. I stood there, knowing that probably most Space Shuttle astronauts, and other luminaries, like Bill Clinton, had sat in the seats here.
The electronics were real. The switches were real. The set of controls used to dock the Space Shuttle with the space station were real. The view of outer space was real. Okay, perhaps not that.
Our next stop was Building 9, the Vehicle Mock-up Facility.
Here, there were two full-scale models of the shuttle, as well as several mock-ups of specific parts of it. Among them was one of the giant robotic arms used to move cargo in and out of the shuttle's massive bay.
But much more interesting--and forward-looking--was something called Chariot.
This is a prototype of the lunar truck NASA wants to put on the Constellation missions and take out on the moon. This will be a rover unlike any seen before. It will have the ability to range away from its power source for up to eight hours on six sets of wheels, each of which has fully independent movement, making it possible to move around in any direction at any time.
The idea here is that rather than having one rover, there will be several Chariots on the moon. And this would mean that any one of them would not need to come all the way home each day, allowing crews to range farther and father away from the landing site.
Additionally, it is being built to support a pressurized module that can sustain a couple of astronauts for a day or two, all with the goal of being able to perform much more complex experiments than were possible during the Apollo moon missions.
But there are other kinds of training these astronauts have to do, and my last visit of the day was to the VR Trainer, a specialized room where folks like Dave Homan design virtual-reality systems that help crew members learn how to prepare for the extravehicular activity (EVA) they will take part in on the space station.
Essentially, that means learning how to handle themselves in open space, outside the ISS.
Among the tools created here is a software program that can run on powerful machines at JSC or even on laptop computers on the space station. Astronauts can either step into a VR helmet and gloves in Houston, or run the software on their laptops in space and try out various maneuvers they will have to do on the outside of the ISS.
And so when I put on the helmet and gloves, I suddenly found myself in a very realistic representation of space, floating around outside the space station, wiggling my hands in front of me as Homan rotated me around the floating research institution.
It wasn't exactly photo-realistic, but it was certainly better than a video game, particularly because of the immersive nature of wearing a specialized helmet.
And that was more or less it. After a day at JSC, I walked away having been to several of the trainers used by real astronauts and even tried my hand, sort of, at a space station EVA experiment.
So, NASA, next time there's an opening for a crew member, I think I'm ready. Think seriously about giving me a call.