JSC, Houston, Texas

NASA's Johnson Space Center occupies a unique, perhaps mythical place in history. Houston is the U.S. home of manned spaceflight. How often did we hear the name of this city, the call sign for everything based on the ground, when men were in space? Houston means everything: Earth, control, NASA, doctor, boss. It's tough to imagine space voyagers calling any other city (apart from Moscow, of course). "Hello, Cleveland - this is Apollo, how do you copy?" Nope, just can't quite imagine that. The politics of former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson got the space center to Houston in the first place, so it is no surprise the former Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) was named for him after his death in 1973. My last visit was in 1971, right after the Apollo 15 mission. needless to say, quite a bit has changed. This 2005 visit combined my childlike fascination with an adult space enthusiast's enhanced appreciation. Truly, this was an unforgettable day in Space Geek Heaven. I dressed the part in my Apollo Program logo golf shirt, and slipped on the Omega Speedmaster Professional - aka, the Moon Watch.

This virtual account follows Space Center Houston's (the JSC official visitor's center) top-of-the-line "Level Nine Tour." If you want to see some of manned spaceflight’s most awesome sights, and experience the insider's look, then sign up for one of just 12 seats, just three times a week.  It even includes lunch at the astronaut cafeteria: so-called because this chow hall is right next to the flight crew ops buildings. For someone raised on, enamored of, or just plain seriously interested in NASA history – this is Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.

NASA Disneyland

Space Center Houston is quite a bit different from the old visitor's center on the main JSC campus. The older locale was a series of exhibits adjacent to the Teague Auditorium, where NASA still hosts big news conferences. SCH is a modern space playland, geared toward families with children, with hundreds of ways to tweak the science spark in young people. The modern theme park approach, complete with motorized tram rides around the Center, cleverly packages a working space center as a fun location. NASA's educational outreach is world class (I was fortunate to help out a bit in the NASA Langley/Virginia Air and Space Center's Education Resource Center), and all apsects of space science are shown with rides, toys, displays, and interactive exhibits. Of course, I went straight back to the space suit exhibits.

"Everyone Into the Pool !" The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory

The Sonny Carter Training Center, named in honor of the Navy flight surgeon astronaut who died on a commercial airline flight in 1991, is actually located over at Ellington Field. This airport is also an Air Force Reserve installation, and where NASA bases their famous T-38 trainer aircraft. The NBL replaced the older Weightless Environment Training Facility (WETF), in JSC Building 29, which was not much larger than an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Texans like to claim everything is big in Texas. Well, this swimming pool certainly is! The size and depth of the NBL facility is hard to grasp at first: it spans 202 x 102 feet (62 x 32 meters) and 40 feet (12 m) deep! That will hold 6.2 million gallons (23,500 cubic meters) of clear, warm water. You can actually get nitrogen narcosis, "the bends," if you come up out of such deep water too quickly! The gentle sloshing and strong chlorine smell reminded of my high school pool - except we never had a full-sized Space Shuttle cargo bay on the bottom of ours. Huge cranes reposition the various satellite, Space Station, and Shuttle components - and smaller cranes are even required to put the fully-pressure-suited crew members into the water.

So after a couple of decades of hoping, I was finally privileged to have firsthand views of real astronauts, in real mission training. The day of my July 2005 visit, two crew members, Dr. Scott Parazynski, and Dr. Dafydd Williams (Canadian Space Agency) were hard at work 30-some feet deep, prepping for their STS-118 mission. This is a Space Station assembly mission, and they were chatting away about just how to attack the big box assembly at the bottom of the pool. They were surrounded by a safety and support team in scuba gear. The crew typcially spends 8-10 hours in the water for every hour of spacewalk time. We could see them clearly in the transparent water (image: above left center), and had very good looks at their work via closed circuit video (right). I kept saying "that is so cool" over and over. It would have been even cooler to take a dip in the pool and help them out with the task.

The Buildings

Never underestimate a common-looking structure on a NASA installation. Very few buildings have names or designations, just numbers. A windowless three story white structure (left) might just be the hurricane-resistant, incredibly well-wired Mission Control Center (MCC)! Look close in movies like Apollo 13, and you'll see the large number "30" on the side of a building. How about across the street, where boring-looking Building 31 (near right) is home to the world's supply of Moon rocks! This was part of the old Lunar Receiving Lab, where samples were returned and studied. Even the Heaquarters building (far right), a nine story office block with the Center Director's office on top - from which the Level Nine Tour derives its name - looks like it could be just any corporate building built in the mid-1960s.

The Heart of Operations

Welcome to Mission Control, or officially "Mission Control Center" (MCC). There are actually four Flight Control Rooms (FCR): one for the Space Station, one for the Shuttle, one back-up, and one "Historic." Holy Cow, we're in the viewing gallery above the pinnacle of NASA operations. Yes, you can these engineers, managers, and functional teams at work on TV. But, when you see them chatting, leaning against the consoles, and eating lunch while still at their desks - like any other working person - it's real. The International Space Station (ISS) was drifting across the coast of South America, somewhere near Equador - and we saw it on the big map, and via the live video camera facing Earthward. The mission time clocks (left center) are counting away, including the estimated-time-to-launch of STS-114, the all critical Return-to-Flight mission of Shuttle Discovery. We were just over 2 days from the then-scheduled 13 July 2005 launch - which unfortunately didn't take place. The Flight Director is right below us (near left), and she is instant text messaging with someone. I wonder what's the issue? is it mission critical? Is a colleague asking what she wants for lunch?

The day we visited, the main MCC used for Shuttle missions was busy with pre-STS-114 mission preparation, and installation of a new plasma screen in the VIP gallery. So, the view was understandably indirect, peering over workmen, and a bit less dramatic than the ISS room. However, the feeling of professionalism, sweating the details, and trying to implement a tough Return-to-Flight task was hanging in the air. Only NASA's best get to sit here. Each chair has perhaps 10 personnel backing him/her, all of whom are hoping to work their way up to that seat.


THE ROOM !!! This IS Mission Control

Twelve lucky daily ticket holders walked across the creaky, often polished floorboards on the third floor of monolithic Building 30, and entered THE ROOM.  For a short quarter hour, we took in the experience that is "Historic Mission Control. " THE ROOM…" the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR).  Space history was made daily on these worn carpets, at these pea-green metal consoles, in front of these huge rear projection screens.  We practically raced around the consoles, marveling at the mission emblems (left) beginning at Gemini IV, through the Apollo voyages, to Skylab, and ending with a decade worth of Shuttle missions.  The digital camera was clicking at maximum speed, and no one missed the opportunity to have his or her photo taken in the Flight Director’s seat (right)! 

I was on the far side of “Holy Crap, I’m standing in Mission Control,” when I suddenly stopped and closed my eyes.  I took a deep breath through my nose.  Here is the stale sweetness of tobacco; the musk of aging fiber and tile; the slight scorch of ozone from decades old electronics; and maybe even a hint of thousands of cups of coffee.   All around me are historic images of telemetry data, Saturn V launches, moonwalks, and the curtained viewing gallery where the famous and important watched the action.  And yet, the consoles are empty.  The rows are devoid of headset cables, styrofoam cups, slide rules, and endless piles of NASA manuals.  The men and women who ran the whole show, to the Moon and back, are long gone.  And suddenly a little whiff puts in me back in their company.  Maybe Gene Kranz is asking the “Trench” for a quick assessment; over there EECOM is tapping on his console; perhaps up the tier Recovery is frowning over a weather report.  Here were long tedious hours hunched over blurry monochrome displays, and thunderous cheers punctuated with lit cigars when mission crews stepped onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, after a half million mile trip.  Here the dream of our civilization took place.  From a windowless, white stone cube on a flat piece of east Texas, a unique team watched over Moon Men in their Moonships.