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Physics & Astronomy

Touring the Johnson Space Center

Thursday, April 7

From sitting in NASA’s Apollo Mission Control Center, to watching astronauts train in the largest indoor pool in the world, the Carthage Microgravity Team got a behind-the-scenes look at the Johnson Space Center on Thursday, April 7. The team’s eight members, along with faculty mentor Kevin Crosby, toured the Johnson Space Center as part of NASA’s Systems Engineering and Educational Discovery program. The program pairs NASA researchers with teams of college students to design and conduct experiments aboard a zero-gravity aircraft.

On April 7, the Carthage team — KelliAnn Anderson, Amber Bakkum, Stephanie Finnvik, Erin Gross, Cecilia Grove, Steve Mathe, Kim Schultz, and Danielle Weiland — wrapped up eight days at NASA by seeing how and where NASA scientists do their work.

About JSC

The Johnson Space Center opened in 1963 as the Manned Spacecraft Center, and was renamed in 1973 after President Lyndon B. Johnson. The center’s 260 buildings sit on 1,620 acres. It has its own security, fire department, SWAT team, day care facility, grocery store and power supply.

“It’s like a city within a city here,” said tour guide Lorraine Wheaton, a protocol coordinator for NASA. “Fourteen-thousand people work out here. There are 3,300 civil servants and the rest are contractors. By the end of summer, that number will deplete drastically, unfortunately, because of the end of the shuttle program.”

This is where NASA astronauts do the majority of their training. “We also have all the lunar samples brought back from all of the Apollo missions,” Ms. Wheaton said. “Some are in nitrogen cases and have never been exposed to our atmosphere.”

Mission Control Center

NASA’s Mission Control Center is the first stop on the students’ tour of JSC. The center currently has two operational control rooms. In White Flight Control Room — the front room for monitoring space shuttle missions — the students watch as NASA personnel perform a training exercise. They are simulating the second day of a mission, explains orbit flight dynamics group lead Ed Gonzalez. About 20 people work at consoles dedicated to trajectory, propulsion, data processing, flight activities, guidance and navigation, and more.

In Flight Control Room 1, students see where NASA monitors the International Space Station. “All but one of the people working in Mission Control have degrees in aerospace engineering,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “One has an electrical engineering degree. It takes about two to five years to get to the front room.”

NASA mission patches cover the walls of both mission control rooms. “Every mission’s crew creates its own patch,” Mr. Gonzalez explained. “Everything on the patch has symbolism: The colors, the shapes. After every mission, there is a ceremony in which the person selected as the one who contributed the most to the mission hangs the patch on the wall.” Grouped together near the door in both rooms are patches from the shuttles Challenger 51L, Apollo 1, Columbia 107, to remind them of the risks, Prof. Crosby said.

Apollo Mission Control Center

Next, the students are taken into the Apollo Mission Control Center, first used in June 1965 for Gemini 4. This room was used to monitor nine Gemini and all Apollo flights, including Apollo 11, the first manned moon landing. It was last used in 1992.

“This is the way it actually was set up to support the Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “This entire room is designated as a national historic landmark,” listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Consoles have small black and white monitors, and pneumatic tube canisters used to send memos throughout NASA at the time. “We also used to have just one big printer for the whole facility,” Mr. Gonzalez said.

Hanging on one wall is a mirror that was given to Mission Control by the Apollo 13 crew. The crew had survived their mission despite an explosion in the shuttle’s oxygen tank. “They survived only through a lot of work that went on here in mission control,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “The mirror was given to Mission Control so they could see the reflections of the people who got them home.”

Space Vehicle Mockup Facility

In the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, students had the opportunity to see full-size training models of the International Space Station, shuttle, Soyuz, and other NASA equipment. This is where NASA designers, engineers, project managers, and electronic technicians develop, operate and maintain accurate mockups of NASA equipment to train astronauts, and test systems and procedures.

Tour guide Andrew Knotts, NASA protocol coordinator, points out parts of the ISS mockup: Columbus Orbital Facility, the European laboratory; Destiny, the American laboratory; Kibo, the Japanese experiment module; and the Harmony module, which connects them all and also provides a docking port for the space shuttle. Mr. Knotts also points out the Quest Joint Airlock, in which astronauts spend the night before any spacewalks. The students see replicas of Zarya, Zvezda, and Soyuz vehicles. “A Soyuz hits the ground at about 30 miles per hour,” Mr. Knotts said. “Landing has been described as a series of explosions followed by a car crash.”

The Full Fuselage Trainer is a full-size replica of the space shuttle, except for a smaller wingspan. “The shuttle has a 78-foot wingspan and won’t fit in this building,” Mr. Knotts said.

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