Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SVMF – Work Floor


After viewing the SVMF from above, we went to take a closer look at the FFT, the CCTs, the SSMTF, the PABF and the APDS. And if you understood even one of those, definitely go to and apply =)

But if you’re anything like me, your brain maxed out on acronyms around age 30, so I’ll start again. Here we are in NASA’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility! This giant hangar at Johnson Space Center in Houston is home to all the simulators and software/hardware exercises that support both engineering endeavors and astronaut training.

Science Crew Operations & Utility Testbed (SCOUT) Vehicle
Science Crew Operations & Utility Testbed (SCOUT) Vehicle

Highlights included various docking trainers, an interesting new "crawler" and “Six Degrees of Freedom” in the Robot Operation Area, the Hubble telescope mockup and a close-up view of CanadArm. Among the many structures in the Space Station Mockup and Training Facility (SSMTF), we also had an opportunity to examine the Payload Development Labs (PDL I and II) in the US Logistics Modules. I looked around the tight spaces, wondering, what would it be like to float around in here? Running actual experiments!

An engineering native who sounded like he’d lived in the simulators since about the Gemini era described all the surrounding equipment, and told us funny stories about past antics in procedural simulations – including one episode where a team substituted actual launch footage for a mock countdown, momentarily tricking flight director Gene Kranz into thinking a rocket truly took off during a simple exercise! Good stuff.

ISS Simulator
My brother Vince in an ISS simulator

Ever the IT geek, I gawked at the laptops and controls while our hosts produced an actual ISS checklist, and had my brother (Aeronautical Engineer) run through a button-pushing, flip-switching simulation on the HRF GASMAP, a piece of medical equipment used to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in blood, and how those levels change over time in space.

We also got our first quality view of Constellation hardware, which was very exciting! The Orion Crew Module mockup is helping to answer questions that computer designs, blueprints and drawings alone cannot... for the largest “capsule” yet built. It’s definitely much larger than Apollo capsules, as it’s meant to house crews of four to six astronauts.

Orion Crew Module (OCM)
Orion Crew Module (OCM)

Launched by future Ares rockets, Orion Crew Exploration Vehicles will eventually transfer crews to and from the ISS and the moon.

On the other end of the size spectrum was the Soyuz TMA capsule, a mockup of the Russian hardware that currently ferry crews launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome to the ISS and also serve as a lifeboat escape vehicle for the ISS when docked. The Soyuz, a mainstay of the Russian human space program for many years, can carry three cosmonauts... and will be what US astronauts rely upon when the Shuttle is retired in coming years.

Check out the photo gallery of our adventures, and thank you Jim, for the great opportunity to run through a sim checklist, we had a blast!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

SVMF - Aerial


Continuing in the "Johnson Space Center Tour" theme, here is a facility that cannot possibly be missed on any trip to Houston! The Space Vehicle Mockup Facility (SVMF) is home to all the simulators and software+hardware exercises that support both engineering endeavors and astronaut training.

For instance, the longest-operating mockup is the giant Space Shuttle Orbiter (minus wings), commonly called the FFT or Full Fuselage Trainer. Built in the 1970s, the FFT houses a payload bay, flight quality systems, and detailed mid-deck, complete with airlocks, extra-vehicular activity suits for EVA practice, sleep stations, a waste management compartment and crew escape system.

Johnson Space Center
FFT and CCT (click for full size)

Nearby are two CCTs, or rotating Crew Compartment Trainers, which can be moved into seven different educational positions, whereby astronauts learn how to operate orbiter sub-systems for pre-launch, launch, flight, ISS docking and interface, and finally landing.

Another dominant layout in the enormous hangar is the SSMTF, or Space Station Mockup and Training Facility. This mass of metal is a full-scale replica of the space station cluster of American, Russian and Japanese nodes, and it serves as a training facility for both astronauts and ground crew, such as controllers.

All the trainer modules are also used by various design, engineering and electronics teams to develop and maintain new simulations for ISS activities in space, and to validate checklists and operating procedures.

NASA Houston
SSMTF (click for full size)

Check out the full photo gallery of aerial views of the major hardware in the SVMF… and don’t let the acronyms suffocate you on the way. In and around photographs of larger equipment, you may also glimpse the Androgynous Peripheral Docking System (APDS), the Precision Air-Bearing Floor (PABF), and the 3 DOF (Degree of Freedom) pneumatic partial gravity simulator, also known as the Pogo trainer.

Up next! We went prowling around the American logistics modules (Quest, Unity, Harmony & Destiny), and the Robotics areas to take some eye-level photographs on the workfloor. Also got some great close-ups of the Soyuz and Orion, so be sure to visit tomorrow for Part 2!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Outpost


Here's a great spot everyone should take time to visit if they’re anywhere around Johnson Space Center and enjoying all the great NASA novelties!

The Outpost is a bar-slash-restaurant known as a longtime favorite hangout for astronauts, flight controllers and other various ground crew personnel. Yep, here's where the first space travelers and moonwalkers used to kick back after work.

The Outpost
It looks like a tiny barn that could collapse into a dusty cloud of kindling at any moment. Guidebooks and travel web sites for Houston mince no words, outright referring to it as a "swamp," "hole-in-the-wall" or a "dive" – which it is... but in a quaint and charming "shack turned historical monument" kinda way.

The structure itself served as barracks at Ellington Field during World War II, but moved sometime in the 1960s to its current location near Interstate 45 on Kings Lynn Street (southwest corner of NASA Parkway and Egret Bay Blvd.) Since then, a succession of owners have acquired an incredible collection of space paraphernalia, astronaut photos and autographs, mission emblems, flight gear, and a tasteful memorial to the crew of Shuttle Columbia:

Shuttle Columbia Memorial
The Outpost was featured in two films, Rocketman and Space Cowboys, as well as the ABC television movie, The Challenger. Representative sets of the astronaut hangout were also constructed for Apollo 13 and Armageddon.

I'm sorry that I cannot offer an honest review of the cuisine, because I don't make a habit of eating Hot Wings or Jalapeño Burgers bigger than my HEAD. Reading the menu wasn’t particularly inspiring, though I admit to being curious as to what the "Porker Salad" or the "Oink Oink + Moo Moo Burger” might look like.

But I understand the menu is quite popular with the NASA locals... who say that AsCans still celebrate the completion of program training here.

Houston, Texas
Definitely check out my photo gallery or their photo gallery, if for no other reason than to marvel at the insanely inappropriate saloon doors. Or join their e-mail alerts, to see when they have live musical acts, and annual barbeque, chili or gumbo cooking contests.

Thanks Joe & Chris, for showing us this awesome spot! :)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009



One of my recent stops at JSC was the Lunar Sample Laboratory. With my advance apologies, this area is not open to the general public. In many past blog posts, I’ve pointed out interesting things around Houston to see or do, but in this case, it’s more of a behind-the-scenes look!

It’s fun to meet astronauts, but often even more interesting to meet the people who perform crucial functions on the ground before, during and after missions. The Star Sailors are one part of a vast team, and I am all about the unsung heroes! ;)

Lunar Sample Laboratory - Johnson Space Center
With Principal Scientist Andrea Mosie.
Click the picture to see a great article about her and the LSL!

Andrea took time out of a very busy schedule to take us into the LSL, now the main storehouse for Apollo era moon rocks. She said about 75% percent of all samples are stored here, another 15% were once in a facility in San Antonio for many years, but more recently moved to a secure location in White Sands. The remaining portions are dispersed around the world – being studied by scientists or housed by science museums and NASA mobile units for educational displays.

From the curator information:
Dedicated in July 1979, the facility marks its 30th anniversary this year. The two-story, 14,000-square-foot facility provides permanent storage of the lunar collection in a physically secure and non-contaminating environment.

Between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions brought back 2,200 samples, totaling 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from six exploration sites. These precious materials are 3.1 to 4.4 billion years old.

NASA Lunar Sample Laboratory
Andrea & José Álvarez
The door on the right is the Lunar Sample Vault.
(Click the picture to see the entire photo gallery)

When removed from storage, pristine samples are handled in stainless steel cabinets purged by high-purity nitrogen gas. She explained that at any given time, rocks are studied on a per-mission basis in the cabinets. In other words, rocks from Apollo 11 would never be opened beside rocks from Apollo 14. Everything is kept separate to prevent any cross-contamination of materials.

She also detailed many properties of the facility, how samples are allocated for study, and how the origin of the moon is being revealed by the study of lunar samples. Thanks for the great tour opportunity, Andrea!

For detailed information on NASA’s catalogued off-world rocks, visit The Lunar Sample Atlas at the Lunar And Planetary Institute.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Astronaut Koichi Wakata


This past week at Johnson Space Center, it was my privilege to meet JAXA Astronaut Koichi Wakata, the first Japanese astronaut to complete a long-duration stay on the International Space Station. Throughout Expeditions 18, 19 and 20, he was on the ISS from March to July 2009.

Astronaut Koichi Wakata
Wakata Kōichi

He honored me with a bow, which I returned…and he graciously agreed to a photograph, for which I was enormously grateful.

I asked him if was he ready to come home to Earth after four months in micro-gravity, or if given the chance, would he have remained on the orbiting station? He quipped that he probably shouldn’t answer that question in front of his wife, which made everyone laugh, but then admitted he would gladly have stayed longer. And I guess that Magic Carpet experiment was a real hoot!

International Space Station
Leaving some artwork behind on the ISS

He just completed his physical rehabilitation at JSC, and is now preparing to return to Japan for the first time since his record-breaking mission(s)… so his arrival in Tokyo is sure to be a dazzling and dramatic national welcome!

I mentioned Wakata in previous blog posts about Expedition 19 astronauts, and he was quite active in answering questions during President Obama’s well-publicized phone call to the ISS with a group of school-children.

Wakata Kōichi - JAXA
He’s also the distinguished veteran of four NASA Shuttle missions, and his past assignments include NASA robotics instructor, Payload Director for the robotic arm experiment in the Japanese Kibo Module and Commander of a NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) expedition in the undersea Aquarius lab located off the Florida coast.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Time-Lapse Rocket Fun


Okay, no soap-box today, no opinions or commentary... just a great, rousing "Watch This!" The first video was on Nov. 3, 2008 and the final video was on Aug. 30, 2009:

From NASA Television:
In the Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, a time lapse camera documented the buildup of the Ares I-X flight test rocket.

It began with the arrival and integration of the upper stage elements, in high bay 4. This was followed in high bay 3 by the stacking of the four solid rocket booster segments on the mobile launcher platform.

Primary elements of the second stage were each then hoisted above bay 4, moved across the transfer aisle into bay 3 and lowered atop the first stage.

It concluded as the service module simulator, crew module simulator and launch abort system simulator now integrated together were hoisted into place atop what then became the fully assembled flight test vehicle.

The Ares I-X is targeted to liftoff on October 31st from Launch Pad 39B!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bake Sale, Anyone?


Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 NASA budget guideline. So what does the future hold for the Shuttle, the ISS and Constellation? Having continual conversations about NASA’s budget is like exploring the cure for low blood pressure.

Congress, NASA and every Dom, Rick & Barry across the internet are debating the practical strategies, especially now that news media is printing headlines like: President Faces a "Kennedy Decision" on Space: Obama’s Choice for Future Spaceflight Could be as Momentous as JFK’s. Thank you, NBC.

Areas of the HSFPC report are vaguely-worded, leaving room for interpretation. One portion (and I love the wording in this) says: "Crucially, human space flight objectives should broadly align with key national objectives."

As if 307 million Americans could even get together and decide what toppings to get on a pizza, much less key national objectives.

I found an interesting cost visualization, and after staring at this incredulously for about half-an-hour, I’d just love for anyone to tell me that 'supporting space exploration' indicates out-of-whack priorities.

Space Exploration Costs
Your tax dollars at work.

Click the graphic or go to InformationIsBeautiful to see the full chart. It’s become well known that 'an extra $3billion' must somehow be found to continue manned missions when the committee concluded that "the ultimate goal of exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system. This is an ambitious goal, but one worthy of U.S. leadership..."

None of us know what criteria Congress will use to select NASA's future path, or how the White House may advise them on the options. Specifics for plan-reshaping seems to be in an annoying holding pattern. I’m realizing that the delay may be substantial, because it’s likely to become a divisive point of national contention. However, when I see "comparisons" like the one above, no one can convince me that the investment isn’t absolutely worth it.

Monday, September 14, 2009



Website! Fun to play with! Translation: Geek Time-Suck!

Constellation: Earth, Moon, Mars is a fantastic Shockwave Flash gizmo which explains the link between Constellation missions to low Earth orbit, the moon and ultimately Mars. Even that little "destination" applet side-swiped my attention for longer than was probably necessary.

The centerpiece of the site is a beautifully produced video with amazing (real and conceptual) footage of the International Space Station, Orion Capsule, Altair Lander, and even future Lunar outpost hardware. The narrators outline how and why exploration will proceed in phases, and the “vision” for how each of the milestones can be reached.

Most interesting for me are the floating astronauts; that never gets old. I enjoyed the discussions of the medical personnel about the effects of micro-gravity on the body, and it's interesting to me how much more often we hear mention of Human Research elements now, plus the need to develop countermeasures :)

NASA Constellation
Constellation: Earth, Moon, Mars
Duration: 13 totally worth-it minutes

In one of the film clips, astronaut pilot/commander Pam Melroy encourages students to stay in school. So hey, does that make her a socialist? Sorry, couldn’t resist. And that’s about as far as I’ll ever get into a presidential controversy.

Anyway, she encourages children to embrace math and science, and join the journey of Constellation: launching new spacecraft to the ISS, conducting tests in orbit, and returning to the moon. How does this differ from Apollo's six landings? We'll revisit the moon not to “explore” but to STAY. To LIVE there. Moon habitats will be the dress rehearsal for further ventures into the solar system.

Planetary Exploration Chief Wendell Mendell explains eloquently why the moon is so important to study, and how the process of conducting the Constellation missions will have scientific, economic and sociological implications.

These projects tie together to extend an eventual human presence to Mars. Will the strategic mission plan become a reality? Well, probably not as it was originally developed, and the bean counters have yet to reveal how the work will unfold for the next decade, given the budgetary restraints. However, recessions don't last forever. Democratic or Republican administrations make 8 trips around the sun, tops. We need to get out of our own way here, and think long-term.

"It’s one of the tasks that NASA has for humanity: to extend our presence off this planet." ISS Medical Scientists Clarence Sams

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To


Not the happiest blog post I'll ever construct. Indeed, after reading a few dozen articles about the Augustine commission yesterday, I was too bummed to write.

At the end of August, I posted about the 10-member U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine.

They were supposed to make an announcement on September 1st, but rather unceremoniously cancelled their last scheduled pow-wow and postponed the release of their report. Their projects-versus-budget discussions were public, so no one expected any miracles. Still, for people who are enthusiastic about off-Earth scientific exploration, the summary analysis was news we didn’t want to hear.

Augustine Committee
For the technically-minded, the full status report was published on SpaceRef. And I was also going to repeat the format of my previous post with a list of different reviews and opinions; I’ll give a nod to Keith Cowing instead, since he’s already compiled a fine press list over at NASA Watch.

So writes the committee: "The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources. Space operations are among the most complex and unforgiving pursuits ever undertaken by humans. It really is rocket science."

Mars or Bust
The report further states: "Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination."

What will it take for us to support a robust, visionary space program again? Russia or China passing us by? Back when the Soviets were kicking our yankee caboose at just about every space "first," it got tied into national pride with a sense of indignant determination. It’s no shock to me that science for the sake of science doesn’t bring in votes or money, but I also hate to think we can only do the right thing for our future when competitive threat, real or perceived, is breathing down our collective necks.

Of course, it wasn’t a complete cosmological buzzkill.

No one is saying outright that we can’t or won’t go to the Moon or Mars… and one encouraging excerpt is that "There are actually more options available today than in 1961 when President Kennedy challenged NASA and the nation."

True. It’s also emphasized that multiple nations have now made space exploration a global enterprise. International partnerships once thought impossible could strengthen ties both on Earth and in space. That’s no small accomplishment. Private companies may also lighten the load of space costs on governments.

Now more than ever it's time to encourage a whole new generation of geeklets. Math. Science. Space. Telescopes. Planetariums. Spreadsheet skills.

Meanwhile, still waiting on that Wonka Bar with the golden ticket.

Friday, September 4, 2009



O but I am all afire with gleeful merriment. And marveling how easily people will believe anything they read... even to the point of re-publishing without first passing it through their factual verification department.

I had a whole other blog post “in development” for today, but I cannot pass this up.

Day before yesterday, I featured and linked to a “Moon Hoax” article by The Onion, an elaborate parody newspaper that printed a faux interview with Neil Armstrong. The piece claimed to have covered a press conference where the famed first man on the moon admitted the lunar landings were faked.

Not for the first time, another news source mistook the pungent tabloid for genuine journalism. Then, not one but two newspapers missed the underlying fun-poke at lunar landing conspiracy theorists.

Lunar Landing"We thought it was true so we printed it without checking," associate editor Hasanuzzuman Khan told the AFP news agency. "We didn't know the Onion was not a real news site."

The Onion, of course, considers every news day an opportunity to celebrate April 1st. No one expected East Asia to be in on the joke, so I can sympathize – the story formats and styles give an air of authenticity if you don’t approach them with a sense of appreciation for the absurd.

I think this is why some people just “get” Monty Python, while others never will. Here are a few other times people missing the “satire” chromosome have taken The Onion too seriously

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Moon Hoax Exposed!


With yesterday's breaking news, conspiracy theorists everywhere get to celebrate their ultimate victory! We all suspected, we all wondered... and now the mystery is finally over.

Pardon My Sarcasm
"One small step for man, one giant lie for mankind."

Boy, all those people who spent years upon years researching, verifying, and staring at every individual image to find flaws... WELL... they must be happier than a claustrophobic astronaut who finally got some space.


It's been a long time coming. Well done, I say. Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap. Feeeeeel the power of YouTube! ;)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Quite Utterly Quotable


When media reporters asked Alan Shepard what he thought about as he sat atop the Redstone rocket, waiting for liftoff, whereby he would be the first American to fly in space, he replied, "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder."

It's funny now. Probably wasn't back then. Still, it’s always been one of my favorite quips… and like so many other aspects of any cutting edge science like space exploration, there is the inherent paradox of exhilaration and fear. There isn’t always a happy ending or a success story, but the journey itself is still crucial.

"Be thankful for problems. If they were less difficult, someone with less ability might have your job." - James A. Lovell

"When you're getting ready to launch into space, you're sitting on a big explosion waiting to happen." - Sally Ride

"The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way, the way God intended it to be, by giving everyone that new perspective from out in space." - Roger Chaffee

"Growing up, I didn't think of being a writer. I wanted to be a traveler and explorer. Science fiction allowed me to go places that were otherwise inaccessible. I was going to be a lawyer, but I got saved." - Alan Dean Foster

Space Exploration
"The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds and to advance the kind of science, math and technology education that will help youngsters take us to the next phase of space travel." - John Glenn

"The true delight is in the finding out rather than in the knowing." - Isaac Asimov

"We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology." - Carl Sagan

"I will go all around the Space Shuttle and give a guided tour of the major areas, and describe what is done in each area. This will be the ultimate field trip!" - Christa McAuliffe

"Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man's desire to understand." - Neil Armstrong