Monday, June 20, 2005

Don't hold your breath...

All right, here is the long awaited report on my trip to Houston (aka Hell on Earth, which just happens to be home to one of the coolest facilities on Earth, how ironic).

First off: for all you Murakami fans out there (especially those who have read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), in Houston we kept hearing this bird that sounded like a whirring buzzing motor. Using all my creative talents and juices I named it the Robo-Bird. We heard Robo-Bird again at the airport when we got back to Cleveland. Weeeeird.

As soon as I stepped outside Hobby airport, it became apparent that for anyone who isn’t a native Texan –and consequently used to the unrelenting 95 degree weather, smog, and endless sprawling expanse that is Houston—working at Johnson Space Center is a compromise. There are so many amazing things happening at JSC that aren’t happening anywhere else in the world, so from what I was able to ascertain, the compromise is well worth it. Unfortunately, I think I’d have a harder time adapting to Houston than most. (How do you go running there? You’d die! And there are no forests or mountains. And no vegetarians.) I’m not about to pack my bags and jump on a plane to the Lone Star state, but if I ever become a NASA astronaut, I think I could suck it up.

At NASA Academy they like to do things because that’s the way they did things the year before (I think eventually this is called tradition), which is why we spent our first night in Houston at the Cadillac Bar and Grill. (Yes, they did have a Cadillac there.) We rolled in a bit late, so the other Academies (Marshall and Goddard) were already there. Yet somehow we managed to get our food first. I only mention dinner because we were next to some body of water (I’m still not sure what it was…I don’t think it was the Gulf of Mexico) and this psychedelic boat from Joe’s Crab Shack (an adjacent restaurant) kept floating past us. On this boat were some girls whose job was basically to do the Macarena continuously in order to entertain the passengers. Apparently that’s one of Joe’s Crab Shack’s gimmicks. They must have a very high turnover of Macarena dancers, because I’m sure sanity is fleeting within that profession.

After that, all the Academy staff members were nearly jumping out of their pants because they wanted to go “The Outpost”, which is supposedly a big astronaut bar/hangout (or, was…). When we got there the place was completely void of life except for a solitary bar hound. Even the jukebox was dead (and ate our money). Nonetheless, there were all sorts of dollar bills signed by real astronauts stapled to the walls (unfortunately it was the dollar bills, and not the astronauts, that were stapled to the walls).

The next morning I tried to go running. That didn’t turn out very well. But at least the water was pretty.

--Warning, rant ahead--
I just want to say that I hope I never have to wear a business suit. I think that they are unflattering on women, and totally not my style. So I was glad that the three of us from Glenn were the only girls (except maybe one) of all three Academies who weren’t wearing cheesy matching business suits. Go us. Ok I’m done now. Hopefully that’s the only fashion rant I’ll have all summer.
(Just a side note: I’m at work right now and planes keep flying right over me…did this just not happen last week or did I just not notice?)

Thursday morning we were addressed by the director of Johnson Research Center, Jeff Howell, a stately military gentleman from Texas. After that we met Chris Hadfield. Hadfield was a guy who really really loves his job. Why? He’s an astronaut! (And a Canadian, no less!) He looked exactly like you’d expect a male astronaut to look like: he was compact and sported a bushy mustache and a crew cut (whereas female astronauts always have big curly 80s hair). He talked about a lot of the different sides of his job (including the spiritual aspect of being an astronaut: Everyone believes in something, he said, and being in space seems to reaffirm that, whatever it is), and a lot of the issues NASA is dealing with concerning the space shuttle’s return to flight.

After Chris Hadfield’s talk we got tours of both the historic Apollo era mission control center (where we would watch Apollo 13 later that night, how fitting) and the current mission control rooms for the ISS and Space Shuttle. I wrote a very touching (aka sappy) summary of the MCC tours, which is now up on the Glenn Academy website.

In the afternoon we heard a talk on Astro-biology. The guy giving the talk, Doug O’Handley, kept mentioning how life on earth kept getting wiped out and then had to completely start again from scratch. Hmmm, I want to see him and Sam Bowring (my Intro to Geology professor) get into a fight. I think Sam would totally win.

Next was a presentation on AERCam, which is a soccer-ball-sized camera that flies around the outside of the ISS taking pictures. It has I think 12 little pressurized gas thrusters on it so it can move around. That was pretty cool (and a crazy controls problem; I had a hard enough time trying to control a satellite with two thrusters last semester). We also saw a presentation on “Robonaut”, this human-like robot that is designed to be an assistant to astronauts during spacewalks. I don’t really know why they had to make it human-like; the only cool human-ish things on it were its hands (which were rad). It had a scary helmet and a Kevlar torso with fake muscles patterned on it. Now was that really necessary?

On Thursday we also saw the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory, which is basically all the buttons and switches and panels of the space shuttle but without any of the exterior hardware. On Friday we saw the opposite: scale models of the space shuttle and the ISS without any of the blinking whirligigs inside. Both are used to train astronauts.

As far as I can ascertain, the life of an astronaut is all about training for hundreds upon hundreds of hours to do one specified task or mission. I thought marathoning was a copious endeavor because you train for months on end for one single day, and if something goes wrong on that day (like say, you get strep throat) there’s nothing you can do. Being an astronaut seems similar only multiplied by a few orders of magnitude, only in addition you also train for all the things that could possibly go wrong.

But back to the astronaut training. We got to see the EVA (extra-vehicular activity…sorry, I’m falling into the deep dark hole of acronym over-use) lab, where I learned they can fit someone up to 6’8” in a space suit! That means even Dan could be an astronaut! Girth is apparently a lot harder to manage than length. But the coolest thing about seeing where they train astronauts (besides the giant 40 foot deep pool, and learning that there are several vegetarian astronauts) was where they learn how to use the toilet. You have to line yourself up very exactly to use a space toilet (because it forms a tight seal), and because your muscles are finely tuned towards controlling your movements in Earth’s gravity (i.e., you are really good at balancing a full cup of coffee here, but try doing that in space, that is, if you could find some way to keep the liquid inside the cup), it takes a lot of practice. So there’s a practice toilet with a camera inside it (that’s right, an ass cam) that displays to a monitor in front of the toilet. You can look at your own ass. While on the toilet. There’s also another toilet that is fully functional and doesn’t have a camera inside of it. I got to sit on the same toilet that astronauts use to learn how to go to the bathroom in space! Ok…sorry for getting over excited there…

I think I glossed over the giant pool there. It’s actually called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, and it’s the biggest pool in the world. It has full size models of the Space Shuttle and all of the American ISS components in it. One thing I learned at JSC was that there’s a lot of vomiting involved in being astronaut, both in the training process and the actual going into space part. I won’t elaborate how that fits into training in a space suit underwater. Anyway, being a SCUBA diver who trains astronauts sounds like one of the coolest jobs ever. Being a SCUBA diver in general sounds awesome. That’s something I’m definitely going to keep in the back of my head.

While I’m on the subject of cool jobs…there was a girl from the Goddard Academy who was deaf, so they had a sign language interpreter for her on all of our tours and lectures. I couldn’t stop staring at him because sign language is so awesome. I’m going to have to learn sign language some day soon. When I took linguistics my textbook had a section at the back of each chapter about how whatever concept we were learning applied to sign language as well as to spoken languages. That must have been (to use my mom’s vocabulary word and my pet peeve) a “sexy” topic in the realm of linguists at the time the book was published.

Oh! I almost forgot. We also got to see where they test the VaSIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasm Rocket) at the Advanced Space Propulsion Lab (which works in conjunction with MIT’s Plasma Science Fusion Center). I just have to saw that plasma rockets are just about the coolest thing ever, but a lot of people are opposed to using them because they require a very large power source (like a nuclear reactor) in order to run. I’m not going to launch into a tirade on plasma rockets and how they work, but here’s the ASPL website.

All right, that’s it as far as the official tours at JSC. Other than that, there was a lot of badging, riding around in vans with escorts, and other typical NASA stuff. We got to interact with the students from the other NASA Academies, and I can now say, without a doubt, that I’m lucky to be at Glenn because we’re the most awesome group. There were a ton of people from the Midwest. Can anyone explain that phenomenon to me? Also, around JSC everything is space-related. All the stores and restaurants are called like, space taco, or something similar. And the streets are named “NASA Rd.” because they are very creative.

There were also lots of crazy shenanigans to be had, and there was a swim shop called “The Wet Spot” (no joke). Overall it was a good trip. I’m getting tired of writing so…we’ll see how many details I’ll remember that I forgot and then try to add in later. Maybe after I take a break I’ll write about this weekend, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

are you sure the robo-bird wasn't cicadas?

I hope I never have to do the suit thing either. doesn't ...suit... me. (sorry, couldn't think of a better word). but since I hope to do int'l something or others, I probably will. :-(

a cool way to get scuba diving licensed would be to go to a Thai island and hang out for a couple weeks. the islands I was on all had diving instructors where you could get certificates. doesn't sound like it'd be a bad way to go about it...