Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Nerdish Pilgrimage - Space Center Houston

Our first big tourist outing in Texas over the holidays was to the Houston Space Center, although it would not be amiss in my eyes to describe it as a pilgrimage.

Somehow, I have managed to transfer my sense of wonder and respect for those who have travelled so much further and faster than the rest of humanity to both of my daughters, and Audrey's love and appreciation of history meant that we were all happy to be going (Nanny had elected to sit this one out).

It was a fairly cold day, at least by Texas standards - maybe 4-5 degrees above freezing. With most of the exhibits indoors, I had elected to bring only a sweater, and regretted my choice as we waited outside in the breeze, queueing up for the tram which would take us from the visitor's centre to the campus of the Johnson Space Center itself. And with school being out, it was teeming with people, and we were told that the wait could be up to 45 minutes.

Although all the famous launches of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions occurred at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the JSC in Houston has been the hub of human spaceflight since 1961. All the famous American astronauts from the missions listed as well as everyone who has ever set foot on the International Space Station has received their training here. The ISS, Hubble and other space platforms are also supported here, but even more exciting are the advances in spaceflight and robotics that will take humanity to Mars and beyond.

But I wasn't thinking of the future while I stood in line with the others, my shoulders hunched up to repel the cold; I was feverishly trying to reconcile the mixed feelings tumbling through my brain. Next to me in line, Glory, ever the perceptive one, asked what I was thinking about, no doubt due to my uncharacteristic silence.

"I feel pretty strange," I confessed. "You know I've always been into this kind of thing, right? My interest in manned spaceflight goes back to before I even knew what science-fiction was."

It's true - a fascination with names like Gordon Cooper, Alan Sheppard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong predates any interest with Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Dad had a set of encyclopedias called Above & Beyond, filled with all manner of detail on aerospace matters and including several fold out posters and maps I pored over.

Even prior to that, I have a recollection from when I was perhaps three or four years old, of being awake in the wee hours, and coming across Dad in the tv room of our farmhouse in New Brunswick. He was watching the lunar module leave the moon during one of the later Apollo missions, perhaps 14 or 15. I remember one of the newscasters commenting on the 'waterspout' effect as the module blasted off, leaving its landing gear behind, but that spectacle is eclipsed in my mind by the intensity and focus with which the Old Man watched the proceedings.

Was it that sensed devotion that sparked my interest? Was it the posters from A&B that detailed the Saturn V rocket, or outlined the key differences between the planets in our solar system? Whencever it came, that preoccupation persisted throughout my childhood. 

During a visit to Dad's brother Harold in Manitoba when I was eight, I remember a number of us rushing out and looking up to see if we could glimpse the historic docking between the Soviet Soyuz capsule and the very last American Apollo craft. 

When I was ten, we were visiting Aunt Ena in Kitimat when all the tvs switched to the first free flight of the space shuttle Enterprise, a mission even more engaging than those of its namesake on Star Trek, because it was real. And soon I was going to see where much of it began!

Beneath the excitement though, an emotional undercurrent roiled; something darker, tinged with sadness and anger, becoming more pronounced as I tried to examine it. I turned to Glory again: "It wasn't always easy being into this stuff though, you know that, right?"

"What do you mean?" she asked.

I struggled to explain. "Things were very different then. People with these sorts of interests, they got excluded a lot. We didn't call ourselves nerds then, it was a label hung on us by cool kids. A lot of stuff we take for granted now, like wearing t-shirts with superhero logos on them or admitting that we played or play Dungeons & Dragons, I would never have done that in junior high school."

Glory looked perplexed. "Really?" she said.

"It's true," I said, my throat thickening a little bit. "Junior high was a rough time for me. They called me 'Space Cadet', and not in a nice or ironic way. In a way meant to make me feel different and excluded."

And it did, but it turned out there were always others, fellow outsiders, lurking about the fringes. We would find each other through any number of passphrases or shibboleths and form tiny but tightly-knit communities: the lunchtime Star Trek RPG club, the Thursday night D&D gathering; subsets of the English 20B option and student council; the group that talked comics lore at the local shop. And while none of those directly addressed the exploration beyond our homeworld, my interest remained, shared by many of my closest friends to this day.

Back in that cold line-up in Houston, Glory was dropping a hand on my shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said.

I shook my head, smiling, eyes a little damp. "It's all right kid, it all turned out okay. We won, right? You guys can wear what you like, do what you want, be as nerdy as you like, or not, it's up to you. And today we are going to see some amazing stuff that other nerds have done!"

And we did.

We started off in the Space Vehicle Mock-Up Facility (SVMF) and got see full -size replicas of every module in the ISS.

There were three other things in the SVMF that surpassed even that though, the first being the area devoted to the Orion spacecraft, a vehicle designed to explore the asteroids and eventually Mars.

The second was the Valkyrie robot, antecedent to Robonaut, and NASA's most advanced prototype to date.

Tying all this together was the third element, a real workspace, underlining the notion that we were not looking at props on a soundstage, but the workshop were humanity's trans-Earth future is being engineered.

After touring around much more of the JSC campus (and observing the disquieting number of liquid nitrogen tanks they seem to have around every corner), we were brought to the Rocket Park, where you can see the Mercury-Redstone, the first rocket to propel a man beyond our atmosphere...

Then wander into an enormous hangar, home of the mighty Saturn V.

I will be the first to admit that I am not a real gear head or even an engineering aficionado, but standing close to even one of these massive engines, capable of 55,000 lbs of thrust is simply awe inspiring.

And this beast had five of them!

And all to bring three people to the moon in a capsule smaller than your family car.

Then it was back to the visitor's centre and lunch, where you can dine under a mural of every mission patch design ever, and in the presence of the original set prop for the fictional Enterprise's shuttle Galileo.

Then it was on to Independence Plaza, for a close-up look inside NASA 905, the specially modified 747 that carried the original space shuttles.

Inside, a number of exhibits, models and demonstrations explaining just how amazing this former passenger plane really was, as well as an excellent shuttle mock-up mounted on top of it that you can also walk though.

And of course, a reminder that such exploratory goals can carry a terrible price.

I could have spent another two full days minimum exploring the other exhibits in the visitor's centre: the ISS, the Mars Mission, the various movies. But my childhood drew me to the Moon mission exhibits, with my wife and children pulled along in my wake. I'd told them we could meet back at the gift shop, but they elected to accompany me on this final homage.

One of the greatest treats was touching a genuine moon rock, one of (I believe) four such pieces accessible to the public.

We got to see the vest worn by Apollo 17 flight controller Gene Krantz (memorably portrayed by Ed Harris in Apollo 13).

There was a fantastic diorama depicting two astronauts with their lunar rover, a dream vehicle that might transcend both the George Barris Batmobile and James Bond's DBV in my personal hierarchy.

Even without a space suit, in Earth-normal gravity, in a crowded museum, seeing our world as a tiny blue marble set against a starless void (can't see starts from the light side of the moon, same as daytime here) is profoundly humbling.

Glory tried her hand at docking in an Manned Maneuvering Unit, complete with servos and a guidance laser.

As we approached the Apollo 17 capsule, I warned the others that I intended to reach past the guardrail and touch it, so they might want to stand away from me incase I got into trouble, bit it turned out that this was not security byt a safety feature, presumably meant to keep people from bumping into it, climbing on it, or knocking it over.

I had no intention of doing any of these things, but growing within me was a deep-seated need to touch the surface of this spacecraft, the last vehicle to return from the Moon. It was strange, since I am primarily a visually oriented person, but I knew nothing less than physical contact would satiate this urge, soothe the compulsion that I was so sure was emanating from my inner ten-year old.

The hatch was open, precluding the need for me to stretch past the railing - I could simply walk up to it and lay my palm upon it. Simplest thing in the world.

Just reach out and touch something that not only took three brave men to another world, but brought them back.  A tiny, uncomfortable vehicle that had survived atmospheric re-entry.The last thing to return from the farthest place humans have ever gone.

I reached out and laid my open hand upon the cool, rough surface of the hatch.

Oh my God.

The sensation was incredible, and physically palpable. It was galvanic, like laying my finger across the terminals of a 9-volt battery, but somehow comforting at the same time. It was thrilling; my breath quickened, my pulse raced. 

Seeing me transfixed, Audrey laid her hand across the back of mine. "Oh, my..." she whispered, somehow sensing how momentous this experience had become for me. Apparently human skin can conduct emotional current even more effectively than electrical. 

Even recalling it now, a week later, it still moves me, and I'm torn between feeling ridiculous and vindicated, like a space cadet returning home.

I've always believed that humanity's future lays in the stars, and that, as Heinlein said, Earth is far too fragile a basket for humanity to keep all of its eggs in. Sometimes this has been the prevalent view of society, at other times, those who feel "we have no business being up there" have held sway. 

At all times, there have been some of us keeping our eyes on those stars, sometimes through the filter of science-fiction, and sometimes through the unforgiving lens of science fact. Being surrounded by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of  people likewise intrigued by where we have been and where we might go next was a tremendously rewarding experience.

If you've ever looked up, perhaps at the Moon, perhaps at the stars, maybe at Venus or Mars or some indeterminate point in the cosmos and wished you were there, or impatiently wondered when our species would get there, I heartily recommend you take a pilgrimage to Houston, and make your way to the Johnson Space Centre. The U$30 admission is a small price to pay for the experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment