Sunday, August 21, 2011

Space Camp

Bryce finally got his birthday present, and he has been really patient in waiting for it.  It was a trip to space camp in Huntsville, Alabama.  The testing grounds and construction site for the Saturn V rocket that took us to the moon.  The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has one of the Saturn V’s upright and on display out front and the scale is really astonishing.  However did we get something so large, wildly explosive and complex to work at all?  It’s beyond me and my feeble mathematical skills to comprehend what it took to design and get the vehicle off the ground.  

Like they say…  “Hey, it’s not like its Rocket Science.  Oh wait…yes it is.”

Bryce had an absolute ball at the center.  We were housed in bunk rooms that were designed so that they would fit into the Shuttle cargo bay to further give the sense of how small the spaces are that are required for space travel.  

Each one of the tubes in the background had an entire floor of rooms in it.  
We are so spoiled here on Earth with our expansive land and easy access to anything and everything.  All space crews exist in are little tubes (even on the relatively massive ISS) and the overlap of items required to stay alive makes the entire layout look like something out of an episode of hoarders.  Laptops, wires, clothes, food, several people, life support, and science equipment are everywhere.  Actually it kind of looks like my office a bit. Hmmm…time to clean up perhaps.
There were several simulators that the astronauts used to learn how to move and operate various pieces of machinery in space, and we got to play on them.  You can see them in action...poorly on my the end of this post.
1/6th chair:  Since the human body only weighs 1/6th it’s Earthly weight on the moon, somebody had to practice how to move around, and this is what they used.  Even so, if you are used to a 170lb body here, it’s a bit awkward when you find yourself only weighing in at 28lbs.  Every push with a foot launches you 4 feet in the air and spinning.  
A highlight for me was that we got a chance to speak with Robert “Hoot” Gibson who may have the most impressive resume I have ever seen.  
Aeronautical Engineer from Cal Poly, First in his class at the Naval Academy, Top Gun graduate, 14,000 hours of flight time in literally hundreds of different aircraft, 300+ carrier landings, years as a Navy Test pilot, and a 5 time shuttle astronaut.  He was the pilot that docked with the Russian Mir and shook hands in the historic photograph with the Russian Astronaut through the airlock…  Sheesh…

Perhaps this handshake will be equally impressive in years to come...

Mr. Gibson spoke with the group for an hour and answered every question the kids could come up with.  It’s really wonderful to see brilliant people come and speak with kids and motivate them to work hard and study hard to achieve success.  The message was vastly better than ESPN’s version of success, and for most of us, more probable.  

Space Camp was loaded with smart people.  I felt a touch out of my league, but Bryce and I fit in well personality wise.  It’s a place that reveres and promotes unabashed geekdom.  It was unusual.  For instance, when kids were asked "What are you going to be?" they wouldn't just say a race car driver.  They rattled off careers like a Cardio Vascular Surgeon.  (and can pronounce it correctly) You may think that Ocho Cinco, or Dirk Nowitsky are cool, but they can’t do orbital mechanics…

Bryce couldn't wait to fly the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) simulator.  Which, by the way, is a nifty little hovercraft contraption that floats across the concrete floor.  It was designed to teach shuttle astronauts how to fly the un-tethered propelled backpack.  (Untethered = Scary at 17,500 mph with no air and that whole fiery death thing)
Oh, you've seen this picture before?  
Guess who took the shot?  
Yep, Capt. Robert Gibson on the STS-41...

In a shuttle Science Mission Specialist simulation.  Bryce was the specialist...I was merely simulating special...

Bryce and I got to go through a few different space shuttle launch, mission and landing simulations, which were remarkably real.  Covering ground control, checking pressures in tanks and O2 supplies, while paying attention to about 20 different indicators, switches and mission clocks was actually somewhat difficult.  I can only imagine when one is dealing with actual launch and landing type conditions.  My hat is off to the men and women that run the programs at NASA.

Our days at Space Camp were filled with activities.  The day started at 6:30am with someone calling wake up from the door and we would work/play until 9:30 at night.  It was very much the way the actual astronauts live with specific timetables, but the benefit of having late nights at the Camp was we had the run of the place for an hour or so, and this included the massive Saturn V building.  

The museum had a full Saturn V rocket split into it's stages horizontally across several football fields of space.  At the end of this monstrous room, was the payload.  The Apollo capsule.  The photograph above is the Apollo 16 capsule that was used a few months before I was born.  April 1972.  We pulled this amazing technological feat off multiple times (including our greatest failure) with a mere 166KB of computing power.  Yep.  Your phone sneezes out more than that when it re-boots...

As to the space program now that the Shuttle program is discontinued, we don’t have a goal anymore.  Or more precisely, we don’t have an achievable goal.  We as a species have reached the end of what we can do practically.  We have learned so much and now are realizing that with our abilities to travel, we may have reached the achievable limits of humankind.  
Going to Mars is an achievable goal, but with the 5 years away from the earth to make the flight there and back plus the time in orbit and on the surface, I have a feeling that this would be a one way mission.  If we got the astronauts back, they would not live long due to radiation exposure in space, muscular atrophy, and bone decalcification in microgravity, never mind the mental impacts of being confined in a small tube for several years.  Anything further out from where we are, when it comes to manned spaceflight, is impossible.  And I mean impossible.  
Even if we find the elusive engine that will propel us 90-95% of light speed we are talking at least hundreds of years of mere travel time in an environment in which it is impossible for us to survive.  A one way trip in other words.  We as a world do not have the money or desire, or need to do something like that.  I say need loosely there.  Of course we have a need to try because, by definition of what we know, our time on this planet is limited.  We have a need to survive, but the attempt will most likely fail due to our frail bodies and our unfortunate lack of understanding.  There is an idea that it may save the species at some point, but we would need many generations of people during the transportation segment of getting to a new world and then the difficulties of setting up a base there would merely extend the human race a short time rather than save it.  

That fate coming true or not is up to the smarter kids of future generations that will follow well behind our short years on this planet.  The most amazing and comforting thing to me is that, above and beyond all that we have achieved thus far, it has been proven over and over again, that with determination and need, we humans have made some formerly impossible things...possible.

Enjoy the video.  Bryce's head is going to spin when he sees it... "Where are the light sabers!" he will say...  Heh Heh...

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