HAVING A BLAST(OFF) AT NASA HQ
During Interleague play the Royals visited Houston. It is now an annual visit. With Houston joining the American League next season (to even the number of teams in each league at 15 apiece), the Royals will travel there every season. One of my passions is manned space flight. And as anyone who saw Apollo 13 knows, “Houston” is the place with which the the astronauts communicate. And “Houston” is the Johnson Space Center, home to mission control, as well as the place the astronauts do their training for space travel. I had been on the public tours a couple of times on previous Houston trips (and I highly recommend the public tours), but this time we were fortunate enough to get a special “insider” tour of the place.
The First place we visited was the “old” Mission Control. From this room those of us on Earth stayed in touch with astronauts walking on the Moon, or orbiting the earth. Norm Knight is Chief of the Flight Director Office. So he’s the “Big Cheese.” He showed us around the old and new Mission Control rooms.
Norm is in charge of all the flight directors. Gene Krantz was the most famous flight director in NASA history. If you remember the movie Apollo 13, he was the guy played by Ed Harris who wore a vest each day. I’m no Gene Krantz (or Ed Harris for that matter) but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pretend I was important. Gene Krantz is long retired, but his steady hand helped guide the space program through many difficult moments, as well as during incredible, monumental triumphs.
The old mission control room is now retired, and is designated a National Historic Landmark. The crew of Apollo 13 gave this plaque to the flight controllers for all their help getting Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise home safely. The mirror is off the space craft and the plaque tells the controllers to “look in the mirror,” because those looking in this mirror were the ones who helped get them home. The flag you see in the reflection is hanging on the opposite wall. It’s from the spacecraft of Apollo 13.
My cousin Jeff Nunn (on the left) lives in Houston (he was our ride to the JSC as well as to Minute Maid Park. He once sat next to Gene Krantz on a plane. I once rode on an elevator with Bill Cosby, but I digress). Royals Media Relations Director Dave Holtzman, and Steve Physioc joined me on the tour. This is still in the old Mission Control, the place through which Neil Armstrong told the world “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Back to Apollo 13 for a moment. The command module from that historic mission is on display at the Kansas Cosmosphere in Hutchinson, KS. A priceless historic artifact. And that flag over Steve Physioc’s head is the one that is reflected in the plaque in the above photo.
In the new mission control, from which they direct the International Space Station, they have giant monitors to view what’s happening right now. This astronaut looks like he’s flying right over my cousin Jeff’s head. But a lot goes over his head. We were fortunate to go into the live mission control. Since 9/11 it’s been off-limits to the general public.
Another part of this special tour that is not on the public tour, is the Nuetral Buoyancy Labroratory. In effect, it’s the largest indoor pool in the world. But it’s not for Michael Phelps. It’s for astronauts. It is 202 feet long, 102 feet
wide and 40 feet deep. A mock-up of the International Space Station is down there. 6.2 million gallons of water. They go down in the water in full space suits. For space geeks like me…this is really cool.
Another part of our special tour was getting to go on the floor of the Space Vehicle Mockup facility. The Space Station mockup is here, as is the shuttle trainer. During the Shuttle era, a full Shuttle mockup was here as well. Our tour guide for this portion was a real live astronaut: Mike Massamino. He’s an impressive guy, very “down-to-earth.” Although he was far from down-to-earth during two Shuttle missions in which he helped repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He’s also a lifelong Mets fan. On his missions he took both a John Franco jersey AND homeplate from old Shea Stadium into outer space. He’s been on Big Bang Theory as well as the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He has a great personality and sense of humor.
In the Shuttle cockpit mockup, the lower bay includes lockers for storage, as well as some of the seats used by astronauts during launch. Also included is…the “restroom facilities.” Dave is sitting on that particular “throne.” Not much room for modesty on the Shuttle. We all got photos on the “throne.”
See this vehicle? You won’t see it on the road. Unless you’re on the Moon or Mars at some point in the distant future. The Space Exploration Vehicle is being developed by KU alum and lifelong Royals fan Dr. Bill Bluethmann. It’s an enhanced version of the old Lunar Rover (a dune buggy-like vehicle driven on the Moon during Apollo 15, 16 and 17). This vehicle is designed for several days, far from the home. Astronauts can sleep in this, eat in this. They can also get out (in a space suit) and walk around. It’s already been tested in desert conditions, just to test the logistics.
Driving it takes some getting used to. It has a joystick like a video game (my son John would take to it immediately). We all took turns driving. They have a pretend “moon” area and a pretend “Mars” area to drive around in. This vehicle will go down into and out of craters. I was a little apprehensive to operate what amounts to a 2 million dollar vehicle. But after Jeff drove it, I figured I could too. After some quick stops and starts got my fellow tour-goers a little shaken up…I finally figured out how to drive the thing. As Dr. Emmett Brown said at the end of Back to the Future, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”