Houston: We Did Not Have A Problem
Virgin Galactic will soon make space travel a possibility for… well, not the average person because the price tag is prohibitive, but people who don’t work for NASA. Currently, 580 folk have placed their deposits on tourism trips into space. That’s an extremely small percentage, when you consider that the world’s population exceeds seven billion. Places like the Space Center in Houston are the closest most of us will get to infinity and beyond.
That leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions about space travel. I’d like to say that the issues I dwell on relate to impressive-sounding things like elliptical orbit, but my mind gets stuck on the practical matters.
- What happens if you get airsick and puke in a zero gravity environment? I’m assuming you don’t get voted crewmate of the week.
- How do astronauts spend their time? Games of ‘I spy?’ Because there are only so many times you can guess ‘light pollution.’
- Does anyone ever ask ‘are we there yet?’
- Do astronauts float into things when they sleep?
The Space Center provides many of the answers (although not to my question about vomiting). I learned that astronauts sleep upright, in itchy-looking sleeping bags. They only eat rehydrated food, and any meals that include crumbs are challenging to consume.
That gave me a mental image of astronauts chasing down bits of chocolate chip cookie Hungry Hippo-style! The most disturbing information I discovered was that all water on a spaceship is reused… including urine.
Astronauts who are in space work ten-hour shifts, but are never ‘off duty.’ They have to exercise for two hours per day to counteract the effects of zero gravity on their muscles. Think about that the next time you’re bitching about putting in thirty minutes on the elliptical.
They are allowed to relax with activities like reading or playing music. If I were on the crew, I’d insist on an audition before letting anyone bring a violin on board. Imagine the torture of a mangled recital in such a confined space.
The Space Center is part museum, part hall of fame, with plenty of memorabilia and equipment on display. I stuck my head inside a space helmet, which smelled as unpleasant as a pile of NFL player’s socks.
Other exhibits showcased John Young’s ejection escape suit; Michael Collins’ bioisolation garment, which he wore when returning from the first moon landing mission; and Sally Ride’s coveralls. Seriously. Coveralls and no one guessed she was a lesbian?
From the main building, you can take three different tram tours. We picked the blue tour because we wanted to see the mission control center. This is the place where the infamous words: ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem,’ were actually heard. It was used between 1965 and 1995, for Gemini, Apollo and the first half of the shuttle missions.
Understandably, a wall of glass protects the room, but you can still get a good look at the equipment. Each flight operations director had a workstation with two screens, complete with handles on the side and a bank of buttons. On top of the device, was a rotary dial. Personally, I find it staggering that we put a man on the moon, while technology was still rotary.
The average age of the workers in this room was twenty-six. Now I’ll admit that youth tends to go hand in hand with the easy adoption of new technology. But it’s one thing to allow your kid to mess around on your phone and improve your Angry Birds score, and quite another to let some twenty-somethings armed with buttons the size of cheese cubes send you into space. I’m sure they were highly competent, but I’d have needed a lot of shots before that sounded like a solid plan.
That recruitment technique almost worked on my dad. He served in the U.S. Navy and has the requisite drinking stories to accompany his stint. The most memorable one (from my perspective, not his) is the time he got hammered in a bar and agreed to join the astronaut program. The massive hangover was followed by panic and frantic backpedaling. He may have been qualified, but he’s a devoted fan of gravity.
After mission control, our tram stopped at Rocket Park. Maybe I’m jaded, but the rockets outside didn’t seem that big. Not to be a size queen, but I was expecting… a little more. Then I went inside the hangar. The entire space was devoted to the Godzilla of rockets. If NASA astronauts were worried about passing that physical, they’d only need to run a few laps around this beast to be in tip top shape.
Before we left the Space Center, we watched a video showing footage and photos of our planet from above. Astronauts can see storms, the Northern lights, and the glow of cities blazing like fires. The Space Center may not be located in space, but it definitely gives you a different perspective on our world.
• The Space Center is located at 1601 NASA Parkway, Houston, TX. It’s roughly twenty-five miles south of the city center.
• You have to pay for parking.
• Ticket prices are on the high side. You get a discount by booking online, rather than paying at the ticket office.
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.