We saw astronauts being trained today and my takeaway moment was a conversation we overheard. Quite literally the astronaut was being told: “Use the right tool for the right job. Don’t use a screwdriver as a hammer.” There was a pause, and then the trainer restored my faith in NASA’s ingenuity by saying: “Well, unless you really need to.”
The Johnson Space Centre has been the place for astronaut training, and mission control for the manned space program for as long as the USA has had a manned space program. And today we got to go behind the scenes.
We saw the huge warehouse full of life-sized mock-ups of the International Space Station and various crew capsules where astronauts are trained until doing their jobs becomes second-nature well before they actually get near to space. That was where we overheard the screwdriver injunction. The highlight here was probably seeing the new commercial capsules that will revive US launches and seeing robots being trained.
Far more exciting, though, was the Neutral Buoyancy Lab – the huge pool where the astronauts practice in an environment at least somewhat similar to space. The lab was particularly interesting because two astronauts were getting out of the pool while we were there and so we got to see them struggle out of their spacesuits.
Mission Control for the International Space Station was fascinating because it was the real, live working environment. I must admit the whole place looks like a modern computer company with a bunch of people siting in front of multiple screens and doing stuff with computers but it certainly had an edge knowing that the stuff they were doing was actually impacting on the space station.
Our last stop for the day was the Saturn V, the largest rocket ever constructed. And, boy, but that thing was huge. The amazing thing is not only the enormous size of the rocket itself, but also the tiny size of the crew capsule that all the rest is designed to get from A to B and back. It really gives some sense of the scale of the undertaking in going into space and the fragility of the tiny humans being shunted about by these controlled explosions.
Houston is where most of the iconic events of the space race either took place or were controlled from. It’s too much a working environment to have a deep sense of history yet, but you can’t help feeling that in decades and centuries to come people will revere the place as the site of so much bravery and ingenuity.