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Tag: History

New Exhibit Open – Dare to Explore: Frontiers of Space

Dare to Explore: Frontiers of Space is a new and evolving exhibit showcasing current and future technologies of space exploration, such as a 1/10th scale model of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, Boeing’s Starliner Pressure Capsule test vessel, a 1/10th scale model of NASA’s SLS rocket, Blue Origin’s Mannequin Skywalker, and coming soon, Chris Sembroski’s Inspiration4 SpaceX launch and entry suit.

The Vulcan heavy-lift rocket is manufactured in nearby Decatur, and the pressure vessel is the skeleton of the reusable Crew Space Transportation Starliner module that will take crews to lower-Earth-orbit locations such as the International Space Station.

At Your Service: The White Coats Are Here

I have enjoyed being a docent at USSRC for about five years. It leads to some very rewarding experiences particularly when we get visitors who are curious about the technology of our early space programs or the history behind Huntsville’s involvement. I believe the most rewarding response I get is when I see someone’s face light up, be it an adult or a Space Camper, as they have just understood some aspect of the program for the first time. This can be some rather obscure technical point or some major programmatic decision that drives an entire program. Interactions with the public can run the full gamut from people who are just curious about what’s in the big white building to professors of engineering who may be seeking to verify some tiny point about something as obscure as the “start sequence of an F-1 engine”. I love all these kinds of people. Many times, their questions receive an “I don’t know” answer from me. But one of the joys of that answer is that it drives me to do some homework so that no one will stump we with that particular question again.

Of course, there is a hazard in speaking about the Saturn V here in Huntsville, because you never know if one of the older folks in a group may have been the chief design engineer on that particular element when the rocket was being initially designed and built. It does keep you on your toes!

You never know when a person or a small group of people will be very rewarding to speak to. I particularly remember a group of three plumbers who, as you might expect, were very interested in fluid flow through pipes. We just so happen to have an F-1 rocket engine which has quite a few pipes which direct the flow of some challenging fluids at interesting pressures and temperatures. We must have spent an hour tracing fluid lines and talking about the mechanics of the fluid flows through them.

It was really a thrill when I ran across an 8-year-old who might as well have been a professor of engineering. I asked him if he could think of four things an astronaut needed to stay alive in the space suit for a short time of working in space. He proceeded to reel off all four requirements. I thought he might well have been one of my suit instructors at JSC. It just makes my whole day when I see such a child who is interested enough in space technology to study it in-depth on his own.

But while we are there to assist the public, there are those days when people prefer to walk around and read the placard information throughout the museum. When that happens, we docents usually can find some aspect of the hardware that we do not understand. We will begin to trace wires or fluid flows trying to more thoroughly understand the machines. Occasionally, we will hit a dead end, which means more homework, until we find the missing bit of information. Many times, it is a piece of equipment that didn’t make it onto our exhibit. The RL-10 engine has caused me more than one sleepless night, as has the history of the von Braun rocket team in Germany and in the U.S. But I find it very rewarding just to spend time with my fellow docents when we can learn from each other. We have some pretty interesting folks wearing white lab coats; some may even be legends!

Some very rewarding moments can come from watching parents react with their kids. It is wonderful to see parents beaming with pride as one of their children talks about their adventures at Space Camp. Sometimes getting the “Right Stuff Award” can be as important as getting a Nobel Prize!

The Underwater Astronaut Trainer: A Memory

The story of the Underwater Astronaut Trainer located at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, began in 1986, the same year the Challenger accident happened. At the time, I was a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center astronaut training manager assigned to train the first Japanese astronauts for the Spacelab-J (SL-J) mission. With that mission put off indefinitely by the grounding of the shuttles, I was ordered home from Japan and given a number of short-term assignments until SL-J got a launch date. When I read in the Huntsville Times that the USSRC was going to build a swimming pool to teach Space Camp and Space Academy students the principles of operating in weightless conditions, I was intrigued. Since I was a scuba instructor and a diver in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator at Marshall Space Flight Center, I thought a similar tank could be built at the USSRC.

The director of the USSRC at the time was Ed Buckbee. I didn’t know Ed and he didn’t know me but I soon discovered we had something important in common. We were both from West Virginia. That was a good introduction, I figured, and I was right. Ed invited me over to his office at the museum for a talk about my idea. I worked up a proposal, and asked my girlfriend, a graphics designer, to help me put together a pitch. A few days later, I delivered my proposals and convinced Ed that a water tank could be built to train his students and also might be used by professional aerospace companies. To move things along toward approval, I told him I would also build a realistic underwater space suit for the students to wear during simulations.

Ed was a bit dubious. For one thing, the concrete pad was already poured for a swimming pool so anything different would have to go on that footprint. Also, the height of the roof where the pool was to go was already set so there was a limitation there. He also said his budget was small and told me how small. “Can you do it for that amount?”

“You bet I can!” I promised, even though I had no idea if I could or not. To fit the foundational footprint and height limitations, I sketched out a 30-foot diameter, 24-foot deep steel cylinder with portholes at various levels. Essentially, it was a mini-NBS. When an architectural firm put my sketch out to potential contractors, it was Chicago Bridge and Iron, the same company that built the NBS, that delivered the low bid. It was low enough that I had money left to purchase scuba gear. Ed asked me to come up with a name for the new tank and I suggested that it be called the Underwater Space Simulator (USS). He gave that some thought and said, “We’ll call it the Underwater Astronaut Trainer,” and so it is the UAT to this day.

Chicago Bridge and Iron soon arrived with their equipment and crews and, in about two weeks, built the UAT using the same techniques and some of the same people who’d built the NBS. Often coming over to observe the progress, I loved the smell of the arc welders as each level went up because it meant progress.

Soon, however, I realized we had forgotten something. With head bowed, I went to Ed and confessed we needed a platform around the top of the tank to train the students. After scowling for a while, he gave me $3000 and said that’s all he had. I found a small local vendor who was willing to do the work for that amount. Together, we designed the platform plus steps into the water, all made from stainless steel.

In parallel to the design and construction of the UAT and its platforms, I purchased scuba equipment at a big discount from several manufacturers that liked being associated with Space Camp. To fill the scuba tanks, I also got a discount on a rebuilt air compressor from the McWhorter company in Birmingham. As promised, I designed a space suit simulator which included an underwater space-like helmet manufactured by the Lama company in France. We purchased two of them. I later used one of them to train David Letterman, the television late night host, for a proposed underwater show. Although the show never happened, that training was shown by Letterman when I was on the air with him to publicize my book Rocket Boys and the movie October Sky.

After the tank was filled with water and tested for leaks, the facility was ready but now we needed to figure out how to train the students and the supporting UAT staff. Assigned as the UAT’s first manager was a young woman named Lori Cash Kegley, a recent graduate of East Tennessee State University. She wasn’t scuba certified but was eager to learn and I was happy to have her as my counterpart at the center.

Up until that point, all my labor was donated but when Ed asked me to also train the students, I knew I would need permission from Marshall Space Flight Center to work part-time at the UAT. After that permission was granted, I formed a company called Deep Space and staffed it with local divemasters and scuba instructors I trusted. After working up a training methodology that would take students to the bottom of the UAT on scuba within a half hour after they entered the water, we asked for some young volunteers to make sure it was safe and viable. While we were testing our instruction techniques, we also installed some scrounged mockups from the NBS in the UAT, mostly discarded Hubble Space Telescope or Skylab training hardware, and created additional lesson plans to teach the science and human factors requirements of micro-gravity in space. Once everything was in place, we trained our first students, those on the engineer track of Space Academy.

Deep Space would train students in the UAT for nearly three years until NASA ordered me to go back to Japan to prepare the astronauts for Spacelab-J. During that time, we trained hundreds of Space Academy students and also trained astronauts including Payload Specialists Ron Parise, Sam Durrance, and Byron Lichtenberg. Astronaut Owen Garriott sometimes joined us and gave advice. After Deep Space was disbanded, UAT manager Lori Kegley, now fully scuba-certified, hired in-house instructors to follow the lesson plans we had pioneered.

The UAT is still in use to this day. All of us involved during the design, construction, and initial training of students there are proud to have been part of the history of this astonishing facility which is now expanding to add more public programs. With the addition of new underwater helmets that require no scuba training, we expect to see many more people underwater in the UAT having fun while learning something of what it’s like to live and work in space.