My shuttle simulator experience

For many getting to try our hand at the shuttle simulator was the highlight of the NASA Tweetup (for me that honor went to seeing Mission Control, more on that later). This is the same simulator the astronauts actually trained on.  We were broken up into groups of four, and of the four a pilot was randomly chosen.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I wasn’t chosen to pilot for our group.   I was able to sit back and experience what it’s like to take off into space without the anxiety that went along with having to actually pilot the thing.  There are a ton of buttons and just climbing into the simulator was nerve-wracking.  Clearly, I’m not cut out to be an astronaut!

Once in the claustrophobia-inducing cockpit, we strapped ourselves into our seats with a five point harness not at all unlike a child’s car seat. We put on the headset that allowed  us to communicate with “the ground” and some other equipment (it was implied that the box we wore on our chest determined whether or not we survived our landing). The sim starts out at t-minus two minutes to blast off. 

The first sensation you feel is the force of the room’s gravity on your gut as the shuttle begins to point upwards, putting the crew on our backs, facing up.  Then the shaking starts.  Lots and lots of shaking.  It’s fairly intense and we were told that the simulator is “less violent” than an actual take off.  As you can see in the video below I look like I’m about to toss my cookies, so again…not really astronaut material.

My name in the Shuttle Simulator Guest book.

Getting a chance to try the simulator is a pretty big deal.  It’s so rare that when one does participate, NASA asks you to sign a guest book.  It was a pretty special moment to leave my mark in the book alongside the names of military personnel, special guests and celebrities like Bono and Alan Alda.  Under the “Reason for Visit” I was really tempted to write “I have no idea how I got so lucky, but thanks for having me!”.  I went with the more banal “Tweetup”.   How awesome is it that I can say that I am one of the last 50 people to sign the book?  I  was one of the last Americans to get to experience this part of the shuttle program first hand. We visited the simulator on a Wednesday. With the end of the shuttle program the simulator was decommissioned  that Friday.  It’s off to Texas A&M where they don’t have room for the hydraulics so it will live out the rest it’s life as a static (non-moving) simulator.

Welcome to Houston!

Welcome to Houston!
On Monday, July 18, I boarded a plane at way-too-early-o’clock for Houston.  I was one of 30 lucky people from around the world who had been invited to tour NASA’s Johnson’s Space Center during the STS-135 Mission.  This was the last shuttle mission and NASA wanted to allow a few space enthusiasts from the public the opportunity to be a part of it. 
I almost didn’t go.  The financial strain of last minute travel was big.  Technically we had the money, it just wasn’t there for me to go gallivanting off to Houston on a whim.  Realizing that I was in an amazing position to experience American history first hand, I decided that the memories would be worth the financial sacrifice.  I am so glad I made that decision; it was even more amazing than I could have imagined.
The highlight of Space Center Houston

Upon arrival to Houston, I hopped in my rental car and learned that I had a 55 minute drive from the airport to Johnson Space Center.  I steeled myself for the journey and was on my way.  I had to make a few stops – to a Kohl’s (I forgot my shoes and was specifically told that the sandals I had traveled in wouldn’t cut it on the simulators) and decided to grab lunch at Sonic.   On the way to the hotel I saw signs for Space Center Houston,  Johnson’s Visitor’s Center.  I checked the schedule on my phone and realized that I’d only have an hour to check it out.  I didn’t know if I would have an opportunity to buy gifts on the actual tour, so I decided to postpone my hotel check in and go see NASA the way the average tourist gets to see it.

If I were the average tourist I’d be disappointed.   A large chunk of Space Center Houston is taken up by the “Summer Sports Explosion” an interactive play area where you can “Experience every sport in the world”.  I believe that they were able to extremely loosely tie some of this “science” to space, but it was questionable at best.  If I had Nate and Kitty with me this would have surely been the main attraction and I would have been pissed that they were spending their time playing “Human Foosball” and not learning about aerospace.
I dinked around the exhibits, put on a space helmet and watched a presentation about life on the International Space Station.  I was debating on whether or not to take one of the hour-long “behind the scenes” tram tours, but after consulting with the girls working the line decided to wait and see the sites on the tour “for real” in the morning.  Instead I went to a presentation in a theater with a small mockup Mission Control where the Emcee showed us footage of the day’s Space Station undocking ceremony and briefed us on the current mission. I hit up the gift shop and took off for the hotel.
Being the hostess (read: bossy person who insists on a plan) that I am, I had organized a dinner for our group.  By sheer luck I chose Frenchie’s Restaurant.  I was apprehensive about eating Italian food in Houston (shouldn’t we be having Barbeque or Tex-Mex?) but after consulting few locals and many crowd-sourced reviews, I came to the conclusion that this was the place to be.  Really, we couldn’t have picked a better spot. It was like the Sardi’s of spaceflight, the small room that Frankie, the proprietor put us in was covered with autographed astronaut photos It seems that Frenchie’s, with it’s delicious food and proximity to Johnson, was the place the astronauts ate!
I wore Kitty’s souvenir to dinner, this is the only surviving photo of the dealy-boppers as she promptly broke them and Nate turned then into LEGO parts.
Meeting my fellow tweeps was amazing.  We had a former Houston radio DJ, a commercial pilot, a designer at CNN, an aerospace engineer and more private pilots, math geeks, and space nuts than you could shake a stick at.  It was the only time in my life that I felt like the least geeky person in the room.
After dinner I returned to the hotel where I met my roommate, the lovely @RennaW.  We were sooooo excited and giggled like schoolgirls while talking about what we *might* get to see in the morning.  We stayed up entirely too late, seeing as how we had to be back at NASA at 7:30 the next morning, but with the excitement of what lay ahead of us we were just too excited to sleep.
 In my next post, I’ll recap our tour day, stay tuned!

I talked to space, and this time it answered back

Here is a link to a CNN iReport story submitted by my fellow NASA tweep @absolutspaceguy of our phone call from the International Space Station.  As we followed our Twitter feeds, those of us following @Astro_ron saw this:

If Amiko answers her cell phone I can say hi to everyone at the #nasatweetup #FromSpace

Amiko is the Social Media Lead at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and was our gracious tour guide.  Someone found her, and from what I heard, her cell phone was dead, a fate many of us were experiencing as the tour was non-stop with little access to outlets.  I think a fellow tweep offered up his phone and Astronaut Ron Garan called us with a mere two minute window before he was out of our range (things move fast in space!)

So my interesting and thought provoking question comes about 18 seconds in when I ask “Are you having fun?”.  Not a shining moment for me, but I was one of the few to actually be able to talk to the ISS, and it was one of the highlights of the trip.

I took some video, but @absolutespaceguy’s is better so go to the link and check it out.

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