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JSC Tram Tour

As I have just started working here at Space Center Houston, I thought it might be nice to take a little tour of just what goes on at Johnson Space Center, right across the street. Since this Virtual Space Community is in its early stages, I thought it might be appropriate to take you all with me.

This morning it was overcast, with some pretty ominous clouds hanging out in the sky. I was a little worried it might rain on my tour, but by lunch time, the skies has at least partially cleared, and even the humidity was low. It was shaping up to be a nice afternoon. I joined a group of about thirty other center visitors as we boarded our tram and met our tour guide, Josh.

The tour began with all the usual rules, keeping your arms and legs inside the tram, staying seated, keep an eye on small children?We rode under a small overpass, effectively crossing the street, and entered Johnson Space Center. So far, so good.

Our first stop was Historical Mission Control. We climbed 87 steps to a viewing area of the historic mission control room. This is where the Apollo missions to the Moon were run from. We watched a short video summarizing the first Moon landing and what exactly was going on at mission control during this exciting time. It was narrated by Gene Kranz, who was the flight director for many of the Apollo missions (he was played by Ed Harris in the movie Apollo 13, for those of you who are movie buffs). It was pretty cool. We sat in the exact chairs that family of the crew (as well as presidents and other famous visitors) would have sat in while observing the mission. Our narrator told us that the shuttle missions will continue until 2010, and the shuttles will then be retired. I am excited to see what follows the shuttles in the next wave of space exploration!

Once we had finished our visit (and had come back down those 87 stairs), we got back on the tram to ride to our next stop. Along the way, we passed this area, with lots of caution signs.Turns out, this is where they house a whole bunch of Liquid Nitrogen. See, in space, it can be really cold, so they need to somehow simulate those conditions on Earth while they are training the astronauts. Enter: Liquid Nitrogen. That stuff is really cold! It is stored at 320 degrees Fahrenheit BELOW zero in liquid form. Equipment in space will face very cold conditions, so Johnson Space Center uses this liquid nitrogen to create harsh, cold environments in which they can test the equipment that will be sent into space. Our tour guide told us that the temperatures in space can range from 200 to negative 200 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on whether they are in the sun or not. On the Moon, temperatures can drop to 370 degrees below zero. Pretty crazy!

Our next stop was pretty incredible. When astronauts train, they need life size models of some of the things they will be working with in space. Building 9 at JSC, was where they house all the equipment the astronauts train on. We didn?t see any astronauts in there, but it was pretty neat anyway. There was a mock-up of pieces of the International Space Station, including where the astronauts live and where they do their research. There was also a mock-up of the space shuttle, only it didn?t have any wings. The wings are not really needed in for any of the training the astronauts do and they wouldn?t have fit in the building anyway!

I got to see the remote manipulator system, which is basically a huge robotic arm. During training on Earth, they have to limit the amount of weight that can be on the arm to 500lbs at any one time. This is interesting, because in space, the arm is actually smaller, but can hold a lot more weight. Since everything is weightless in space, the weight of an object won?t break the arm the same way it would on Earth. Our guide also talked about this cool system they have come up with on Earth to move really heavy things easily. There is this machine that produces a high amount of blowing air that acts kind of like a air hockey table. It forms a layer of air between the heavy object and the ground, helping the astronaut to be able to push the object around despite the gravity that is acting upon it.

Now, even though the astronauts have facilities with life size practice models to train on, it is still really different here than it is in space. The main issue is the gravity on Earth. In space, the astronauts are in a free fall environment which makes them weightless and able to float around. That is not the case here on Earth. So, here at Johnson Space Center astronauts train in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL). It is a giant pool with all sorts of instruments and models that the astronauts might find in space. We didn?t go there on the tour today, but they told us about it. I am hoping to get over there in the next few weeks and take some pictures, so you guys can see just what it is all about.

On our trip back toward our starting point, we passed a small grouping of trees. Our tram tour slowed down and we were told these were the trees planted as a memorial for astronauts who have lost their lives on space missions. The memorial was started on the 10 year anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, and then added to more recently with the Columbia explosion. It is a nice reminder of the people who have given their lives in the name of space and science exploration.

Our last stop on the tour was Rocket Park. Rocket Park is a collection of rockets on display for public view. We checked out the Saturn V rocket, which is the largest rocket ever built by NASA, staggering at 363 feet tall! The rocket is a three stage rocket, which means it takes three different stages of fuel firing to get all the way to the Moon. It is displayed with each of the three stages separated and you can actually walk between two of the stages. This thing is huge! You can?t even fit the whole thing in one picture. By the time it reaches its third stage and goes into orbit around Earth, it is traveling at 17,500 miles per hour. It is then that the rocket can be aimed at the Moon and the third stage can fire again, beginning the three day trip to the Moon. It was pretty cool to be able to stand next to something that big and that powerful.

Well, that's about it for the tour. We got dropped off back at the Space Center for additional exploring. Space Center Houston is filled with tons of interesting things to see and do. Next time, maybe we can check out some of the exhibits here, and see what kinds of cool things it has to offer!