Our next stop was the Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. Mission Control Center, or Building 30. It’s also know by its call sign: Houston. As in the first word spoken on the moon, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” (I joked that my goal today was to talk to an astronaut in space and call myself Houston.) Other countries with spaceflight have mission control centers, but when most people talk of Mission Control, this is the place they mean. Mission Control in Houston manages all manned spaceflight missions for America, including the now former shuttle program and the ongoing ISS program.
They were planning a big party on the lawn for all JSC employees and family to watch the final shuttle landing together. They also warned us that the area was under surveillance. Which was kind of humorous because with all of our cameras, cell phones, and camcorders, we were electronically surveilling them as much as they were surveilling us.
The building was named just this past April for Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. who is doubly blessed in that he was born a Virginian and then later attended the finest education institution on the planet Earth: Virginia Tech. Of course, at the time he was in the Corps of Cadets, it was known as Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and sometimes called VPI. He worked for NASA before it was called NASA and shaped what the control center is today. His middle initial “C” stands for Columbus. With a name like Christopher Columbus Kraft, his destiny with exploration was already planned out, it seems.
There are several mission control rooms in Building 30. Two rooms were used during the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, and early Shuttle programs, but the second of those rooms on the third floor is now a Nation Historic Landmark. I sat in the flight director’s chair and showed that picture to my children, comparing it with pictures of Gene Kranz during Apollo 13, and Jay Greene during the Challenger disaster. They were suitably impressed that it was the same station. Watching the launch a couple of weeks ago was an incredible experience, but I’d have to say the Apollo-era mission control room pegged my geek-out meter like nothing else. There was a normal tour going on while we were there, behind the glass, probably wondering who these 30 people were who were allowed to run around a National Historic Landmark like children.
Around the room are plaques for the various missions that were run from the room, with the Apollo 11 having special place. One of the displays in the Apollo-era mission control was a mirror taken from the Aquarius, the LM-7 from the Apollo 13 mission. The inscription says, “This mirror, flown on the Aquarius, LM-7, to the moon, April 11-17 1970, Returned by a greatful Apollo 13 crew to “reflect the image” of the people in mission control who got us back!” Yes, it says “greatful” and not grateful. Oh well.
We visited the Apollo-era mission control room second, actually. First we went to the current Mission Control, which was, uh, controlling a mission. It has managed 60 shuttle missions and saw its last just this week. That room we were NOT allowed in, to run around taking pictures. We went into the viewing room behind the glass, after being warned to not use any flashes. I took several pictures outside to make sure my flash wouldn’t turn on. Of course, it was dark, and without a flash or a tripod, most of my pictures were blurry, especially when I would zoom in for details. But a few turned out great.
Just like the previous mission control, there were various plaques, flags, and mementos around the room that doubtless have interesting stories to go with them. After seeing the shuttle crew wake up for the very last day of Space Shuttle flight to God Bless America, I noticed that the flags were in all my pictures taken just hours before. (The crew was in sleep cycle when we were there so it was rather quiet and low-activity).
There are three screens on the front wall. The left screen listed issues that they’d dealt with and times. For example, there had been a fault in a cabin fan. The right hand side shows the orientation of the shuttle orbiter. The center screen has a map of the Earth with three orbits marked in the sine wave pattern. The shuttle was near South America when we came in, and was past Africa when we left. The area of overlap of the green circle and the yellow circle was a Loss Of Signal area, and when the shuttle entered, almost every one in the room left. Break time! Otherwise, mission control is staffed around the clock with three shifts.
The different positions are marked signs designating their jobs. The Flight Director is the boss, and CAPCOM is the person who talks to the astronauts, often a former astronaut. In the pictures below, you see one station is dark, because their job, rendezvous with the ISS, was completed. In fact, the mission controller who sits in that station was instead talking to us. Her talk was interrupted by a phone call to one of our guides, from Astronaut Ron Garan, calling from space, on the ISS. Remember my joking goal from the first paragraph? Well, I realized that goal. I talked to an astronaut in space this week, and I called myself Houston. Except I said, “Atlantis, this is HOUSTON!” in my excitement before remembering he’s on ISS, not Atlantis. Eh, I still got to be Houston.
If you see pictures of it, you may want to look for the roses, delivered for every launch, or the hourglass kept by the team that plans the crew activities.
As the last shuttle came to a halt, and the job of US manned flight came to an end, there were no tears in the control room, by tradition. “You guys must know that we do have a motto in the Mission Control Center that flight controllers don’t cry,” Ceccacci had told reporters Wednesday. “So we’re going to make sure we keep that.”
“Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind.”