Stimulating Simulating

The fourth stop of the NASA Tweetup, after Building 16 (SAIL), the Rocket Park, and the Food Lab, was the main event: the space shuttle motion simulator at the Jake Garn Shuttle Simulator and Training Facility. The fixed shuttle simulator was in the same building, but we were all there, some of us crossing oceans, to ride the motion simulator. The star-bellied sneetches had gotten there before us and were running behind. (That was the refrain all day: we’re running behind.)

They led us down a long hallway lined with plaques from the shuttle missions and photos of each crew. We turned down another hallway lined with even more shuttle plaques. (If you look, you’ll see that the ones on one wall are spaced much closer. They realized well into the 30 year program they were going to run out of wall space if they didn’t squeeze them closer.  By coincidence, the plaques for the tragic Challenger and Colombia missions are directly across from each other.

The Shuttle Motion Based Simulator

Just going past the large silver sign that said Shuttle Mission Simulator was exciting, then we were passing offices where men and women hard at work were the real people who train our astronauts, as recently as a few weeks ago before STS-135’s crew headed to Kennedy for their mission.  Before we knew it, we were there, looking up at the simulator about a story above us, perched on many bowed legs like an AT-AT Walker with arthritis. Or like a lot of motion simulator rides at your local tourist attraction, except they didn’t go to any trouble making the outside look like anything in particular. If you’d like to ride it one day, you probably can’t, because tomorrow it is going to be shut down and sent to Texas A&M. But sadly, they have no room for the motion-based hydraulics. It will be another fixed simulator. What a sad waste.

Practice chairs. Our seat belt demonstration was nothing like those on airplanes. We actually paid attention.

Two practice chairs were in the room, exactly like the ones I saw yesterday morning behind glass at the Houston Space Center. No glass here: we were free to sit, touch, try it out. In a way that is the tweetup in a nut shell: where normally tourists see things behind ropes or glass, we were encouraged to jump right in. (Except for the Neutral Bouyancy Lab, which was a shame because I had my rubber ducky all ready.)

Also waiting in the room was Astronaut Clayton Anderson. My poor astronaut autograph patch is getting cluttered! He entertained us with stories and tidbits. One really got the feeling that he loved the public relations part of the job.  When asked if he ever cried on the shuttle, he didn’t hesitate when he said several times.  He found out his mother’s cancer had returned while in space. On the brighter side, because his wife works at NASA, he talked to her almost at will over  NASA communication lines.

Across the top of the room stretch windows so training exercises can be observed, and the set of lockers looking like they came right out of a regular employee breakroom still had four lockers bearing the names of the STS-135 crew. Commander Chris Ferguson’s locker was on top and he rated a small gold shuttle magnet.

Some of us toured the rest of the facility while waiting our turn in the motion simulator. The fixed simulator is in the same room, and we went there next. Our guides were the real deal: men who trained the astronauts.

We entered the fixed simulator in a mock-up of the mid-deck, which is the main living space. There is a ladder to the flight deck and above are screens to simulate different launch, space, and landing scenarios for training in the cockpit. One wall of the mid-deck is full of drawers, containing things like the astronauts clothes or a tool set that looked pretty normal to me. The galley was not much bigger than an ATM, but since it pretty much only dispenses bags and water, they don’t really need a stove, fridge, and sink.


Then we climbed up to the flight deck and I hopped into what I was sure was the pilot’s seat but it was the commander’s seat. As if that matters. I was sitting, not in some tourist mockup, but in an actual simulator that hundreds of astronauts had used for thousands upon thousands of hours to train for space.

  • Dashboard

Those are my knees!

The control panel between the seats.

Space Toilet

After we came down from the flight deck to let others have a chance, we visited the bathroom. No, not for a personal break. We visited the astronaut training bathroom, where they learn how to go in space. Without gravity, it apparently isn’t easy. There is a camera inside and a screen in front of you when you sit that lets you “check you seal.” Apparently another group refused to sit on the trainer, whereas we all did, even bombarding the poor guy with questions about what women did on their periods. Hey, bodily functions are a reality of life, and more interesting in space because the mundane is difficult. I tweeted that I was sitting on the astro toilet.

The funniest part is that the training bathroom is a real bathroom, so there is a normal, more earthly commode in the room.

Safety Item board

Upon leaving, there was a collection of items on a wall that looked like the result of a scavenger hunt or some private joke. I mean, a cane? But each item was something they needed from time to time. The cane was for moving any electrical wires without getting shocked.

We went back down the hallways with the plaques to the control room for the shuttle simulations. In there, trainers think up problems to throw at the crew, training them over and over until they react immediately and calmly in any situation. As a practical joke on the last mission, the three crew members other than Ferguson worked with the trainers to come up with odd, little known problems to pop up, and they all immediately knew how to fix it. “Oh, that must be a fault sub-bus X-B” or some other obscure fix. Commander Ferguson was surprised that 1) all these weird things were happening and B) that everybody knew just how to fix it but him. Maybe he was worried he didn’t study enough. In the end, they apparently pushed it a bit too far, with some building on the ground catching on fire. Ferguson almost came out of his seat to look out the window, wondering how on earth the pilot Hurley could see that. This story was told both at the launch tweetup and this tweetup, by two different people, so if you don’t think it is hilarious, you apparently are not like the shuttle team.

On the white board in the control room the parameters for the last training session were still written there, precisely because it was the very last training session for the shuttle program and apparently they were reluctant to wipe it off. And now, because I was there, you were there and you can see the final shuttle sim scenario. As you can see from the word “planned” marked out, they weren’t 100% certain it would be the last, but that was the plan. We also got to view the group before us being strapped into the sim.

Then, it was our turn. Back down the hall, up the stairs, into the motion based simulator.

The first part of the simulation was a shuttle launch. We started at about t-2 minutes. From what I heard described, those who see out the windows could see the tower. The simulator put us almost on our backs and then went through the first few minutes of launch. Not all the way to orbit, but long enough. As it was counting down, I was a little worried about how much motion and if I’d get sick. Then I had that fear one gets at the top of the big hill on the roller coasters. “What did I do? I want off.” But it turned out to be for nothing. It shook, but very mildly. I had my camera in my hands the whole time and probably could have unbuckled and leaned over or maybe gotten up. Is it realistic? They said a real launch shakes “more” but that is hard to define.

Looking over at the backrow.

Although apparently the first group each got to land the shuttle, because we were running low on time, our group was divided into 4 teams and only 1 person from each team got to land the shuttle. Two others watched from the back row, and the unlucky fourth person sat way to the side, but couldn’t really see the windows or

The pilot

any displays, so only really got to watch their teammates. I was that unlucky fourth. So 4 of us get to whine because on a scale of 1-10, our day was

My view. 😉 Why did I think about lead dogs and views never changing?

a 999 instead of a 1000. 🙂 My view was of a checklist on the back of the commander’s seat.

But remember that picture of me earlier in the commander’s seat of the simulator? Well, now I know how Jimmy Buffet feels.

Jimmy Buffet, Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger, and Alan Alda


About rennawarren

I've won a spot for the STS-135 NASA Tweetup. I'm going to try to document the experience.
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