space lights

Some of my earliest childhood memories include watching launches of the Apollo spacecrafts.  My dad, a PhD engineer, was enthralled by the space program, and so once his job moved our family to Houston for a couple of years in the late 60s-early 70s, he made sure to watch every televised launch.  I remember sitting with my dad in our living room, watching our old black-and-white television, while he tried to explain what was happening in a way that a 4-year-old could understand.  I might not have gotten everything he was saying, but I certainly understood that whatever was happening was exciting.

As a result, I'm a huge space geek.  I love everything related to the space program.  I'm enthralled by NASA documentaries.  The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 are two of my favourite movies (to say nothing of Contact.)  And I get unreasonably excited when there's space-related news  -- see, for example, my out-of-control reaction to the news that a probe landed on a comet late last year:

And so needless to say, when I was recently invited to attend and assist a workshop at NASA as a guest of the workshop provider, I was only too thrilled to say yes.

Now, having lived in Houston for many years, I've visited the Johnson Space Center many times (most recently when the Space Shuttle Endeavour did its final flyby in 2012).  So, while I am always in awe when I'm on the JSC campus, the mere fact that NASA is here in Houston isn't anything that surprises me anymore.  But this past Friday, as Mike, the workshop leader (who'd flown in from out-of-state), and I made our way to the conference room where the seminar was to be held, we passed the Mission Control building, and I startled when he did a double-take.

"Hang on," he said, "Is that the Mission Control building? Like Houston-we-have-a-problem Mission Control?"

"The very one," I said.  "You can even take tours to see it."

"Oh man," he breathed, "I wish I had time to go."

We went into the conference room, and there were already a few early attendees quietly working.  While Mike started setting up, I had an idea.  

I turned to a woman who was sitting near the window.  "Excuse me," I said.  "Do you know who I could contact about maybe tagging along on one of the public tours that goes to Mission Control, perhaps during lunch today?  My friend Mike has never seen Mission Control, and I know he'd love to see it."

She smiled, "Sure," she said.  "Let me see what I can do."  

Turns out that the team she manages actually works in Mission Control -- and with blinding ease, she managed to get us passes to have a private tour of Mission Control during our lunch break.

And then I died dead, the end.

Kidding.  There was no way I was dying without taking a few pictures first.

So, friends, Mission Control:

The photo above is the original Mission Control, the "one-small-step" one, the one that you would've seen in The Right Stuff, the one you definitely saw in Apollo 13.  This is the 1960s in all its glory, baby -- how awesome are those avocado green consoles?!  Notice also how analog everything is -- and when you consider that your smart phone has more computing power than any one of those consoles, and yet they landed people on the moon using them, and well ... you start to wonder if maybe witchcraft was involved.

At least I do.  I'm just saying.

Ah, but that was then, my friends.  This is now ...

This is the actual, honest-to-goodness, real-life, as-it-is-right-now Mission Control.  Currently, all the folks you see behind those slick, state-of-the-art consoles are busy watching the International Space Station -- the map on the screen in the middle shows the position of the ISS (which, at the time, was somewhere over Washington DC, or thereabouts).  While we were standing in the room, they were talking with one of the Russian astronauts, just as if they were across town on a speakerphone somewhere, instead of out in space.  And it wasn't just the screens that were gleaming -- even the signs -- CAPSCOM, EVA, FLIGHT DIRECTOR ... 

... they all glow, all Star-Wars-Star-Trek-Battlestar-Galactica-like.  Awesome.

But, wait, there's more.  Check this out:

This is the Mission Control that is currently under construction for Orion, NASA's new exploration space craft -- the next generation of the Space Shuttle,  but this one is slated for deep space.  Trips to Mars, that sort of thing.  The control room you see above actually represents the future of space travel.  

I can't wait to see it when it's done.

I'm so grateful for the folks at NASA who gave us this awesome tour -- it has reaffirmed that my passion for the space program hasn't diminished; in fact, it might even be more ardent.  I just believe that its mission --  to explore what's out there  -- is one of the few missions behind which the entire planet can unite.  

NASA's work is one of hope.  And that's certainly something I'll always get behind.


Song:  Space Oddity, by David Bowie, featuring Kristen Wiig