October 3, 2012
The Mercury astronauts, with their Corvette racing and drinking, were the apotheosis of Guy Culture, and their humor often stalled at about the seventh-grade level. Wally Schirra, especially, was a big fan of the practical joke, like the time he left a giant fake urine sample on astronaut nurse Dee O’Hara’s desk.
So 50 years ago today, during his Mercury Atlas 8 flight, it came as no surprise that fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, the “capsule communicator” in Mission Control, pulled a “gotcha” on Schirra.
The astronauts had a little game whereby if one asked “Are you a turtle?” the other had to answer “You bet your sweet ass I am!”, no matter how public the setting. Here’s a transcript of the air-to-ground conversation, a little over three minutes into the flight, with the whole world listening in. Schirra (P) is the pilot, and Slayton (CC) is the Capcom.
According to Schirra, “After splashdown, several of us were in the admiral’s quarters on the recovery ship, Kearsarge. Walt Williams, in his fast-chatter way of talking, demanded to know what my answer to Deke had been. I flipped on the flight recorder and there it was: ‘Wally are you a turtle?’ ‘You bet your sweet ass I am.’”
If it was all bathroom humor with the early astronauts, maybe they can be forgiven. The NASA doctors, who in those days were obsessed with learning every physiological reaction to spaceflight, allowed the astronauts very little privacy. An excerpt from a NASA medical report published after the MA-8 flight:
…No untoward sensations were reported by Astronaut Schirra, and the assigned inflight tasks were performed without difficulty. Specifically, he was not nauseated and did not vomit. Although the astronaut was never hungry during the flight, he ate the contents of two tubes containing food, one of peaches and the other of beef with vegetables, without difficulty. He experienced no urge to defecate during the mission, but he did report a moderate amount of inflight flatulence unaccompanied by eructation….
During the flight the pilot drank about 500 cc of water. He urinated three times before lift-off and three times during the flight, the last time just before retrofire. Bladder sensation and function were reported to be normal. Unfortunately, on landing, the urine collection device failed at its attachment to the body and all but 292 cc of the urine was lost.
October 1, 2012
When NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last year, the three flown orbiters — Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour — and the Enterprise atmospheric test vehicle all went to museums in big tourism markets: Washington, Orlando, Los Angeles, and New York, respectively.
That still left a few prize pieces of shuttle hardware for smaller venues, however. One of them — the Crew Compartment Trainer, or CCT-1, — is now at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. This was the high-fidelity mockup used by almost all shuttle crews for training.
Judging from this video, the Museum plans to turn it into quite an impressive exhibit, complete with a full-size payload bay and ramped walkways in the shape of wings.
Way to go, Ohio.
June 14, 2012
If anyone in Dayton or Seattle (or with a large backyard and a pipe-dream) got their hopes up about the mock-up shuttle in Downey, California, that needed a home, we have bad news: the city plans to keep it.
As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Downey city council met this week to decide the fate of an aerospace artifact that not many knew even existed. The mock-up orbiter was built by Rockwell/Boeing in 1972 as part of the shuttle contract process, and was used for the next couple of decades as a model “to help validate the size of items and rehearse wire runs for actual orbiter construction,” according to NASA public affairs officer Michael Curie. After the Boeing plant closed in 1999, the mock-up was moved to another building on the property to make room for a film studio, and has been sitting inside that small room ever since, covered in Tyvek sheeting, with its back-end spun around to fit in the space. Now that the property is being developed again, Downey needs to find a new — and with any luck, permanent — home for the shuttle.
On Tuesday, the city council agreed to move the mock-up to a temporary shelter in the parking lot of the Columbia Memorial Space Center, which is also owned by the city. (The new commercial development and the space center are on the same former 160-acre Boeing site, so the shuttle won’t be moving far.) They don’t want to take it apart piece-by-piece, as happened in 2003 when it was carefully examined and moved to its current location. But even in two large pieces it’s too big to fit through the door, so the plan is to remove an entire wall of the room to pull it out. With $100,000 from the developer and an additional $70,000 from the city, the center plans to erect fencing and a large tent for it, and hopes to allow visitors in to see it within the next couple of months, according to the center’s Executive Director, Scott Pomrehn.
We wanted to know a little more about the mock-up, so we spoke with some folks in Downey and at NASA to fill in some of this interesting space shuttle-era history.
According to Curie, when the Boeing plant closed, NASA decided to “abandon the shuttle in place,” thereby allowing the city of Downey to “inherit it.” There have, actually, been efforts to loan the mock-up out, and Pomrehn told us he has spoken with museums in San Diego and Colorado. But in the end, it’s considered too cost-prohibitive to move the mostly wooden orbiter any great distance. And to make it more difficult, as noted by the conservator in 2003 and recounted in a recent grant proposal by the space center:
Some deterioration processes are already underway. The outer skin of the shuttle, made of plywood on a wooden frame, is buckling slightly and showing signs of internal delamination. Paper components representing insulation or other lining of the sub-deck are disintegrating. Adhesive mounts and backing for a range of fasteners have become yellowed and embrittled. Delicate plastic components also appear to be degrading slightly. Clear plastic, prismatic ceiling panels have fine crazing cracks, and are starting to become detached at their fasteners.
The Columbia Memorial Space Center was established at the “former manufacturing site of the space shuttles” by Congress in 2004. By the time it was operating in 2009 — it is largely an educational venue for schoolchildren, featuring a Challenger Learning Center — the staff was hard at work trying to find ways to repair and house the shuttle mock-up. That year, they applied for a $700,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, but it was poor timing: it was the same year the program was de-funded by Congress. In the grant proposal, the center says the total cost of the shuttle’s preservation and restoration is $1,880,000, with about half needed for repair work, and half for a building to house it; the city would have provided the remaining funds.
We talked to Downey councilmember Deacon Mario Guerra over email, who told us the plan now is to keep the mock-up in the tented parking lot for about 18 months, which will give them time to find funding for an addition behind the space center — though he does note that they also remain “open to anything that will do it justice and preserve such a part of our legacy and that of our country.”
Director Pomrehn has ambitious hopes for funding sources. A few years ago, Tesla Motors, owned by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, considered moving into the old Boeing plant, but those plans fell through. Now, Pomrehn says, Musk “kind of owes us one…he knows of the significance of the site and the possibilities it has.” Pomrehn is “pretty confident” that SpaceX — whose headquarters are just 12 miles down the road in Hawthorne — will step up to fund the space center’s new building, which could house not just the mock-up but maybe a Dragon or two, as well.
And the cost of restoration might not be as high as once thought. Pomrehn has been tracking down the Rockwell/Boeing workers who built the mock-up in the early ’70s, and many of them are excited at the prospect of coming down to volunteer their services to fix up the shuttle and make it safe for visitors to climb inside. He’s also been talking to people at the California Science Center, 15 miles away in Los Angeles and the future home of Endeavour. Pomrehn would like to see the training for teachers and tour guides and anyone else involved in the celebration that will happen upon Endeavour‘s arrival later this year to happen at his space center. As he says, piggybacking on the excitement of the NASA orbiter’s arrival could boost hopes for the mock-up’s future.
Deacon Guerra is happy there are options for keeping the shuttle in Downey. “We are honored to have this mock-up of the shuttle,” he says. “It is a source of pride for our community and goes along with our amazing history of contribution to flight and space exploration.”
Asked if the city planned to give the mock-up a name, Guerra admitted, “I had never thought about it before, and I think that would be cool for us as a community to name it as we roll it out in the next few months.”
Sounds like residents of Downey will have some work on their hands this summer.
June 12, 2012
Inside a warehouse in Downey, California, a one-winged space shuttle sits underneath a blanket of Tyvek sheeting. It’s not a real space shuttle. Well, it sort of is? Let’s just say it played a real role in shuttle history.
While space museums around the country were competing fiercely to be the next home for Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour, and Enterprise, and even a couple months ago, when Houston was finally rewarded with the mock-up Explorer shuttle that used to greet space fans at Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Center, this unnamed shuttle in Southern California went largely unknown and un-fought for.
It’s a full-scale mock-up that was built in 1972 by Rockwell International (now Boeing) as part of the original space shuttle Request for Proposals process. When NASA awarded Rockwell the contract, the mock-up was kept on site and became the hands-on model for much of the shuttle’s design. Each time a new instrument was built, it was placed into the mostly plastic and wood panels to make sure it would fit properly with the existing structure. Model payloads were fitted in the cargo bay; it even has an aluminum (and non-functioning) Canadarm. The mock-up only has one wing because, of course, two would be redundant for a bird that wasn’t flying anywhere. Over the decades, this artifact lived the history of the space shuttle’s evolution.
The building where the shuttle sits now has an even longer aerospace history. The original hangars in Downey, just outside of Los Angeles, were where North American Aviation developed the P-51 Mustang and the XB-70 supersonic bomber. Later, when the company became North American Rockwell, they built the Apollo command module there. Boeing took over the facility during the shuttle years, and held the aerospace factory until 1999, when the Downey plant was closed. The next year, the city purchased the shuttle mock-up from NASA, and eventually sold the buildings and airfields to the Industrial Realty Group, which leased it to a film studio (which then built a six million-gallon fake lake on the property). IRG agreed to keep housing the shuttle, but it would have to be moved out of the way of the cameras.
The city of Downey enlisted a conservation company to undertake the relocation project. The mock-up was carefully disassembled, during which time it was discovered that it wasn’t just used for instrumentation upgrades during the shuttle fleet’s lifetime, but was also used to work out changes in the original design. From a report by Griswold Conservation Associates:
Evidence of previous configurations of the mock-up was revealed upon separation of the wing from the fuselage. Black and white paint configurations and other markings made with adhered striping tape suggested an earlier configuration, seen in an early photograph. Further research showed that the meeting point of the OMS system housings flanking the vertical stabilizer with the back end of the cargo bay door reflected an earlier version, later changed by NASA.
Fast forward another decade, and the property is changing hands yet again. The studio has closed, and because IRG plans to build commercial developments on the property, they’re insisting that the city finally take possession of the shuttle. The Downey City Council will meet tonight to finalize those plans, (according to a local paper, The Downey Beat), which includes relocating the shuttle to a storage facility at a nearby parking lot — also owned by IRG, which will lease the space for $1. Between $100,000 from IRG and a federal community development grant, the city wouldn’t have to cough up much to house the shuttle, at least in the first year. The Beat reports that IRG will lease the new site to the city for two years, and then the piece of aerospace history is going to need yet another home.
Where will it go then? The city of Downey could build a permanent structure for the shuttle and, since the mock-up isn’t a precious white-glove-only artifact like the three space-traveling orbiters, it could allow visitors to crawl around inside — which might make it worth visiting over its soon-to-be-neighbor Endeavour. Or they could probably make a bundle by offering it up to cities like Dayton, which desperately wanted an orbiter, but lost out in the competition.
What say you, Downey? What’s to become of this piece of American space history?
June 6, 2012
Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles and other landmark books of science fiction, passed away last night at the age of 91.
In his 2006 biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, Sam Weller tells about the time the famous author was assigned by LIFE magazine to write about the Apollo astronauts. Arriving in Houston on January 13, 1967, just a couple of weeks before the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire, Bradbury visited the Johnson Space Center.
Right from the start, Ray encountered fans. One of the first NASA administrators Ray met told him that his favorite book was Dandelion Wine. Ray spent the afternoon touring the NASA facilities, taking in the vast technologies: flight simulators, lasers, flight suits, and the centrifuge, in which astronauts were exposed to g-forces.
That evening, Ray dined in Houston with astronauts Jim Lovell and John Young, Richard Gordon and Pete Conrad and their wives. “Gordon and Young have qualities of Buck Jones, Bob Steele, Tom Mix about them,” Ray wrote in his notes. “They are short, compact men, economically built. Young is shy. Gordon more direct, but there is the familiar echo of the intellectual cowpuncher here. Something out of my own memory perhaps. Conrad is the clown of the bunch, much fun to watch and listen to. Lovell very friendly and easy and the proverbial host.”
In the days that followed, while visiting the Johnson Space Center, Ray attended a press briefing. He sat in the back of the conference room as one by one the young horses were trotted out—nearly sixty Apollo astronauts, as Ray recalled, the primary teams and the alternates. They were all present: Armstrong, Aldrin, Grissom, Lovell. They were clean-cut kids, all-American types, with blindingly white smiles and military crew cuts, and courage taller and mightier than the Saturn rockets they would ride on. When someone in the room announced that Ray Bradbury was present—Ray Bradbury, the author—at least half of the astronauts looked up, alert, scanning the room excitedly. Several of them approached Ray after the conference. As young dreamers with imaginations fixed squarely on the stars, many of them credited Ray, and specifically The Martian Chronicles, as an early inspiration. Ray suddenly found himself surrounded by American heroes, who were worshiping him. The kid from Green Town—Buck Rogers, as so many in the literary community had disparagingly deemed him—had done good.
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