There are times in each of our lives when preparation and opportunity come together in a single moment for once in a lifetime experiences. Then there are times when dumb luck rules the day but produces the same result. I would like to say that I am regularly prepared to open the door when opportunity knocks, but more often than not I stumble into worthwhile opportunities, some of which truly are once in a lifetime. Such was the case on a recent customer visit in Houston.
In general I think engineers are excited about what they do, especially if they work on projects or programs that are highly visible and even popular. Take the space shuttle and space station programs for example. Both meet the high visibility watermark, though it’s easy to argue space flight is now so routine that missions beyond the earth’s atmosphere do not garner any where near the media coverage they once did. And both the space shuttle and space station are hugely popular. Just take a look at the number of folks straining for a view of a space shuttle launch, or those that gather around the TV to watch live footage of activities on the space station. Space travel fascinates us, whether the mission is landing a man on the moon, or hauling supplies to the space station.
I was in Houston with a colleague to teach a SystemVision modeling training class at a customer site. A pretty routine activity we’ve done together at other customer locations. But this time we were in for a bit of a surprise. As the first day of class wound down, our class sponsor told us he was trying to arrange a Johnson Space Center tour of some of its more interesting facilities. A real treat on any day, but made even more exciting as shuttle mission ST-135, the last flight of the shuttle program, was mid-mission.
Out tour was a perfect blend of history and the present. We walked down a hall of photos showing the stages of space station construction. We sat in the control room for the Apollo space program, which also managed many of the first space shuttle missions. And we sat in the viewing room overlooking current mission control operations for ST-135. Along the way we saw the space station/space shuttle mock-up lab sporting full size replicas of some of the spacecraft parts – all for engineering purposes, strolled around inside the Saturn V rocket museum (amazing!), and got to see the really, really big “swimming” pool where astronauts train underwater to simulate weightless conditions (inside the pool are full size mockups of space station sections so astronauts can train for space walks). We even got so see an astronaut, in full space suit gear, training for an upcoming mission to the space station (if you’re wondering, astronaut suits are pressurized, so they don’t get wet – something I can’t say for the numerous support folks swimming around in scuba gear). And a tour of behind the scenes support where engineers from our sponsor company, among others, man backroom support stations monitoring everything from power systems to how the space station plumbing is working. Fascinating stuff.
Our tour was made even more exciting because our guides knew many of the ins and outs of the space program, both current and historical. Our conversations ranged from how the solar arrays on the shuttle are deployed (they are kind of like a solar blanket that can be pulled out and folded up as needed), to how the tiles are attached to the shuttle fuselage (really good “space glue”), to how long it takes for the space station to orbit the earth a single time (90 minutes – about 17,500 miles per hour), to how they dispose of garbage (pods are jettisoned from the space station and burn up in the atmosphere as they fall to earth), to how much power it takes to run the space station (some 40kW), to how they hauled the lunar rover (remember the lunar rover?) to the moon (strapped underneath the lunar module)…and many other interesting facts. They answered each and every question.
In short, I was awe struck thinking about the amount of engineering required to launch a craft into space, let alone keep one that’s as long as a football field orbiting the earth for 2+ decades. Opportunities to take engineer-guided tours, to talk engineering history with other engineers who get to work on such an internationally recognized and supported program, are truly rare. It’s not often you get to sit in the very room, in the very chair, where any sort of history is made, let alone a room so steeped in engineering and technological history and accomplishment, and even sit in the flight director’s chair. Naturally, I forgot my camera…