APRIL 27 - MAY 09, 2006

Audio log, Day 7

DAY 7, Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Johnson Space Center.
I was going to give the name of the hotel I stayed in last night, but decided not to after check-out. The man at the counter asked me if everything was OK with my stay, and I told him it was not. After hearing me out, he apologized, and took 50% off my bill. Other hotels of this chain were excellent, so one bad apple doesn't call for a "thumbs down" for the entire bunch of them.
I headed out towards JSC on the freeway. Lots of construction going on, they are doing a major expansion of Interstate 10 on the west side of Houston. There's a lot of recent-looking road around here, and this is Tom Delay's district. I guess it "was" good to be king! Between him and Bush, I think Texas has made out as well as Florida when it comes to federal highway construction dollars! (California needs to get a local elected president!) I found my way onto the Sam Houston Tollway, and after figuring out how that works, skirted Houston to the south, to hit the 45 to JSC. More poor signage.... sigh. I took the first exit marked for JSC.... bad idea. I ended up several miles north, and had to drive through a couple of nice residential neighborhoods to get to JSC. Take NASA Drive next time! Got to JSC at around 11:30 (I'm a late riser), just in time to get the last seat on the $69 "Level 9" special tour. Our party had our picture taken, supposedly for security reasons, but they offered $20 picture packages as we were leaving that night, and went to the metal detector to be checked. Since we were a special tour, we walked around the line waiting to take the trams on the free, regular tour. At the head of the tram tour line was a lady that got very upset when our group was walked through the detector ahead of her. She was sure we were taking "cuts" into her line, and she wasn't having any of that! It took several staff members to calm her down, and get her to understand that we were a different tour that paid 69 bucks to go on a different route. She finally calmed down, but you could tell she was not a happy camper. She had that look that said "I still think they are not treating me right!" Our group had folks from Isreal, Great Britain, Australia, and two from Phoenix, Arizona. I think I was the only Californian that day. Twelve of us, a guide, and a driver first ate lunch at the cafeteria at JSC, the same place the astronauts and staff at JSC eat. The food at the cafeteria is good, I had some pork. We ate at a reserved area, and I bought a pair of nice binoculars at a "garage sale" they were having in the dining room. Only saw one astronaut, and that was as we were leaving. The tour guide couldn't remember his name! Our first stop after lunch was the NBT facility, located off the main JSC site, at a nearby military base. The Neutral Buoyancy Tank is the largest indoor pool in the world, and contains full size mockups of shuttle and space stations components. The pool is so deep, there is a decompression tank at one end in case divers or astronauts need to be brought out fast, and without proper decompression timing. The told us no one has needed the tank since it was built, but it's there just in case. Two astronauts, and numerous support divers were in the tank during our visit, training for the next shuttle mission to the International Space Staion. The tank is so deep, that we could not see the astronauts in the water! We could tell where they were working, as the support cables could be seen snaking across the water, then down to the astronauts. We actually had better views on the television monitors in the viewer's gallery. Back into the van, and we returned to JSC proper. Next stop... Mission Control! Our first stop is the viewer gallery above the ISS Mission Control Room. The space station is over Australia as we visit, and it appears to be a quiet time in ISS Mission Control. Now a quick jog down a short corridor, and we are looking in on Mission Control! Since there is no shuttle mission up during our visit, Mission Control is being used by contractors to develop programs and procedures for future missions. Both rooms are smaller than they appear on television. We watched a DVD presentation of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Modern CGI technology was used to create a very realistic version of the landing, using the data and voice recordings from the actual mission. Gave viewers a great feeling for what the astronauts saw and felt. Next stop was a training facility, with full size mock-ups of the shuttle, space station parts, and other equipment. Got to see the place where the news media people usually stand to do reports. The favorite location is next to a full size mockup of the shuttle, so they have that as a backdrop to their report. My camera died just as we entered this building, and since it takes a special battery, I didn't have any way to replace it! GRRRRR..... Next stop was the Apollo Mission Control room. Way cool! This is the place where the Apollo moon missions were controlled. We sat down at various consoles, while the guide told us about the facility. She told us about an event during Apollo 12, involving the console where I was sitting. Apollo 12 was struck by lightening on liftoff, and most of the electronics in the command module died! Fortunately, the radio was still working, and the guy sitting where I was seated, the youngest guy in Mission Control, was the only one who knew there was a reset switch in the command module. They radio'ed up where the astronauts could find the switch, they threw it, and the power came back to the rest of the ship. Mission and astronauts saved! It was a bit odd, sitting there with the 60's era consoles.... lighted square pushbottons, dials, and a few monitor screens. The guide was telling us about the layout of the computers... one big one in the basement! No printers, if someone needed a printout, a note was sent to the secretaries working one floor below, they typed it up, and it was sent up through a pneumatic tube (like the kind used by drive up teller windows for the outer lanes) to the console. I picked up one tube and was looking it over, and thinking to myself... "I recognise this!" It's the same thing I use at work to send paper work to records and the jail! Nothing like the latest technology... not. Back into the van, and back to the visitor center. We got there just a few minutes before 5pm, just as they were closing the place, so there wasn't much time to look around or get souveniers. Back on the highway at rush hour, inched my way to the I-45, and then north towards Houston again. Found the toll road, and started making good time looping around the city. I had the exact change ready for the next two booths... I'm getting to be an old hand at this! Oh, great, the last booth I'm going to hit, and it's 75 cents more! And I'm already in the "exact change only" line, and there's no chance to get into the other line! So here I am, furiously digging for and counting change, holding up traffic.... they COULD have put up a bigger sign! Since this last gate is different from all the others, you'd think that would be a good idea! Big bridge over the river now, making me very nervous. I don't like cruising along at 50-60 mph, hundreds of feet above the water, with only 3' high barriers for protection. Got off the toll road, and the loop continued around the north side of Houston. Glad I wasn't going south, a bad accident had those lanes closed, and a helicopter was landing to pick up the injured. Cars were lined up as far as I could see. Up the road to Highway 59, and then north bound to Livingston, Texas, and a night at the Holiday Inn Express. (anyone need any brain surgery or anything?) Tomorrow, Little Rock.

Day 8