Article One - Day One
By Phil Reeder
Friday, 30th September 2005 - The Day Before
For those of you who have read pervious articles I have written for, and had published on this Web-site, I would once again ask you to forgive my lack of journalistic acumen as I am not a professional journalist and I like to think that I write in a style which is both factual and theatrical as an aid to keeping the readers attention. That's not to say that I will lie about the events that took place between the 1st and 8th of October 2005 - NO, the theatrical viewpoint comes from the emotions I experienced as the factual events took place.
For those of you who are reading one of my articles for the first time, I hope you enjoy what you are about to read, so much so that you will want to read it again and again, and then go out and experience for yourself, the incredible adventure I had only a few short weeks ago
Yes I know it's not the norm to dedicate a set of magazine articles, and that this is something that is only usually done in books. But I think this is an incredible story, one worthy of dedication to the place, people and machinery who have made it so.
I dedicate this and all the other articles which are to follow to the following people for the following reasons:-
When I flew out of the UK (England), on a cold and wet morning, on Friday, the 30th of September 2005, I had no idea what to expect when I reached my final destination, the Advanced Adult Space Academy Programme, which is based at the Space Camp facility, in Huntsville, Alabama, USA.
If I remember correctly my major fear was that I would not even get on the flight, never having flown out of the UK before on my own. For me this would be only my third time out of the country, and never on my own.
My other major fear was that if I reached my ultimate goal, would I be up to the challenge that I felt awaited me. One of things I did hope for was that I would have enough material for at least one article on the programme for my friend's web-site.
As its turns out this is a story which cannot be told in just one article, simply because, both I and the group I was to become a part of, did so many incredible things during our stay.
What I found was an amazing place, staffed by an amazing group of people, equipped with an amazing variety of machinery and yet another amazing group of people who were to be my fellow trainees.
During this story you are going to hear me talk about many, many things. One of the things you will hear me talk about are "centres". Centres in this case are the things about which other things revolve; these will either be physical in nature, like a place or building, or physical in nature as in a person or persons.
So how do you tell a story which you felt would only be small, and which turned out to be so large. From the moment that it became apparent that this story could not be told in only one article I started to give it serious thought on how it could be told. The answer came to me in the form of one of the first pieces of paper I was handed during my Astronaut Registration, The Training Schedule for the coming eights days. There is only one way to tell this story, on a day by day, hour by hour basis as the events unfolded.
This is the start of that story
I had stayed the evening of the night before registration at the Marriott Hotel which is less than one hundred yards from the Space Camp facility in Huntsville, Alabama, USA. My first view of the camp had been that evening as the taxi had taken me from Huntsville International Airport on the short ride to the hotel. The first thing you see is the rocket park and its most prominent feature, the towering Saturn Rocket which was used to launch man toward the Moon during the late 1960's and early 70's. Other rockets, and what I found out later were missiles, can also be seen, but it's the sight of seeing a Saturn, in the flesh (so to speak) that takes your breath away.
Next to be seen is what I found out later was the main entrance building to the camp and parked directly to the front of it one of the worlds fastest jet aircraft - the SR-71 Blackbird.
The next building to come into view is the Habitat Module, but more on that building later.
Day ONE - Saturday, 1st October 2005 - 11.00 am to 2.00 pm
The Marriott Hotel reception desk gave me directions to the camp; just a short walk from the hotel grounds (see Picture 1) and I made my way from there to the camps entrance building to seek directions to my programme registration area. Not only were directions given but a guide provided and I was soon making my way through the museum area of the camp, which I found out later is considered to be a separate, if joined entity to the camp itself.
My guide and I made our way through a number of corridors after leaving the museum and we passed what I found out later was the camp's cafeteria where both staff and trainees take their various meals.
Exiting this building provided me with a sight which quite literally took my breath away, as coming into view was one of the first of the "centres" which will be mentioned in this story and the ones to follow.
That's Pathfinder said my guide.
If there is a physical "centre" to the entire Space Camp complex it must be the space shuttle Pathfinder, one of the shuttles designed and built to act as an atmospheric test-bed for the flights which would test the airworthiness of the shuttle's orbitor design.
Here rested Pathfinder (See Picture 2), mounted on a full scale replica of the shuttle's external fuel tank or ET, which also had attached to it two full scale replica's of the shuttles solid rocket boosters or SRB's as they are more commonly known, which aid to lift the shuttle toward space at launch.
It's not until you view this truly huge assembly of individual parts, brought together to form the space transportation system or STS, that you start to realise just how big the space shuttle and its component sections really are, and the shear power that this craft must be capable of producing on lift-off.
It's ok to see the shuttle in books and magazines, in films, on video or DVD's, but you stand where I stood (on more than one occasion) and I guarantee it will take your breath away. I had to stop and look. You simply cannot just walk past this sleeping giant when first you see it - it's just not possible.
After a few moments, or it could have been longer, a shock like the one I had just experienced really can make you loose all track of time, I followed my guide to the left of Pathfinder down the route that took us toward what I knew from my conversation with the taxi driver on the previous evening to be the Habitat Module or Hab (See Picture 3) as it is more commonly referred.
The sign on the first door we came to gives you your first chance to see what Space Camp is really all about "Through these doors, pass the future astronauts, scientists and engineers of this country" and by the end of my stay at Space Camp I felt this was true.
It may have been a cold unpleasant day when I left the UK, but the weather in firstly Atlanta, where I made my connecting flight, and next in Huntsville my ultimate destination, was directly the opposite. The sun was out and I was extremely warm and starting to sweat just a little as I followed my guide into the Hab building and it came as a great relief to find that the building was air-conditioned, as are all the buildings at Space Camp.
The only way to describe the many buildings which make up Space Camp complex is "TARDIS like". For all you non science fiction fans, that's the blue box that Doctor Who travels in during his journeys in time and space. The TARDIS has many unusual features but its main one is that it looks smaller on the outside than it is on the inside. The same I feel can be said of all the buildings that make up the Space Camp complex. On entering the Hab you are pleasantly surprised to find out how big it is on the inside. I found out later that it has at least four floors, which can house the many hundreds of students who pass through Space Camp each year.
Day ONE - 2.00 pm to 3.30 pm
It was at this point that my guide introduced me to the first of the many incredible people who I came to know and admire at Space Camp. A person who would become yet another "centre" around which the group I was to become a part of, would revolve during certain parts of the week.
The camps title for Jeff Van Zandt is counsellor, but instructor or trainer I feel would be a more apt description. I was introduced, and left with Jeff to start the Astronaut Registration process. Others, I noticed, were also present in the immediate vicinity, others who would, by the end of the week, become as close to me as family, but at the moment were complete strangers.
I cannot for the life of me remember the order in which I first met the other members of the group I would become a part of. One thing was immediately apparent though, these people had known each other for years, and the word vet or veteran came immediately to mind.
We were now six and sat round in a small circle, with the vets talking to each other, Jeff starting to discuss the weeks coming events and me starting to get the first feelings of panic. I have always been a dedicated Science Fiction and Science Fantasy enthusiast, but I have always known that they are not real (I can hear an army Star Trek and Star Wars fans raising up to curse me as I type these words), but I have also always been a dedicated enthusiast of Science Fact (Space and Aero-Space Technology) as well, and these are real. But the words coming from the small group of people around me were like nothing I had ever heard before, technical details on a grand scale about the shuttle and its various systems.
Had I bitten off more than I could chew by applying for the Advanced Academy Programme I stated to wonder? Should I have aimed my sights lower, at a level more in keeping with the knowledge I had at the time - a very good question - at the time.
I decided to take the initiative and introduce myself to the group. It's as good a way as any to break the ice and to start to get to know the small group of people who, it would appear I would be spending the week with. I told them a little about me (take it slow and steady the small voice between my ears kept saying) and they in return told me a little about themselves. That's when the panic really started to hit me. Two software engineers, a petroleum geologist, an aero-space contactor and a recently retired US army Colonel, made up the small group of people that I now sat with. The intelligence, education, training, qualifications and experience that all these people must posses were enough to scare me even more. Would I fit in with this group in any way, shape or form, and if I did somehow stay a part of the group, would it be a question of me holding them back and spoiling their enjoyment over the coming week? I'll tell you now, the building we were in was air conditioned, but I for one was starting to sweat again, and the shocks/surprises were not over as the seventh and final member of the group made his grand entrance into the building and was warmly welcomed by the others.
At first sight Mike Williams (call-sign SIMS) is an imposing figure to behold. He must be at least six feet plus tall and so towers over me by a good six inches. An ear, nose and throat surgeon from Boston, he is a guy who radiates intelligence and confidence, he is a guy I would come to feel as close to as a brother by the end of my stay.
Finally all assembled, the group continued there interactive conversations with me still feeling like the very odd man out (see Picture 4).
One question which the group asked Jeff was "is Jedi still here"? But more on that topic in the articles to follow later.
I have never liked the word fan or fanatic for that matter. In recent years the word has taken on a new and terrifying meaning, so it's a word I will not be using during the telling of this tail. No, extremely dedicated enthusiasts would be a lot better way to describe the group of people that I felt were currently surrounding me. The facts coming from them were simply amazing things to hear, and once again I started to feel very much like the very odd man out.
Some of you are no doubt wondering why I am going on so much about the group, and why I am not getting to the stuff about the camp and all incredible things we did much faster. The answer is simple. At Space Camp they do not "play" at training you to be an astronaut, you are trained to be an astronaut. Now these days astronauts do not go into space on their own, and this has been the case since the end of the Project Mercury flights in the early 1960's. No, astronauts go into space as crews, and before you can start the crew building process, you have to take a group of individuals and start the team building process. When you train to be an astronaut you have to have trust in the other people around you, and be willing to put your life in their hands, and this is how the training takes place at Space Camp as part of the Advanced Adult Academy Programme. You can, I hope, now see why I was just I little bit troubled by the current situation I found myself in. These were ALL veterans. Would I fit in? Would they accept me? They like me must have paid a great deal of money to be in the Advanced Academy Programme. Would my presence spoil the groups all ready established rapport with each other, and spoil for them the enjoyment they got from being a part of the programme?
There is also one other fact I would ask you to consider. As I have said you do not play at Space Camp. The situations we found our selves in from day one can get you either seriously injured or even killed if you are not fully trained on how to handle them, are not very careful what you do when handling those situations, and do not have the trust and support from your fellow team/crew mates.
Jeff Van Zandt continued his Programme Orientation lecture and this carried over into his comments on the programmes outlines. The programme orientation and his comments are all intended to help break the ice amongst the group and help them start to interact with each other.
It was whilst Jeff was speaking that I noticed for the first time the lap-top computer that Mike Williams had with him, and that he currently had open on his lap in the chair next to mine. The screen saver showed the logo for the Star Trek series - Star Trek - Deep Space Nine and I asked Mike if he was a fan and he indicated that he was, I explained to him that I was also a sci-fi fan, and that became my first interaction with another member of the group.
The next thing which took place whilst not on the agenda as such is worthy of mention as it illustrates the flexibility of the camp in its treatment of its students.
Some of the previous students had with them their flight suits from previous attendance, some had forgotten theirs, and one person (me), did not have one at all at the present time. Jeff took the ones without flight suits to a storage room at the end of the Hab and issued each of us, including me, with a near correct size "loaner" which we could either use for the rest of the week or until we purchased a new one from the camps' gift shop.
Next on the agenda came the issuing of bedding (blankets, sheets and pillowcases) for use in the rooms we had been assigned to use whilst at camp. "You will need some Duck Tape to help keep your sheets in place" said a voice beside me, and I turned to look at the person from whom the statement had come from. This was my first interaction with Carolyn Moore
(call-sign Grizzly), M.D., Colonel, US Army (Retired) and believe me this is a lady you will be hearing a lot more about in the articles to follow. All I will say for now is that she provided me with the means to ensure that my sheets stayed in place over the next few days.
Day ONE - 4.00 pm to 5.00 pm
The next part of our programme was the Mission Center Complex or MCC Tour. The MCC is the vast area which houses all the different on-ground shuttle areas - Mission Control Rooms (YES Rooms), the White Rooms where the crews "suit-up" before lift-off, the Shuttle Simulators and the various International Space Station modules which have been constructed to support shuttle training operations, as these days a big part of the shuttles workload is currently dedicated to the construction, repair and maintenance of the ISS (see Picture 5).
To say this area is impressive is an understatement and it is constantly being upgraded with new training methods and new training modules. It is an area I would get to see a lot of in the week to come.
Day ONE - 5.00 pm to 6.00 pm
Next came dinner and I have to say the food is fantastic and there are always seconds available for those who want them. It was at dinner that I got the chance to discuss my concerns with one of the other members of the group. Carol Johnson (call-sign Rad-Lady) is an aero-space contractor from Texas, who has many claims to fame when it comes to the aerospace industry, but by far her greatest claim to fame is that she worked on the Heat Rejection Subsystem Radiators currently in use on the International Space Station. It is an accomplishment she would tell us about on more than one occasion. It is an accomplishment she is very proud of - and rightly so. It must give her and incredible sense of pride and achievement to have helped to create an item of space hardware that now has such an important role to play in the future of manned space exploration - I know it would me.
I explained to Carol as best I could about my fears only to have her tell me "Don't worry, - just enjoy yourself" she said. "We were all in the same position you find yourself in at one time, so don't let it worry you". I have to confess that whilst her words helped relieve my fears just a little they did not put them to rest entirely.
Day ONE - 6.00 pm to 7.30 pm
The next item on the itinerary was the Space Shuttle Orientation lecture held in one of the corporate rooms which over look the MCC. The view from here down to the MCC is one that has to be seen to be believed. Walking around the MCC is impressive, but the view from the corporate rooms gives you your first impression of how huge the training area really is.
The Space Shuttle Orientation lecture was given by Ed Stuart. I had the feeling that it would just be simple run through on the space shuttle's systems; the shuttle system has an orbitor, it takes off like a rocket and lands like a plane. When it launches it has a big fuel tank and two rocket boosters attached to it - NO. This was an incredibly impressive and well presented overview of the space shuttle and all its component systems. The shuttles systems (hydraulics, electronics, and avionics) were described and discussed in great detail. The shuttles main engines and manoeuvring systems were also covered, once again in great detail, as were full details of the shuttles external fuel tank or ET. The same detail was once again applied for the description and discussion which took place on the shuttles two solid rocket boosters or SRB's.
The same panic that had started to grip me earlier reared its ugly head once again. The people around me not only seemed to be taking in everything that was said but had the ability to add even more to the lecture, with the detailed knowledge they had. It's at this point that I have to mention one of the many, many things I found impressive about the staff at Space Camp. These are all highly intelligent, highly educated and highly qualified people and for all that they have not placed themselves on a pedestal above the others they come into contact with as trainees. If there is something they do not know for some reason they will admit it, they will go way, find the answer and get back to you. If during a briefing you are able to give them knowledge that you have and they do not, they will accept that knowledge with thanks to the giver. On one occasion I even saw the person giving the lecture make notes for future reference after a trainee had been in a position to supply additional information.
Day ONE - 7.30 pm to 8.30 pm
The shuttle briefing over, we moved on to the next item on the agenda, the Mission Preparation briefing or Mission Prep. Our training programme within the MCC was made up of four one hour training missions - Alpha, Beta, Charlie and Delta (but on more than one occasion these spilled over into one and a half hour or more hours if required to get it right), which set you up for four one hour missions, which set you up for a Long Duration Mission or LDM of twenty-four hours duration at the end of the week. It was at this briefing that we discussed the content of the Alpha, Beta, Charlie and Delta missions.
Day One - 8.30 pm to 10.00 pm
The briefing over, we all adjourned back to the Hab for a Team Building exercise. As I explained earlier, whilst a space shuttle crew is initially made up of a group of individuals, each tasked with assignments during a mission, it is important that they are also able to function together as a consolidated team. Consider the situation of a crew member becoming incapacitated for some reason; someone else would have to take over that person's role, sometimes at a moments notice. It is therefore important that the individuals are capable of acting as an integrated team and team building exercises are an excellent way to develop this process. In the case of this team, who were all veterans from previous years, it was also a good way to re-establish the rapport they had, had in the past and to help start integrating a new member (me) into the team. It was to this end I suppose that Jeff decided it would be a good idea if I was team leader.
The exercise required that we work together to find away to deliver three similar sized items of waste material in the shape of sphere's approximately three inches in diameter and contained within a bucket, from one floor of the Hab to next floor down and deliver them to a bucket placed in the centre of the floor. To do this we had three pieces rope of different lengths. The additional instructions that Jeff gave us were that we could not directly touch the first bucket which contained the waste material, and that the second bucket, which we were to deliver the waste material to, could not be touched by the first bucket. We were given approximately twenty minutes to complete the exercise (see picture 6).
I'll not drag out for you the process which took place to get the waste from one level to another, except to say that verbal discussion and team member interaction played a big part in getting the task completed, in a way which Jeff considered a success.
By now it was nearing 10.00 pm and the day was officially at an end and it was time for bed. This would be the last day that ended at 10.00 pm for the rest of the week.
Article Two - Day Two
The view from the swimming pool area of the Marriott Hotel looking toward Space Camp. The White building you can see is the Hab and is approximately a quarter of a mile from where I am standing, and beyond it, approximately half a mile away you can see the top of the Saturn Rocket in the Rocket Park. I will let you figure out how big it must be, to be seen like this from nearly half a mile away.
Pathfinder, and below it, feeling very, very small in my blue flight suit, me. You may need a magnifying glass to be able to pick me out, but trust me I am there.
The Habitat Module or Hab as it is more commonly referred.
The team - six vets and one very, very nervous rookie.
Rear Rank from Left to Right - Bill, Greg, Mike and Cliff
Front Rank form Left to Right - Carol, Carolyn and me.
The MCC - Believe me this picture does not do justice to the shear size of the training area. My camera and the camera angle would not let me get it all in one shot. The shuttle you see in the background (Enterprise) is near full size with only the wings, wheels and main engines missing. Above the cargo bay is the Westar Communications Satellite - but more on that later topic in an article to follow.
Team building - handling "toxic waste".