Visit of a Lifetime

ATX - Astronaut Training Experience - Kennedy Space Centre Florida - January 2004

By Phil Reeder from the UK

I have never been one for holidays abroad, or even holidays in general, but when the opportunity came up to visit Florida earlier on this year for five days, everything just seemed to fall into place for what turned out to be the holiday of a lifetime.

I'll not bore you with what I did on four of the five days just to say that even though it was a great experience, its what I did on the Thursday of the trip that I hope will interest you the most.

I have always had a keen interest in the space programme for as long as I can remember, and having an interest in science fiction and science fantasy as well always seemed go together to make a complete set. A few years ago (2000) a friend and I had teamed up to create an exhibition of science fact, science fiction and science fantasy models and art work at a local museum (3SF3D) which had turned out to be hugely successful, and the trip to America seemed like a great opportunity to try and bring everything back into focus once again, especially as the trip was to Orlando, in Florida which is only approximately 40 miles from the Kennedy Space Centre.

I had planned to hire a car and drive to the Space Centre to take part in one of the many everyday visits that take place there, but from the moment I had said yes to going to America things just seemed to fall into place for something even better to happen.

Firstly I was made aware by a colleague of mine at the college I work at in the UK of a coach firm in Orlando (Orlando at Your Service) who pick visitors up from the various hotels in Orlando and transfer them to the Space Centre, returning to pick them up and deliver them back later in the day. This would save me the trouble and expense of car hire and having to find my way on my own from Orlando.

Next came the most welcome surprise of all. I was informed by the same colleague that since July of 2003 NASA had initiated a new programme called ATX - Astronaut Training Experience which gave lucky applicants to the programme the opportunity for a SUPER VIP visit with actual hands-on experience of the simulators used to train Space Shuttle astronauts and the opportunity to take part in an actual simulated Space Shuttle mission, as well visits to some of the areas not seen at all on the normal visitor trips. The visit also included a briefing by an actual astronaut and the opportunity to ask questions as well.

On the day of the visit I had no idea what to expect. Since stepping off the plane at Orlando International Airport on the Monday of January 26th, America had been an incredible experience for me. I had done loads of shopping, visited two theme parks, spent time with people who had been near strangers on the trip over but had becomes friends of a sort since arriving in America and now here I was on my way for what I hoped would be the experience of a lifetime.

After transfer by coach from Orlando I arrived at the Kennedy Space Centre ATX building, which is situated next to the Astronaut Hall of Fame building on the Kennedy Space Centre site. I was met by an extremely attractive young lady from the ATX Programme and had my first experience of an astronaut's lifestyle when I was presented with some space food in the form of desiccated strawberries. I must say it tastes a bit like dry polystyrene until it gets wet in your mouth.

Next came the clothing. A sweatshirt and shuttle pin badge. Both these are unique to the ATX programme (and cannot be bought in the huge gift shop - I checked later) as well as an ATX ID badge once again unique to the programme. All this unique apparel I must say goes along way to making you feel like a true VIP visitor to NASA. A set of briefing sheets for what's going to happening to you during the day is also included.

From the small reception area I was led down a flight of stairs into the hanger area which houses the Space Shuttle simulator and the other simulators the trainees will be using during their stay. I have seen pictures of the shuttle and video and TV footage and know that the craft is big. Its not until you are at the side of the one to one scale simulator that you realise how truly huge this craft is. It's about as tall as my fathers two story house back in the UK and that's not small either. The mock-up/simulator is only built in "true form" from the noise to the rear outside wall of the front of the cargo bay. After this everything else is un-enclosed. I could quite clearly see mock-ups of satellites and the robot manipulator arm the shuttle uses to launch and recover satellites when in space. There was also what looked like a set of MMU's (Manned Manipulator Units) used by the shuttle astronauts when in space. From here I was lead to the briefing room/class room and was given the chance to meet my fellow trainees until the briefing started.

Next came the briefing itself. The briefing was held by veteran shuttle astronaut Colonel Don Peterson from the STS-6 mission, which some of you may remember was the maiden flight of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The Colonel gave us a run down on the shuttle programme as a whole, where it was at the moment, plus his views on how he felt NASA was maybe going to progress in the future. Its important to point out at this point that the views he gave were his views on the way things could go and not necessarily NASA's

I knew the Space Shuttle programme had originally had five ships in its fleet and this was now reduced to three after the tragic loss of Challenger and Columbia but to hear he believed that these two craft would not be replaced came as something of a shock. How can you run a programme, to the extent it needs to be run to make it successful, and get everything done that needs to be done with only three craft?

Worse was to follow when the Colonel explained that he felt that it was possible that the US would "walk-away" from the International Space Station project once their contractual obligations in its construction were completed, once shuttle flights were up and running again, and it was therefore possible that China, the newest member of the space fairing community could become at active participant in the future development of the International Space Station project.

I had hoped to ask the Colonel about these developments but I had already asked two questions and felt it was time for the other six people in the group to have their go.

Yes I should have pointed out by now that the group I was in was comprised of only seven people (the maximum number for a Space Shuttle crew). The groups are kept deliberately low so that once again you feel as if you are part of a true VIP experience.

After the briefing was over Colonel Peterson left and we were left in the capable hands of the three young (and very attractive I might say) ladies who conduct ATX attendees on the main phases of the programme.

Now it was time for us to try out the one to one simulators. That's when it's one person at a time, in one simulator. We got the chance to try "moon-walking" in the one-sixth gee gravity simulator. That great fun, especially when you get it wrong and get bounced on your ass.

Next up the centrifuge that spins you at very high speed in three different directions all at the same time. Not knowing how this would feel, but knowing it was part of the programme I had taken the opportunity to go on the three of the more exhilarating rides whilst at the Universal Theme Park the day before (Spiderman, Dueling Dragons and Incredible Hulk) thinking that these would prepare me for what was to come (more fool me). It's a good thing you are told in advance not to eat anything before your ATX visit or there would have been a lot of un-happy people at NASA that day.

As the simulators can only be used one person at a time, it gave us others the chance to start to get to get to know each other. Cameras were going back and forth as everyone wanted a picture (or several) of themselves in each of the simulators. It was during this time that I got talking to a guy from Chicago about his reasons for coming on the trip from way across the other side of the USA (I should talk I had come all the way across the Atlantic ocean for primarily this one experience). He told me that as part of the experience was to take part in an actual simulated Space Shuttle mission it was his hope to get to pilot the craft as the Mission Commander (SNAP), my main reason for being there as well if only for the chance to land the craft. OK its only a simulated mission, but we are talking to what amounts to been the worlds most advanced flight simulator. It's as close as you can get to actually "going up" (that's the term used by astronauts who have been into space) as you can get without actually going up and that's the thing that makes it all worthwhile - believe me. So with at least two people in line for the Commanders chair the day had just taken on an interesting new twist.

By this time the rest of the group, which had turned up at the ATX building as a set of individuals, were starting to bond as a group or should I say crew. I learnt that three of my fellow attendees were from the UK. Not bad going for a group of seven at an American Space Center I felt. One guy was actually from NASA and worked in the Education Centre and had paid to come on the programme to see what it was all about. The last guy in the group of six men and one woman I never did get to know sadly but you cannot have everything.

Next came lunch. I know I keep saying this (and will continue no doubt to do so) but the way NASA made the ATX attendees feel like true VIP visitors is simply incredible, and this goes for the food as well. I have never seen so much, which tasted so good, for so few. The lunch also gave us the chance to bond a little bit better with our fellow attendees as well as the three ladies from the ATX Programme.

Next it was time for the visits, but before that came the security check. An interesting experience which involved a NASA security officer "feeling" us down for suspicious objects, checking our persons with a handheld metal detector and inspecting our cameras as well. Once that was over it was onto the bus. I say bus but once again here's the way you are made to feel like a NASA VIP, it was actually more like an oversized mini-bus with huge panoramic windows and full air conditioning with our own driver and tour guide.

First stop was the International Space Station complex which features full size mock-ups of all the components, which will make up the station when assembly is complete in ???? The complex itself is divided into two sections. Side one been the mock-up and side two the actual assembly area where the actual units for the station are prepped before they are transferred to the shuttles cargo bay for launch into space. As I am sure you will all appreciate in January of 2004 this part of the complex was full to over flowing with shuttle flights suspended for the time being.

Next back to the bus for the next stop on the trip. Every building we passed was pointed out to us and its significance to the space programme either now in the present or in the past explained in great detail. Until you have actually visited the Space Centre you cannot imagine how big the place is. Over in the UK we have buildings, which are yards from each other. At the Centre its miles between each one. We passed both the Vehicle Assembly Building and Mission Control.

Next stop Pad 39 which for all those who don't know is the launch pad that the shuttle lifts off from on the start of its journey into space. Here comes the VIP bit again. Most visitors to the Centre only get to about three miles from Pad 39. We were driven right up to the last security gate and allowed to get off the bus placing us within 100 yards of Pad 39. From the time that the bus had set off from the ATX building we had been receiving a running commentary on life at NASA, the Kennedy Space Centre, the International Space Station project and the Space Shuttle Programme from the tour guide and his driver who were conducting us on this part of the trip.

Here's the VIP bit again. The tour guide went into great detail to explain all about the pebbles that make up the track which the crawler passes over when carrying the Shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Pad 39 and explained how these had to be imported to the Space Centre from another state in the USA especially for the job as they were of a kind which would not damage the crawlers tracks as it and the Shuttle passed over them. We were each given the opportunity to pick up one of the pebbles and mine now resides in a place of honor in my space collection at home in the UK.

A few minutes later we got a call over the buses radio requesting that we make our way back to the ATX building as it was nearly time for the simulated space shuttle mission part of the training to start.

As I stated earlier on, the day had been a combination of pleasant surprises, shocks and total enjoyment. Upon returning to the ATX building it was time for the next surprise.

I had seen and therefore knew about the Shuttle simulator. Part of the initiation at the very beginning of the day had been to view the inside of the simulator and to be shown how closely it had been designed to be like the real thing. What we did not know and did not find until we returned to the ATX building was that there was also a near full size mock-up simulator of the mission control room used to control the shuttle from the ground when it is in space. The room has all its own computers, display panels, read-outs, microphones and headsets as used by the real mission control staff. Above the main set of computers there is even a huge TV monitor set up to display the interior of the Shuttle simulators Command Deck via a camera positioned just above the Shuttle Pilot and Commanders positions.

Each position in Mission Control has its own "Script Book" as does all the seats on the Command Deck of Shuttle and it was now that we found out how the simulations for the trainees were run.

All the simulators work in exactly the same way as they do in the real Mission Control and on board the real Space Shuttle. The simulated mission is run along the lines of "cause and affect", that is everyone has to follow their own script perfectly for the simulated mission to continue from lift-off to landing. If the script calls for someone to read a line into their microphone, they read a line into their microphone. If the script calls from one or more buttons, levers or switches to be operated, they have to be operated in exactly the required way or the simulator will not run.

Outside once more in the main "hanger" part on the ATX building it was explained that not everyone could hope to get the position during the mission that they would like, there was simply not the time, so it was deemed only fair that the positions were drawn by lots. So many trainees had to man (or should it be person) Mission Control and so many had to man the Shuttle. The ATX people themselves man some of the positions in mission control so as to allow the minimum number of four to man the shuttle (Commander, Pilot, Mission Specialist One and Two).

We each put our ATX name badges into the provide hat and the choosing started. I got lucky if you can call it that. I picked MS2 so at least I would be one of the people in the Shuttle. The guy from Chicago got really lucky, he drew the Commanders chair. He looked at me. I looked at him - nuff said.

Once position selection was completed it was time to man our positions for the start of the mission. I and one of my fellow Brits who had drawn the MS1 position climbed into our seats just behind the Mission Commander and Pilot, who was the only member of the group I had not got to know during the day, but could tell from his accent was an American.

The mission starts as every mission starts with commentary from Mission Control on what the mission is and what its objectives are. This is followed by on-board systems checks from the shuttle crew and a crew readiness check. This is followed by lift-off. Remember that I stated earlier. Everything in/on the simulators works. Lift-off has to be accomplished on the simulator the very same way it is accomplished on the real shuttle. A series of commands is input into a master key pad, which then free's up other systems on the shuttle for them to operate. Get it wrong and whole set of commands has to be de-entered and re-entered correctly for the mission to proceed. The simulator does not actually move but the sound generated over your head-phones and on the Command Deck really gives you the impression that you are going somewhere and the moving pictures displayed on the forward and side view screens which are in place of the cockpit and cabin windows show you the views you would expect to see if the shuttle were really lifting off.

Once in orbit (?) its time for the two Mission Specialists to carry out their assigned experiment in the mid-deck of the Shuttle. Ours involved a process of air displacement by passing a colored liquid through a colorless one to observe to changes that took place. Once this had been accomplished and our findings reported back to Mission Control it was time for the last phase of the mission - re-entry.

For those of you who don't know the shuttle re-enters the Earths atmosphere by waiting until it is the correct orbital position and then initiates what is called a "de-orbital burn". This is when the shuttle thrusters are fired just enough for it to be slowed just enough for Earth's gravity to grab it and draw it back toward the surface of the Earth.

What I am about to write/say may seem untrue for those of you who are reading it but I swear it's the truth and exactly how it happened. Myself and MS1 had just re-taken our seats on the Command Deck of the Shuttle when the command came through from Mission Control to stand-by for de-orbital burn. It was at this point that the guy from Chicago, you remember the one who I had spoken at length to earlier on in the day about our main reasons for coming on the ATX Programme. The one who had drawn the Commanders position. The position I would have given anything to have, turned to me and said, "Do you want to take it?" I swear that's exactly what he said. My answer was YES please. We quickly changed places; a fact that did not go un-noticed by Mission Control and every one got a laugh when I said that the Brits had now taken over the mission from now on.

I entered the commands for the de-orbital burn and we heard rather than felt the thrusters firing. The scene outside the windows changed from the blackness of space to deep blue, then to light blue and then we entered cloud cover at about 36,000 feet (six and half miles) up.

It's at this point that the Commander (now me) takes manual control of the ship from what has been up until then a computer approach. As we broke through the cloud I could see the ground and its features quite clearly a long way off.

It's at this point that I received a "steer" from Mission Control to give me an approach toward the runway. It's also at this point that I found out why the shuttle is referred to as a "Flying Brick". The control stick just refused to move with just one hand on it and I had to use both to bring the craft into a right turn. As the runway came into sight I once again had to use both hands to complete a series of short left and right turns to keep the craft on track for landing. I aimed for point just after the end of the runway and I am glad to say managed to get us all down in one piece.

As we came to wheels stop, which is when the craft stops moving an announcement come over the head phones from Mission Control that the mission was successfully over and this got a cheer from everyone.

After leaving the simulator I asked one of the ATX guides how I had done with my landing? She told me I had done very well. Others in the past it seemed had crashed straight into the ground or crashed into the sea. One guy she told me had even turned the entire ship upside down and landed it on its roof, so I was pretty pleased with the way I had done.

By this time its 4.00 pm and as the day is due to end at 4.30 pm it was time for the last event - GRADUATION. We all trooped into the class room once again and took our places and were called forward one at a time for the presentation of our official graduation certificates and photographs, these had been taken earlier one by an official NASA photographer and we were each also presented with a bag full of NASA goodies. This gave use all the chance for a last round of camera exchanging as everyone wanted their picture taken as they got their graduation certificates.

As the coach was due to pick me up at 5.30 pm and it was now 4.45 pm and I still had the on-site gift shop and the Astronaut Hall of Fame Building to visit I was forced reluctantly to bid a fond farewell to everyone and make my way onwards.

After much picture taking in the Astronaut Hall of Fame and much buying in the gift shop the coach picked me at exactly 5.30 for the return trip to Orlando.

So how do I feel things went? Fantastic is one of only a few words I could use to describe it. From start to finish you are treated like a true VIP that's the only way to describe it. It's an experience that I will never forget and I rate it as one of the truly outstanding and exciting moments in my life.

Would I like to do it again? The answer is both YES and NO. Part of the paperwork given us at the beginning of the day was a feedback sheet to record our comments about the day on. This was in the form of a series of "tick-boxes" which only allow so much information to be given and I used my time on the return flight to the UK to think of how the programme could be made better.

The problem is the amount of ground the ATX Programme tries to cover against the amount of time you have to cover it. If it were me I would drop the visits to the ISS building and Pad 39 and devote the time to a fully extended simulated shuttle mission involving space walks, the hatch for astronauts to leave the shuttle is a part of the simulator and this could also involve the use of the MMU's which were in the area for the shuttles cargo bay. The ATX programme is intended to be just that. A "hands-on" Astronaut Training Experience and trying to include visits in the time allowed just does not seem to work.

I would much rather see the programme extended into a two-day experience. There is an un-used accommodation block right next to the ATX building which could house visitors overnight, with day one given over to visits (there were places we did not go, simply because there was no time to go there) and day two given over to the simulated mission. I know it would cost more but its something I for one would have been willing to pay for.

Don't get me wrong. This is not me knocking NASA for what they have managed to achieve in the six short months since the programme has been running. Its just my ideas on how it could be better in the hope that if someone from NASA gets to read this article they will hopefully (PLEASE) take my ideas on-board.

I put my ideas down on paper and sent them to the head of ATX Programme once back in the UK but have not at this time had a reply.

These are a few of the pictures I took or were took of me on my ATX visit for those of you are interested:-

This is the first view you get of the simulator. As you can see it's not small.

This is me with Colonel Don Peterson our NASA astronaut

These show me in the Commanders seat of the simulator. All those buttons and switches work.

This features the simulator's mid-deck. You can just see the glove box we used for the experiment we carried out, plus the ladder which takes you up to the Command Deck.

This shows the Mission Control set-up for the simulator.

This shows me getting my graduation certificate at the end of the day.

There was one final downside to the trip which I did not realise until I got home. I had used my digital camera for the all the internal shots I had taken during ATX visit and my 35mm one for the all the external shots. Thanks to security checks at Orlando International Airport I ended up loosing all the 35mm ones. The ones from the digital came out ok as you can see but it would have been nice to have the 35mm ones as well.

Phil Reeder from the UK - May 2004.