Thursday, April 2, 2015

Kennedy Space Center: Part 1

Kennedy Space Center: Part 1

            We had a blast during the three Road Scholar visits we made in January 2015 to the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, Fla. When registering for passes that first morning, things went more slowly than usual. Our leader said it was because the center had increased its security measures by order of Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, who called for increased security because of the public calls by terrorist organizations for attacks on U.S. government installations.

            Our first stop was the Early Space Exploration building, where the actual Mercury mission control station was on display, along with other artifacts from the first shots into space. There were large pictures of the first seven astronauts and the capsules they went up in, space suits they wore and, hanging from the ceiling, a replica of the first Russian Soyuz space capsule. A magnificent fountain is outside. A short distance away is the Rocket Garden, where we could walk up to historic rockets that originally were designed for military purposes but later adapted for space exploration.

The Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center

            Then it was time for “lunch with an astronaut” with Wendy Lawrence, a retired U.S. Navy captain and former NASA astronaut who has made four flights into space. She shared with the 36 of us stories about the long training period when astronauts practice, practice, practice. When something goes wrong in space, they often have less than 10 seconds to do something about it. They also have to be multilingual because the space station has an international staff.

            Lawrence also told us stories about life aboard the space station. She was particularly fascinated by adapting to weightlessness and learning to move her body in space, where there is no gravity. On a large screen, she showed films of herself and others doing various tasks inside and outside the space station. One of the more interesting segments showed how they sleep. Many astronauts felt the need to be strapped to a platform. With no gravity to hold them in place, their arms would move into strange positions. Lawrence preferred to sleep free-form, with no straps.

            She explained some physical problems astronauts can have because there is no gravity to pull down on one’s bodily fluids. Astronauts must endure a constant feeling of congestion in their heads. After lunch, we met with Lawrence at several other places on the grounds, where she was available to answer questions.

            The next day, we first visited the Imax theater to see “Space Station,” narrated by Tom Cruise. The film shows the challenges of working inside and outside the station, and how the astronauts had trained underwater in tanks to mimic how it would feel to be in zero gravity — something we had seen them doing at Huntsville, Ala., on a previous visit.

            The film showed the addition of Japanese and Italian astronauts to the station, and how they worked and moved through space. Readers can find similar shots of life in the space station on YouTube. The film emphasizes that the medical and other scientific research done by astronauts has contributed to our quality of life. The number of technology spinoffs we now take for granted — including GPS, weather satellites, water purification systems and artificial limbs — is mind-numbing.

            Our next stop was Exploration Space: Explorers Wanted. The theater presentation is mostly geared toward the younger generation. It was rather like an ad encouraging young people to consider becoming space scientists by presenting questions about current problems and what needs to be accomplished for further advances.

            Some future columns will focus on other fascinating exhibits, such as the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the Space Shuttle Atlantis, beneficial research spinoffs and what it felt like to experience a launch simulation.

Space Capsules and Space Suits are on display at the Kennedy Space Center

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