March 7th, 2002

andromeda

Spacefem In Space! (part I)

Ah, NASA. The technology, the passion, the pictures of hardened machinery in front of starry dark backgrounds - it's pretty invigorating when you think of all of it. My first trip to Johnson Space Center was in 1998, my freshman year. I kinda thought there would be a bigger difference between now and then but there wasn't; it's funny to think of how I'm a totally different person now but all these people and projects are basically the same: shuttle, station, biggest indoor swimming pool in the world.

We left Pittsburg at 7 a.m. on Wednesday and drove vans down to Oklahoma City. You can tell you're in Oklahoma because everything there looks dead, even for winter. I tried to buy a little camera at the convenience store we stopped at but they didn't have any; I suppose no one wants to take pictures of this state. That sorta makes sense.

Anyway, we join up with the bus from the cosmosphere there. It's full of elementary school teachers this year. Last year apparently it was mostly high school students; the year I went it was other college engineering students. It's a good thing we went because we were the life of this group. They loved us. You know how teachers are. It was funny because everyone at NASA really liked talking to teachers because they'd all had really good ones at some time or another and it turned out to be some sort of reverse inspiration sort of thing. You don't hear about many people being really inspired from another engineer. I guess that's a good part about being a teacher.

We arrived at the hotel at 10:30 p.m. which was way later than I expected because the bus driver kept stopping for smoke breaks. Uhg. I took a long hot shower in the hotel room I had to myself, did some yoga exercises, and went to bed. The hotel got the NASA channel so I got to watch that a bit, usually it's a bunch of guys in mission control kinda looking blank.

The next day we load up at 7:00 a.m. (!) and go eat breakfast in the cafeteria at NASA. Not a bad place, but it reminded me of every other corporate cafeteria I've ever been to so it wasn't that special either. We joked about going up to some random person and being like, "You work at NASA?! That's so cool! Do you all get to go to space? If you make a mistake, an astronaut could DIE... what's that like?" But don't worry, we didn't do it.

We saw the mock-up of the international space station, complete with a specially modified Canadarm that worked in gravity. Walked around in the Russian module. Nothing there has changed since I saw it last. They also had a shuttle mock-up that we sat in and could flip the switches and buttons like we were pilots because none of them do anything. The teachers thought that was fun, I guess I did too. The robotics lab was in the same building so we met the geeky robot guys. The robot they had last time was DART and he's still around and having a good time but there's also a new one - I think it's called DARPA but if it really is they need to change the name because that one's taken.

Lunch time was at the cafeteria again, then we went to mission control. First we saw the old one that was used during to apollo missions then we went to the real ones. Again, lots of guys not doing much of anything. At least there's a mission up now so there were interesting things on the screen. There's a new mission control now too, just for the space station, around the corner. That was very cool because it was the first noticeable change I could see.

We saw the X-38 project, which is basically a big escape pod for the space station. When I was there last they had a fiberglass mock-up they were going to test but now they were working on the real thing. It still doesn't look like something I could fit in. I could never be an astronaut, I'd get way tired of the closed up spaces. We also went to the rocket park - Johnson Space Center has a giant Saturn V rocket that serves as a lawn ornament these days. Quite cool.

Went back to the hotel, took a nap, ate dinner in the hotel at the banquet they had for us, and went to The Outpost for a little socializing before bed.

And that was day 1.

I was thinking that the tragedy of NASA lies in the fact that we pour so many resources and even lives into barely touching on everything out there. A space station? A rocket? The universe is so big and there's so much out there, and to see these people dedicate their entire existance just to get to the next planet is kinda depressing in a way. It's hard to describe how I felt about all of it. We just have so far to go, and at the rate we're going we'll never be there. Makes you wonder what difference it all really makes.