by S. Prasad Ganti
On a recent trip to Houston, Texas to attend a friend’s daughter’s wedding, I took the opportunity to visit the Johnson Space Center. It was a good tour of the facility with some space exhibits and historical artifacts from the years of the Apollo manned mission to the moon. Of the several NASA space centers setup across the country during the 1960s, Johnson Space Center, named for ex-President LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson), is charged with the role of mission control and astronaut training.
Johnson was the vice-President at a time when the cold war centered around the space race between the US and the USSR. After the USSR launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to go into space, President Kennedy made his famous declaration of landing a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s.
While one of the earliest rocket launches ended with a blow up on the launch pad, NASA was in distress with no strong leader to guide. President Kennedy assigned the task to Johnson whose job was to put the space program on a firm pedestal. He did that with several successes during Kennedy’s remaining years and his own one and half terms as a President.
The space race was won when Apollo 11 landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong as the mission Commander. By that time, President Nixon had taken over at the White House. But the bulk of the heavy lifting was done during the Johnson years. Since Johnson is from Texas, this Space Center in Houston was named in his honor.
Rockets are mostly launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, closer to my home. Once the launch is complete, the control of the mission transfers over to Houston. Till the mission is completed, the controllers at Houston are responsible for guiding and taking decisions. We are used to seeing on TV a mission control center with some giant screens and people sitting in front of monitors and jumping in joy when things go well. Given below is a picture of the historic mission control room which controlled the space missions during the 1960s.
The mission control room is not used anymore. But it has been reconstructed for tourists to get a feel for how it looked like in its glory days. The equipment is all original or close to original. The newer mission control room is in the same building, one floor below. Currently, the International Space Station is controlled from the new mission control room. The building itself is named for Chris Kraft, the first mission control Director. He was a legend and wrote the book on how mission control should be performed.
This mission control room was the one where the first distress call “Houston we have a problem” came from the crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft which was on its way to the moon. Hundreds of controllers and engineers directed Apollo 13 from this room to bring it safely back to Earth. The mission control Director was Gene Kranz whose famous words “America has never lost a man in space. It shall not lose a man in space. Certainly not under my watch. Failure is not an option”.
Before the Astronauts even get into the rocket and into space, they need to get trained. Houston is the training facility for the Astronauts. Other than doing physical training like weightlessness, they get into simulators to understand how the spacecraft feels like and what controls and systems it has. The picture below shows a segment of the International Space Station called “Zarya” which means sunrise in Russian. Russia contributed this segment to the International Space Station.
The picture below shows the mock up simulator of Artemis, the bell shaped compact white colored structure towards the rear of the room, right below the banners, the new spacecraft which is scheduled to carry astronauts to the moon in 2025.
The space shuttle era followed the Apollo missions. It was a reusable spacecraft which took off strapped to a rocket, but came back into the earth’s atmosphere and landed like an airplane. Sometimes the landing happened in California when the weather in Kennedy Space Center was not favorable. In which case, it had to be ferried back to Florida for the next take off. A 747 Jumbo Jet was used for the purpose. The history of the concept and the design are well illustrated through a real sized exhibit shown in the picture below.
Visitors can climb into the 747 as well as the space shuttle on top of it. Given below is the picture of the cargo bay of the space shuttle. The Hubble telescope flew in this bay before it was released into space.
Most of the day was well spent in visiting the various exhibits. It is certainly a feast for the brain and the eyes, and be able to relive the historical moments of the space age.