A Tour of Spaceflight Centers - From Michoud to Marshall
Lovers of history, spaceflight enthusiasts - I spent the first week of May traveling the southeast United States from Austin, Texas and stopping at Space Centers (among other locations of interest) with my significant other. This is what I experienced.
The first stop outside Texas on our first day of travel - Michoud Assembly Facility. This is not open to visitors and we knew this, but it was an extra 20 minutes out of a many hour trip.
There used to be a Saturn V S-IC, originally meant for Apollo 19, out front but it has been moved…
Just a hop and skip later and we ended up in Pearlington, Mississippi and Stennis Space Center’s visitor complex, the Infinity Science Center. There was a heavy emphasis on nature conservation and the environment as well getting students involved with experiments and hands-on learning. The highlight for me was the display of Wernher von Braun’s desk.
And the new home of that Saturn V S-IC that was at Michoud? Infinity Science Center. Recently moved, there is an ongoing effort to raise funds to restore and preserve it.
We drove most of a day to where I grew up, Saint Petersburg, Florida, where the first scheduled airline flight took place on January 1st, 1914. Tony Jannus flew a Benoist flying boat across the bay to Tampa in a trip that lasted a little over 20 minutes.
Walking around sunny St. Petersburg, we stopped at several museums including an old favorite, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, where they have a functional replica of the Benoist flying boat. An original Benoist pennant from 1914 flew aboard OV-103 Discovery on her final flight, STS-133, is also on display.
Following a stay with friends and family, it was off to Kennedy Space Center. There have been many changes since I had last been here, the new Astronaut Memorial and Hall of Fame being the most notable.
The Orion Capsule that flew EFT-1 was also on display, along with a CST-100 Starliner structural test article and Dragon capsule.
A trip though the rocket garden as always. The day had started as a torrential downpour but was now sunny. Florida, weird as always.
Of course, you can’t walk through the garden without getting a picture with the Saturn IB. She learned that you don’t really have a sense of scale to these without getting right up next to it. It was during this time that I learned my girlfriend has a fondness for the Mercury-Redstone - it’s what she pictures when she hears ‘rocket’. Quintessential!
OV-104 Atlantis is always my favorite stop. This time, I had brought my Atlantis flag, and with a friend who joined us we had a wonderful time with my favorite orbiter.
I have not been to KSC since the addition of the Challenger and Columbia display. It was an incredibly moving experience, seeing these pieces, as well as the displays of the Astronauts personal belongings that you see before entering this room.
We said our goodbyes and began a northerly drive up the Florida east coast, stopping in beautiful Saint Augustine for a night, seeing the Castillo and ancient city before going around the mess that is currently Atlanta, GA, and ending up in Huntsville, Alabama - Rocket City, USA. You can see that Saturn V, the only standing Saturn V, for miles.
It also happened to be Star Wars Day - what a lovely coincidence! It was quite a sight to see people dressed as Jedi, Sith, and Storm Troopers walking around a Space Center.
Of course, we were there for NASA, and I, to see Wernher von Braun’s legacy. I am of the belief that without von Braun’s vision, charisma and genius, we would have fallen so far behind on the dream of spaceflight as a nation, or at the very least, never made it to the moon at all. Look for an upcoming, detailed post on von Braun in the future.
Of course, there were many exhibits and displays of a historical nature, showcasing prototype gloves that were in development for Apollo, models of probes and satellites that have given us a more detailed look at our solar system, and Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar to really get a sense of how vast the universe is (this is also shown on the newer Cosmos series, hosted by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson). This History of Space Exploration timeline also gave perspective on the earliest efforts of rocketry by Robert Goddard, to where we are today. Comprehensive to say the least.
On display at the US Space & Rocket Center rocket garden is of course the Saturn V, a Saturn I, Mercury-Redstone, Juno I, among other military missiles.
We toured the Saturn V Center, enjoying the exhibits and displays, including one presented by IBM on the “brain” of the Saturn V, the quarantine trailer the Apollo Astronauts had to spend weeks in because of fears of “space germs”, and the Apollo 16 Capsule.
We concluded the day as it began to rain with a visit to OV-098 Pathfinder. Built in 1977, Pathfinder was a structural test article that weighted the same as the production orbiters would, and had roughly the same dimensions - she was used for fit-checking the various processing facilities that served the Space Shuttles. After her fit-check mission was complete, STA-098 was overhauled and made to look like a real orbiter (or as real as one could surmise), and was sent to Tokyo, Japan for the Great Space Shuttle Exposition in the early 1980s. After being brought back to the United States in the late 1980s, she was set up at the US Space and Rocket Center and given the honorary designation OV-098 and named Pathfinder.
We left as the rain began to fall, but not without stopping by for a visit to Miss Baker. It is customary to leave a banana.
A day later, we ended up in Vicksburg, MS and toured the Civil War battlefield, the USS Cairo gunboat, and stopped by some of the monuments and important sites. It was the last stop on our trip. We pulled into Austin, TX on Friday night, May 5th, exhausted and hungry. The next morning, after getting some breakfast, we visited a site we’ve been meaning to see - the Texas State Cemetery. Gene Cernan, Astronaut, Commander of Apollo 17, lunar land speed record holder, and last man on the moon, was first to be buried on the highest hill in the cemetary, closest to the moon. It was a solemn end to a long journey of history, spaceflight, celebration, tragedy, art, nature, science and exploration.
There are many more photos, and a lot more tales of this trip that aren’t directly related to spaceflight, but I hope my followers enjoy what I’ve shared and have tried to cram into a single posting. This was an incredible experience and it would not be possible without the support and patience of my fiancée, and her camerawork. Most of these photos are hers. Take a look at her blog, especially if you love history, live in Texas, or both!
“STS-43 Pilot Michael A. Baker, seated at the forward flight deck pilots station controls, eats a freefloating peanut butter and jelly sandwich while holding a carrot. Surrounding Baker on Atlantis’, Orbiter Vehicle (OV) 104’s, flight deck are procedural checklists, control panels, and windows. A lemonade drink bag is velcroed to overhead panel O9.”
Higginbotham began her career in 1987 at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, as a Payload Electrical Engineer in the Electrical and Telecommunications Systems Division. Within six months she became the lead for the Orbiter Experiments (OEX) on OV-102, the Space Shuttle Columbia. She later worked on the Shuttle payload bay reconfiguration for all Shuttle missions and conducted electrical compatibility tests for all payloads flown aboard the Shuttle. She was also tasked by KSC management to undertake several special assignments where she served as the Executive Staff Assistant to the Director of Shuttle Operations and Management, led a team of engineers in performing critical analysis for the Space Shuttle flow in support of a simulation model tool, and worked on an interactive display detailing the Space Shuttle processing procedures at Spaceport USA (Kennedy Space Center’s Visitors Center). Higginbotham then served as backup orbiter project engineer for OV-104, Space Shuttle Atlantis, where she participated in the integration of the orbiter docking station (ODS) into the space shuttle used during Shuttle/Mir docking missions. Two years later, she was promoted to lead orbiter project engineer for OV-102, Space Shuttle Columbia. In this position, she held the technical lead government engineering position in the firing room where she supported and managed the integration of vehicle testing and troubleshooting. She actively participated in 53 space shuttle launches during her 9-year tenure at Kennedy Space Center.
Selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in April 1996, Higginbotham reported to the Johnson Space Center in August 1996. Since that time, she had been assigned technical duties in the Payloads & Habitability Branch, the Shuttle Avionics & Integration Laboratory (SAIL), the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Operations (Ops) Support Branch, where she tested various modules of the International Space Station for operability, compatibility, and functionality prior to launch, the Astronaut Office CAPCOM (Capsule Communicator) Branch in the startup and support of numerous space station missions and space shuttle missions, the Robotics Branch, and Lead for the International Space Station Systems Crew Interfaces Section.
Higginbotham logged over 308 hours in space during her mission with the crew of STS-116 where her primary task was to operate the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS). Higginbotham took a scarf for the Houston Dynamo on board with her during her mission.
Higginbotham was originally assigned to the crew of STS-126 targeted for launch in September 2008. On November 21, 2007, NASA announced a change in the crew manifest, due to Higginbotham’s decision to leave NASA to take a job in the private sector.Donald Pettit replaced Higginbotham for STS-126.
May 11th, 2009 - OV-104 Atlantis departs from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A on a final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). STS-125 would be the only mission Atlantis would visit the HST - prior servicing missions were done by Discovery twice, with Columbia and Endeavour each once.
Upgrades to HST included the Cosmic Origins Spectograph, the Wide Field Camera 3 which can record different wavelengths of light, and a device called the Soft-Capture Mechanism, which will be used by a future craft to safely de-orbit Hubble at the end of its life span. HST is expected to continue to operate well into the 2030s.
STS-125 was unique in that it is one of a few missions that had two full Shuttle stacks on the launch pad at the same time. Any damage sustained from the launch that prevented Atlantis from returning home meant that she would be stuck in orbit with only three weeks of supplies. A rescue mission was specifically developed for STS-125, as the low inclination orbit of the HST meant that the International Space Station would effectively be out of reach of Atlantis and her crew.
In the event of Atlantis suffering damage, STS-400 would launch up to the crippled shuttle and extract the crew for a safe return home. OV-105 Endeavour was placed on stand-by at LC-39B until May 21st, after Atlantis was deemed safe to return home, and was released to begin processing for STS-127.
Atlantis and crew would return home May 24th, landing at Edwards Air Force Base - the weather in Florida deemed unsatisfactory for landing the orbiter. STS-125 had five successful EVAs, orbited the Earth 197 times, and featured the first Tweet from space by Astronaut Michael Massimino which read, “From orbit: Launch was awesome!! I am feeling great, working hard, & enjoying the magnificent views, the adventure of a lifetime has begun!”
STS-125 was another shuttle mission to feature an IMAX camera, used to document the life of HST and the views of the universe it has brought to us. IMAX: Hubble 3D was released in 2010 and features the launch of STS-125.
32 years ago today, OV-104 Atlantis made her first flight, STS-51J.
Today, she lives at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, displayed as if in orbit, letting thousands of visitors see an orbiter in its natural habitat and configuration.
Considering today, with the permission of my
fiancée, I’d like to share my engagement photo from this past May, taken when we took that trip to all the different NASA centers in the southeast. We’ve been keeping this loosely under wraps until figuring out details for the future, but the anniversary of Atlantis’ first flight seems like a good time to share.
Atlantis is significant because she is the only orbiter that I ever saw launch. I was there for her opening day celebration at KSC, when they had so many astronauts come up and talk about their experiences on the shuttle. She was the closest to home and I couldn’t think of a better place for two nerd historians that love space, and grew up in the shuttle-era, to begin a new adventure.