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Shuttle trainier ready for Saturday debut at Museum of Flight

Post by Jeff Mayor / The News Tribune on Nov. 8, 2012 at 9:22 am |
November 8, 2012 10:44 am

Here is the story that will appear in Friday’s entertainment section about the opening of the Museum of Flight exhibit featuring the full fuselage shuttle trainier.

At the bottom is a box about how you can take a tour of the trainer’s crew compartment.

The space shuttle trainer sits in the expansive space of the new Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. (Dean Koepfler/Staff photographer)

The full fuselage trainer that will live at Seattle’s Museum of Flight never roared into space atop a column of fire and smoke. It never carried a piece of the International Space Station or the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronauts never gazed through its windows to look down at the blue orb that is Earth.

But without this 122-foot, full-scale mock up – sans wings – NASA’s space shuttle program might have never left the ground.

Beginning Saturday, the public will have the chance to see the trainer and walk through the payload bay – the same one all 355 shuttle astronauts used to prepare for their missions. The trainer is the focal point on the Museum of Flight’s new 15,500-square-foot, $12 million Charles Simonyi Space Gallery.

While museum officials hoped to land one of the orbiters, the Seattle museum now is home to the only aspect of the now-canceled shuttle program the public will be able to enter.

The trainer, built mostly of plywood in phases from 1975-80, is the heart of the exhibit that looks at the nation’s space program from the end of the Apollo missions through the shuttle program and on to what’s next.

“We wanted to talk about what actually happened in the shuttle program,” said Geoffrey Nunn, exhibit developer. “We want to focus on the last 30 years and into the future.”

Nunn has spent the past two years pouring through NASA documents and astronauts’ personal correspondents and interviewing people involved in the astronaut training program. The fruits of those labors are seen in the information panels, the interactive displays that take visitors inside a shuttle cockpit, and the items that honor the crews who died in the Columbia and Challenger accidents.

The trainer, while lacking the panache of a shuttle that has flown in space, represents an important part of the program.

“Astronauts are very skilled individuals. But everyone needs to practice. Even professional football players have to train,” Nunn said. “This is where the astronauts practiced.”

Visitors – a lift is available to bring disabled visitors up to the second level – will be able to go through the 60-foot payload bay. Two video screens show astronauts conducting space walks and deploying items. Overhead hangs a replica of Boeing’s Inertial Upper Stage, a rocket booster used to lift satellites to higher orbits. There also is a one-half scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Along one 150-foot wall is a 360-degree view of the Milky Way, put together from 37,000 images taken by an astronomer in the region. On the other wall is another mural, showing the Earth from the altitude that the shuttle typically flew.

Those wanting a look at the crew compartment can pay extra to take a guided tour.

If you do go inside, you’ll be in for a treat.

Crawling through the 2-foot 3-inch wide access hatch, you step onto the mid-deck, a small area that served as the primary living and workspace for shuttle crews. At one end is a bank of 30 lockers that carried all the supplies and equipment. On one side of the port is the galley, and on the other is the toilet. On the opposite side are hammocks.

At the back is another bank of six lockers and the air lock that leads to the payload bay.

The experience becomes more enlightening when you climb the short ladder to the flight deck. To the front is the cockpit, with seats for the mission commander and pilot. To the rear is a console with controls to maneuver the shuttle as well as the payload bay arm. It was a tight fit for three adults.

But looking through the windows into the payload bay, with a black wall as a backdrop and the murals to each side, a visitor can easily imagine being in space.
Nunn said museum staff is weighing access versus the safety of visitors and the trainer.

“We want to be able to share it with visitors, but in such a way we can be sharing it 100, 1,000 years from now,” he said.

“The chance to peek inside the trainer is so amazing,” said museum docent Bill Kirkland. “There’s definitely a wow factor.”

Other things to explore

Here is a look at some of the other highlights of the shuttle trainer exhibit.

Interactive displays: Stationed on each side of the trainer, the displays will allow visitors to learn more about the training program, the shuttles, the men and women who flew in them, and the missions they accomplished.

“There’s more information packed in these things than any visitor can absorb in a single visit,” Nunn said.

The display on the shuttle’s left side includes multi-media presentations on the trainer’s flight deck, mid-deck and payload compartment. Visitors also can take a visual tour of mission control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, the vehicle assembly building at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and Building 9 at the space center, the former home of the trainer.

On the right side, the displays offers details on each of the 135 missions flown during the program’s life from 1981-2011. For each flight, visitors can learn about the primary mission, mission highlights, crew biographies, vehicle details and mission statistics.

Future of space flight: One message that the exhibit delivers is that space exploration, and NASA, did not end with the shuttle program. Displays include a model of a wheel used on Curiosity, the rover now exploring the surface of Mars. There also is an thruster like the kind used on the sky crane that lowered Curiosity to the surface. The Aerojet plant in Redmond made the thruster. The exhibit also includes the Charon test vehicle. Built by Kent-base Blue Origin, it was a test vehicle as the company develops reusable space launch vehicles.

Answering the age-old question: Static displays outside the trainer will offer answers to the question most asked of astronauts: how do you go to the bathroom. Positioned next to each other near the back of the trainer, a shuttle toilet system is far more user friendly than the system used on Soviet Soyuz orbiter capsules. Nunn told a story of how early shuttle models had a small camera and screen to help astronauts properly align themselves with the small opening. Visitors to the mid-deck can see where the toilet was located and how little privacy there was.

Modern technology? In one display case is a collection of tools carried on shuttle flights. Among the items is a roll of duct tape. Nunn pointed out, with a smile, that duct tape was an official part of every in-orbit tool kit.

Nunn also talked about the multiple binders, many more than 6 inches thick, that map the location of each Velcro fastener placed in the trainer and thus the shuttles. Visitors will see light blue Velco pads all over. Those are the ones placed by NASA. The yellow ones were put in place by astronauts to meet their personal needs. The white ones were used by contractors to mount things such as cameras to monitor their equipment being used.

Local connection: Two other display cases contain items loaned by astronauts with local connections. One is a training flight suit worn John Creighton, a Ballard High School graduate. The other holds a flight helmet and boots worn by George “Pinky” Nelson when he was flying the T-38 jet flown by astronauts during training. He is currently program director for Western Washington University’s Science, Mathematics & Technology Education program.

Museum tradition: The shuttle trainer also continues a Museum of Flight tradition, in which crew members of the final flight are asked to autograph the aircraft’s wheel well. Behind a piece of protective plexiglass are the signatures of the crew of STS-135: Chris Ferguson, Sandy Magnus, Rex Walheim and Doug Hurley.

Enrich your experience

The Museum of Flight will offer guided tours of the full fuselage shuttle trainer’s crew compartment beginning Nov. 17.

The hourlong program will enable participants to enter the mid-deck and flight deck, but also take part in a robotics experience that simulates the operation of the Canadarm.

The guided tours are limited to 24 participants.

For safety reasons, participation is subject to certain physical, age and clothing requirements. Participants will be required to read and sign a waiver to participate. Tour participants must be at least 10 years old, no taller than 6-foot-4, comfortable with heights and closed spaces, able to climb ladders without assistance, able to navigate a hatchway 2-foot, 3-inches wide, wearing closed-toe and closed-heel shoes, and not wearing a skirt, dress or kilt.

Tour details

When: Tours will take place Saturdays, Sundays and holidays at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Programs also will be available during Winter Blast Off days Dec. 26-28.

Cost: Member adult, $25; member youth, $20; nonmember adult, $30; and nonmember youth, $25. Paid admission to the museum is required for nonmembers.

Purchase tickets: Purchase them online at museumofflight.org or at the admissions desk.

If you go

What: Opening of shuttle trainer display.

When: 11 a.m. Saturday

Where: Museum of Flight, 9404 East Marginal Way S., Seattle.

Highlights: Two former shuttle astronauts, Nick Patrick and Wendy Lawrence, will be part of the grand opening ceremony. There also will be family activities and entertainment.

Getting there: Take Exit 158 from northbound Interstate 5. Follow the exit around to Boeing Access Road. Turn right at the first traffic light onto East Marginal Way South. The museum is one-half mile down on the right side.

Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day. On the first Thursday of each month, the museum is open until 9 p.m. and admission is free from 5-9 p.m.

Museum admission: $9-$17.

Information: 206-764-5720, museumofflight.org

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