Sunday, August 5, 2012

Houston: We have a problem.

By Emily Smith

Saturn V lays on its side in a large, white-sided hangar. It is 281 feet long, a vessel with three stages that have been separated slightly so as to expose its five F-1, five J-2 and single J-2 engines. Its body is white and black, sporting a single American flag towards the top. Like the bones of a dinosaur, its components have been hunted, collected, and put back together for those of us who were not there when it was living to marvel at its sublimity.

Saturn V was alive during the Golden Age of Space Exploration, a time when Astronauts went to the moon and were seen as Super Heroes, and Americans found hope in the limitless frontier of the universe, not to mention their technological superiority over the Soviets.

Today, though, Saturn V is merely a fossil of what may as well be a pre-historic past. Pictures of its veterans and short descriptions of their Apollo and SkyLab missions line a long, windowless wall. The once-famous men look over their once-famous rocket as they decay in the Houston humidity and hundreds of tourists snap photos on their iPads and Smart Phones and Check-In on Facebook.

Children run, parents scream, couples pose. Visitors stop to look at the images on the Saturn V Wall of Fame, but no one is reading the descriptions. Even if they did, though, no one who didn't already know everything about the Saturn V would understand what it was exactly they were looking at, how the three stages fit together, the first reaching an altitude of 67 kilometers before separating from the second (2 minutes and 42 seconds after launch), which entered the upper atmosphere before separating (7 minutes and 33 seconds later) from the third, which shut-off (4 minutes and 6 seconds after that) and then re-started for Trans-Lunar Injection (a whole 2 hours, 32 minutes and 37 seconds after that). Nor would they know how the brave Astronauts on the wall waited patiently in a little capsule on top, nor how the Saturn V legacy (13 successful launches between 1967 and '73) seems to have been forgotten. And yet, Saturn V continues to be the tallest, heaviest, most powerful rocket operated and still holds the record for the heaviest launch vehicle payload ever.

We walk into Space Center Houston and step into a chamber of chaos. Warehouse- sized, an astronomic sized playscape with more tubes than I could have dreamed of is crawling with excited children to our right. We look up and find ourselves staring, mouths open wide, at the plastic Astronauts and model shuttles floating above screeching kids and stroller pushing adults. A gift shop sparkles to our left--we will definitely be going on our way out. So much is happening: so much potential, so much wonder, so much SPACE! But where to start? A boyish employee in an Astronaut jumpsuit greets us with a smile and asks me if I would like a map. "Yes, please!"

We wander around for a bit, our eyes floating to alien-like fonts and futuristic exhibits and theaters before finding ourselves in the food court. The food court? Already? Didn’t we just get here? Where’s the Shuttle? Where are the Astronauts? What about a Rover or something? Thank goodness the NASA people are clever enough to come up with punny names for their food court offerings, like “The Moon Wok,” or “On the Martian Border.” And that they sell Starbucks, which is already aptly named.

We open our big ol’ map that doesn't really help but convinces us that we need to go on a tour. The Red Tour will take you to the Saturn V and Shuttle Park and the Astronaut Training Facility, and the Blue Tour to the Saturn V and Shuttle Park and the Historic Mission Control. Which to choose? Astronaut Training Facility with the big pool they lower our space-bound soldiers into so that they can kinda experience zero-gravity? Done.

But first we must get our picture taken in front of a green screen for security reasons before standing in a zig-zagging line for an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s hot. And humid. And really hot. Commercials play on the flatscreens above for some nearby touristy town with Casinos and Night Clubs and Miss Texas 2003. The line moves slowly. Everyone is hot and tired and everyone knows it and makes the same, compassionate, “We’re all hot and tired in this together” kind of look when you snake around the metal bars. You look jealously at those a few rows ahead of you who are already sliding into their numbered, Bell Tire sponsored row of the caterpillar trolley (maximum speed: 18 mph!) that will take take them around campus and to their destinations of choice.

Our turn finally arrives, and we file off the trolley into Building 9, where we are supposed to watch a video about what it’s like to train for space travel. No one does. But we climb some stairs and look down at a huge warehouse, where current Astronauts practice entering and exiting the different airlocks at the International Space Station and drive exact replicas of the new Orion Project vessels. Turns out that the big swimming pool isn’t in this astronaut training center, but four miles north. What the heck?! And there are certainly no Astronauts training, just a few engineers in cargo shorts using a few wrenches on a few unimportant things. Everything is covered in tarp, like a ghostly attic, and only half of a picture of the Shuttle is hung up above. We ask our eighteen-year-old tour guide why everything was covered, why no one was in there. “They’re painting,” he said. Surely it had nothing to do with the falling NASA budget, nor the abandonment of exploring the final frontier.

But, we were, after all, at NASA!--the coolest, farthest reaching, most exciting, super-inspiring government program Americans have ever experienced. After a sweaty fifteen minutes at the Shuttle Park and a walk around the Saturn V, we return to the mothership and are handed our security passes--and by that, I mean, they try to get you to spend $30 on a packet with you and your loved ones standing in front of the Shuttle Launch Pad, on the moon, in Mission Control, and in front of Saturn V (we could have taken that one ourselves, really), among other galactic destinations--which give us entry into an overly air conditioned theatre. Did you know that Curiosity, a Mars Rover twice the size of the originals and with way cooler powers, er, capabilities, is going to land tomorrow, a whole nine months after it left planet Earth? And that it isn’t going to bounce when it lands like the others did, but that it is going to activate a parachute just before impact and float down safely? (Look at how cool she is! And did you know that Humans are going to join her as early as 2030? And that present-day fifth graders will be the ones going for a three year mission (eighteen months of which is simply travel to and from our closest planetary neighbor)? I had no idea! Cool! Space! Stars! Infinity! The Expanding Universe! Black Holes! Nebula! What else is more exciting, more inspiring, more unifying than a national space program? Nothing!

Another theatre, another presentation. This one about how astronauts live and check their emails (I wonder if they Check-In to Terrestrial Orbit or Lunar Surface on Facebook) and use a suction cup to go to the bathroom and eat freeze-dried food from a pouch. We try on models of old helmets near-by and skip out to the gift shop where we don’t try any Astronaut Ice Cream because it cost $6.