Thursday, 4 September 2014

A Visit to Seattle's Shuttle Simulator

The Space Shuttle Simulator at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Chris Gainor & Audrey McClellan photos.

Three years ago, the U.S. Space Shuttle program came to an end after 135 flights to Earth orbit over thirty years starting in 1981. While NASA and private companies continue to develop new spacecraft to replace the shuttle, the artifacts of the shuttle program are moving into museums around the United States.

The three remaining shuttles in the fleet went on display at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, the Smithsonian Institution's Udvar-Hazy Center just outside Washington, D.C., and the California Science Center in Los Angeles. Another shuttle used for flight tests but never flown in space is on display at the Intrepid Museum in New York City.

More than twenty museums had bid for the shuttles, and one of the more prominent unsuccessful candidates for a shuttle was the Museum of Flight on the south side of Seattle, alongside the King County Airport at Boeing Field.

As a consolation prize, the Museum of Flight got the full-scale shuttle simulator from the Johnson Space Center in Houston that every shuttle crew trained in as they prepared for their flights. On visits to Houston in the 1990s, I saw that the simulator was constantly in use.

After the move to Seattle, this simulator opened to the public in November 2012 in the specially-built Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, named after the Microsoft Office creator who is the only person to have paid for two trips into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (one of Simonyi's Soyuz capsules is also on show in the gallery).

Seattle is close to my home in Victoria, and I recently had the chance to visit the Museum of Flight and the simulator.

Inside the payload bay looking toward the cabin.

The simulator includes the shuttle's payload bay, and visitors can a good sense of the shuttle's large dimensions from outside and from walking inside the payload bay, something that isn't possible with flown shuttles. Hanging above the payload bay are full-scale replicas of an Inertial Upper Stage, a Boeing rocket that was used to boost payloads from the shuttle's low Earth orbits to much higher orbits or into trajectories around the Sun, and a large scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope.

For me, the highlight of the visit was a tour of the shuttle cabin, something that is available only on weekends and holidays and for extra cost. The cabin was where most of the work was done during this simulator's lifetime, and it bears the marks of more than 30 years of wear and tear. This is the reason the number of tours of the shuttle cabin are sharply restricted. But for anyone who wants to literally follow in the footsteps of the astronauts, the extra cost of this tour is well worth the price.

Shuttle Simulator flight deck

The habitable space inside the shuttle consists of the flight deck and the mid deck, each about as big as a bathroom in an average house. The flight deck includes the cockpit where the commander and pilot sat during launch and re-entry, and a control panel at the back that includes controls for both the spacecraft and the Canadarm that moved payloads around the payload bay, which is visible out of two large windows.

Visitors can't sit in the pilot and commander seats on the tour, but next to the simulator is a computerized cockpit mockup where visitors can try their hands at landing the shuttle.

Back control panel on the flight deck. The Inertial Upper Stage is visible through the window.

Directly below the flight deck is the mid deck, which is accessed by two ladders from the flight deck (unnecessary in space when one can float between the two levels) and the side hatch of the shuttle. The mid deck is lined with lockers containing gear for the flight, the compartment containing the shuttle toilet, and access to a tunnel leading to an airlock or the space station when the shuttle and station were docked, or to scientific modules that sometimes flew in the payload bay. The mid deck, which lacks windows, served as the sleeping station for shuttle crews, who used sleeping bags.

The half-hour tour of the shuttle cabin gives one a good sense of the close quarters that crews had to deal with on shuttle missions that sometimes lasted longer than a fortnight. And these accommodations were roomy compared to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft that earlier astronauts flew, or even the Russian Soyuz ferries that today carry cosmonauts and astronauts to the ISS.

Note the signs of wear and tear on these mid deck lockers

In part because the United States has yet to settle on a new spacecraft to carry its astronauts into space, the shuttle still symbolizes America's space program to many people despite its retirement. The shuttle's place in history is still a matter of discussion and some controversy, something that is not addressed in this exhibit aside from information on the deaths of two crews on the shuttle.

That being said, the shuttle simulator adds a great deal to the Museum of Flight's space exhibits. The museum is best known for its great collection of vintage aircraft, including Boeing airliners produced in the Seattle area, and aircraft from the First and Second World Wars. The museum also owns a Concorde supersonic transport, and one of the Boeing 707s that served as Air Force One in the 1960s, along with a Super Constellation decked out in the livery of Trans Canada Airlines, the predecessor of Air Canada.

In part because Boeing was not as involved in early space programs and the shuttle as other contractors (some of which Boeing has absorbed in recent years), the Museum of Flight's space collection has been stronger on replicas than actual flown spacecraft.

Visitors can see full-scale replicas of the Mercury spacecraft and the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Module ascent stage. As well, the museum has a full-scale replica of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, which was manufactured by Boeing, and the Destiny module from the ISS, which visitors can walk through, along with a many artifacts from the space program, including space suits and equipment used by the astronauts.

For anyone who is interested in aircraft or spacecraft, the Museum of Flight is a must-see destination in the Pacific Northwest.

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