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NASA's flight simulator at the Museum of Flight
I have always been fascinated by space. As a kid growing up, and still now, I was a big fan of science fiction, especially anything in space: Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers.
You name it, I probably watched it.
But along with those, I was a big fan of NASA and the space program and like many kids, I too at some point wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up.
When I was 6, on a trip to visit family in Florida, I was lucky enough to be able to see the fourth-ever launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia, live from Cape Canaveral.
It was STS-4, the final research and development launch of the shuttle program, back even before they painted the external fuel tank the familiar orange that it wore through most of the Shuttle program.
Because I was so young, my memories of the event are not as clear as I'd like them to be, but I certainly remember the excitement of the countdown and then the flash of orange and huge billowing clouds of smoke before the oribiter began to rise, slowly at first and then rapidly gaining speed as it turned into a flickering speck in the Florida sky, trailed by long vapor trail.
We all watched through our binoculars as the ship disappeared and the solid rocket boosters fell back to Earth. (according to Wikipedia, the boosters on that flight were lost because their parachutes failed to open and they hit the ocean hard and sank. I must admit, I don't remember that, though I also don't remember seeing the chutes open, now that I think back…)
The launch was the highlight of the trip and one of the highlights of my young life. I still have the (tiny) T-shirt I got as a souvenir. Now I look at it as a collector's item, but through my childhood, it was easily my favorite shirt and I wore the heck out of that thing.
I, of course, did not become an astronaut when I grew up - though some would argue that I am still something of a space case. But my fascination with the Shuttle program and with space and NASA in general never left. I always followed as many of the missions as I could through the newspapers and television as a kid and as an adult, I watched on the internet as many of them as I could, never ceasing to be amazed at the science and math and sheer force of will it takes to put a man into orbit.
The Shuttle was mothballed in 2011, after nearly 30 years of mostly successful flights. I could not have disagreed more with the decision by the Bush and Obama Administrations to end the program, essentially taking the United States out of the space race for the first time since, well, it began.
But on a high note, the surviving Space Shuttles, after they were decommissioned, were set to be donated to museums around the country to allow us, the citizens, to see these engineering marvels in person.
There was much ballyhoo when it was announced Los Angeles and New York, along with the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., would get orbiters, but not the Museum of Flight in south Seattle.
It made so much more sense logistically to bring a Shuttle to Seattle because of the museum's proximity to Boeing Field (anyone who watched as they cut down hundreds of trees while they drove the Endeavor through the streets of Los Angeles will probably agree), but in the long run, it does make the most sense to have these historical artifacts (man, typing that made me feel old) in the nation's two most populous cities.
But as a consolation prize, the Museum of Flight was awarded the Full Fuselage Trainer, a full-size mock-up of the Shuttle that was used by every single astronaut as a training ground for the their missions to the stars.
Though the FFT never went into space, the 120-foot, wingless wooden mockup does bring something to Seattle that no other location can boast.
"This one you get to go inside," Museum of Flight CEO Douglas King said during a media day that I was fortunate enough to attend.
I must admit, when the press release arrived announcing the media day prior to the official grand opening, I jumped at the chance to see the orbiter. I volunteered to write a piece about it for our sister papers located closer to the museum, packed my camera and notebook into the Kia of Justice and never looked back.
And I can tell you unequivocally that it was everything I hoped it would be.
The FFT sits in the new Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, named for a former Microsoft developer who donated not only money, but an actual Russian Soyuz Capsule he rode into space and back as a "space tourist." It sits in the back of the gallery, part of the "After the Space Shuttle" exhibit that accompanies the FFT.
The public is welcome to walk up to the orbiter, as well as through the payload section. There is even a landing simulator to give you an idea of how fast the Shuttle comes in and how precise you have to be to hit a runway from space. (For the record, I nailed it on the "novice" setting, which was admittedly very, very simple as the simulation handled some of the controls for me…)
But for me, the most interesting part was the chance to climb through the small, round airlock underneath the windows and see inside the space shuttle firsthand.
Here's what I learned: it's tiny inside. Like, really, really small.
The majority of the Orbiter is the 61-foot payload bay. The crew compartment, which routinely housed up to seven astronauts for more than a week at a time, is actually only about 165 square feet of space.
There is 100 square feet in the mid-deck, which contains the storage areas, sleeping bags and the galley (a small rectangular box built into the side of the orbiter).
Up a short ladder is the flight deck, which contains an additional 65-square-feet of space.
Museum officials led four reporters into the mid-deck at a time and only two-at-a-time could climb up to the flight deck.
And it was cramped at best. I can't imagine what it must have been like to share that amount of space with six other people for two weeks. There must have been a huge sigh of relief from the astronauts when the International Space Station opened and they had a chance to stretch out a bit in its comparatively roomy environs.
Even more surprising though was that the Soyuz capsule - which the Russians have been using for 40 years and is still in use today as the only way to get astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the ISS - is even smaller. It is about the size of a compact sedan and even more cramped inside, with three small "beds" that require the cosmonauts to lay with their knees on their chests for both liftoff and landing.
Though let's be honest, I would spend the entire week in the fetal position if it meant I could go into space.
After all, to paraphrase John Young, the greatest American astronaut you've likely never heard of (he was a Gemini pilot who not only walked on the moon, but flew the very first Shuttle mission into Space), when you are going uphill you are not looking for comfort, you just want to get there.
Along with the artifacts, the exhibit contains a nice section on the future of space flight, which for now is left entirely to private industries in the United States.
I must admit, when the plan to turn supply runs and launches over to private industry was first announced by the Bush Administration - and then reiterated by the Obama Administration - I was opposed.
No way, I said. No way will private industries be able to do that. Space flight is too complicated and expensive. It needs to be a national program.
Well, turns out I was wrong. This year, Space X completed the first and second successful supply runs to the ISS. And Space X is only one of several private industries - all of which are highlighted at the exhibit - currently building spaceships, most with the idea of bringing civilians and tourists into orbit.
If the cost of such trips ever becomes reasonable (it cost Mr. Simonyi more than $20 million per trip to ride a Soyuz rocket into space), you can bet I will be in line with bags packed and eyes wide.
But until then, if you are like me, the Museum of Flight's FFT exhibit might be the next best thing, or at least a taste of space to hold you over for a few more years...