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In-flight exclusive: Astronaut soars with Seattle's space shuttle trainer

June 29, 2012

— NASA's Super Guppy aircraft flew a mock space shuttle crew cabin over much of California on Thursday (June 28), as the jumbo cargo plane continued on its three-day journey from Texas to deliver the astronaut trainer to a Seattle museum.

The 28 foot (8.5 meter) long, 16,000 pound (7,300 kilogram) space shuttle crew compartment — comprising the shuttle's iconic black and white nose section and its dual level flight- and mid-decks — is part of the Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT), a full-size, wingless mockup of the space shuttle. The FFT was used for more than 30 years at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston to train every person who flew on the shuttle's 135 missions.

One of those astronauts, Greg C. "Ray-J" Johnson, was at the Super Guppy's controls Thursday, flying the bulbous turboprop aircraft from March Air Reserve Base near Los Angeles to Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco in northern California. For Johnson, who in 2009 piloted the fifth and final shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, the trip gave him a chance to fly by Edwards Air Force Base, where he landed aboard space shuttle Atlantis, and also return to Seattle, his hometown.

Homeward bound

"It is always great to go back to Seattle. I don't get a chance very often to see my parents, so whenever I get back there — especially with any space-related thing — it's nice," Johnson told collectSPACE. NASA invited collectSPACE to fly with Johnson, pilot Dick Clark and the Super Guppy's flight crew as the cargo plane traversed California.

The Super Guppy, with its 111 foot (34 meters) long and 25 foot (8 meters) high cargo hold, features a unique hinged nose that allows large items like the crew cabin to be loaded and unloaded from the front. The trainer, wrapped in plastic, was secured just behind the cockpit door. Together with its metal carrier, the crew cabin weighed 33,000 pounds (15,000 kilograms).

Thursday's flight was the latest in a series of deliveries to The Museum of Flight in Seattle, which is receiving the Full Fuselage Trainer in segments. The mockup will be reassembled this summer inside the museum's Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, a 15,500 sq. foot exhibition hall that was named after the Hungarian-born space tourist and billionaire software developer who helped fund it.

When the trainer's exhibit, titled "Spaceflight Academy," opens this fall, the public will have the chance to go inside the crew cabin and look down the length of the mockup's 60-foot (18 meter) payload bay.

Special delivery display

First though, museum visitors will get a good look at the cabin's delivery "truck." The Super Guppy, set to arrive at Seattle's Boeing Field on Saturday (June 30), will taxi to the museum's parking lot where it will stay over the weekend.

A free, public "Shuttlefest" planned for Saturday morning will celebrate the crew compartment's arrival on board the unique cargo plane, which together with its predecessor, the Pregnant Guppy, has served NASA for 50 years.

"It's got a lot of history," Johnson said of the Guppy aircraft. "It was designed for moving the Saturn I and Saturn V boosters and then later on it moved the major parts for the International Space Station. So the Guppy has quite a storied past."

"It is always fun to fly to move big items like [the crew cabin] because everybody is interested when we land," he added.

NASA's shuttle fleet came in for its final landing in July 2011. Since then, the space agency has been preparing and delivering its retired orbiters — and their supporting simulators and mockups — to museums for display. The Museum of Flight had been in the running for one of the three space-flown shuttles, but was chosen to receive the Full Fuselage Trainer instead.

"I actually think the FFT is really good for the public because they are actually able to get inside it," Johnson said. "If you had a real orbiter, you'd look at it from afar, it would be history that went into space, but if you wanted to actually get inside and see how the astronauts lived and the size of the living space, the FFT is the next best thing."

collectSPACE is following the Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) crew cabin's delivery from Houston to Seattle. Visit collectSPACE this week for continuing reports and imagery from the Super Guppy's journey.






Photos credit: collectSPACE / Robert Z. Pearlman

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