posted May 25, 2004 10:54 PM
First of all let me give a BIG thank you to Al and Steve and all the rest for putting together a marvelous space weekend.
The Space Walk of Fame Museum is wonderful place and I would highly recommend anyone visiting the space coast to visit there. Also please consider making a donation to this worthy organization.
I was one of the two winning bidders for the "Spend a day with Yury Usachev experience at KSC" that Al put together.
By no small miracle Al pulled a rabbit out of the hat and arranged for us to get a VIP tour of KSC with Yury. I was walking on cloud nine. I have had a VIP tour of the KSC facilities before, but this was the first time that my wife was able to experience this with me. The opportunity to share with her what I have seen before truly meant a lot to me.
One of Al's good friends Randy Segal was to be one of our escorts for the day with Yury. Randy is a great guy and I enjoyed meeting him and Tom Edmonds (the other successful experience bidder and fellow collectSpace member) the night before the tour and swapping space stories with them in the lobby of the motel. Randy is a part time radio broadcaster and covers launch events from the press sites for a Florida radio station.
Our day began shortly after 9:00 AM. Mary and I met up with Tom and his family near the ticket booths at the KSC Visitors Center. Unfortunately Tom's family would not be participating in the tour. There is a 12 year old age restriction for the tour and Tom's children were not old enough. However, his family was consoled by meeting Yury and knowing that Tom was going to have a tremendous experience.
Before long we saw four men walking towards the Visitors Center from the parking lot. They were Randy, his son Josh, John Masters, and Cosmonaut Yury Usachev. For our benefit Yury had dressed in his blue flight suit. It's a really neat feeling to see a veteran space explorer walking over to meet you.
Yury is one of the warmest, most sincere men I have ever had the privilege to meet. He is quick with a smile and his ability to speak English is outstanding.
Our NASA escort for this VIP tour was Scott Vangen. Scott was an alternate payload specialist for the Astro-2 mission on STS-67. Scott is a great guy and was a gracious host for our tour of KSC. Meeting an alternate payload specialist was certainly a huge bonus for the day.
The first stop on our tour was the building at KSC where the space station hardware is prepared for flight. After cleaning our shoes by walking across a sticky pad on the floor, we were taken into the actual room where the flight hardware of the space station resides.
Standing next to these truss structures and modules gives you a sense of awe at how big the space station will be when it is finally
completed. We were encouraged to take as many photographs as we wanted.
Near the Japanese Experiment Module was a tool box. The drawers of the tool box were labeled, but only in katakana and kanji. The Japanese characters on that tool box emphasized the fact that the station is not a US program but a truly multi-national endeavor.
Our tour stops were supposed to be 30 minutes each, but often the stops were extended when excited workers would come up to greet
Yury. I am convinced that the mere presence of a cosmonaut in their midst picked up the moral of teams working on the hardware.
The next stop on the tour was Orbiter Processing Facility 3. This stop was the one that I was looking forward to the most. OPF-3 is where space shuttle Discovery is being prepared for the return to flight.
For a space enthusiast there is not much that can top being in the presence of a vehicle that has been and continues to go into space. The view of an orbiter in the OPF is surreal in the sense that you can hardly distinguish the vehicle from the infrastructure and
catwalks surrounding it. It is almost like the Borg has assimilated it.
Have no doubt; enough of the vehicle is visible that you can tell what the center of attention is. The vehicle itself is raised off of the ground by what looks to be about 8 or 9 feet. This elevation provides the workers with easy access to the heat resistant tiles on the belly.
We walked over to the nose of Discovery, where technicians were working around the front wheel well. From this position we had our picture taken with Yury.
We then walked around the port side of the OPF and towards the back. The view of the port wing of Discovery showed that many of the leading edge caps, which are made out of reinforced-carbon-carbon, were removed. It was the failure of the integrity of this heat protection system which doomed Columbia on that ill fated day in 2003.
Much to my surprise and delight, our tour guide Scott, took us underneath Discovery. We were standing directly below the main wheel wells. The wheel wells were closed at the time, but the umbilical access doors were open.
It never ceases to amaze me how smooth the underneath of the vehicle is. Composed of thousands of silica tiles, it is still an aerodynamic form to be marveled at. Technicians were working on replacing some of the tiles around the umbilical doors. Each tile fabricated for precisely one spot on precisely one vehicle. Scott asked one of the technicians to give Yury an explanation of what he was doing.
After the explanation, one of the supervisors came over to Yury to ask if he would mind posing for a picture with some of her guys. Yury was more than happy to comply. The supervisor told Yury that her technicians were really excited to see him because they had never met an astronaut before. That comment really struck home to me how important it is for the astronauts to visit the people working on their mission.
I was really pleased that in a very small way, I had a part in providing a boost to the people working on the return to flight. That was worth the whole auction cost of the experience right there.
We left the OPF and headed over to the VAB. What an awe inspiring building the VAB is. The only thing that would have made the VAB tour more impressive would have been to have had a launch vehicle stacked up in there. Sadly that won't be happening for quite some time.
We were able to take photos inside the VAB and saw some SRB components such as the forward nose cone structure, aft skirts and the like. There was an SSME nozzle sitting in a rack and an OMS pod at the far end of one of the bays. Scott took us up in an elevator to the 9th level of the VAB, where we were able to view the opposite bays from a platform.
After the VAB we drove out to pad 39-A. We were closer than I had ever been to the pad before. In fact the van drove to the top of the pad next to the launch tower assembly. There was also a mobile launcher platform in place on the pad.
A photo op was permitted down below the pad in the area that the flame trench points out towards. It was not the place that one would
want to be during a launch. The galvanized fencing the rings the perimeter of the pad area was actually brown with rust in the area where the rocket exhaust impinges upon it.
We had a choice to either go to the Saturn V center, back to the Visitors Center or tour the new life sciences building. Scott works as a manager in the life sciences building. We all decided that we wanted to go to the life sciences building instead of the other options.
It is a new building that was funded by the state of Florida and leased back by NASA for conducting life sciences research.
There were two Russian gentlemen there working at the life sciences center. Both of them were very excited to be able to meet a comrade from their home country. One was a scientist who has been investigating growing plants under a reduce pressure environment. It was very interesting research that will be important if mankind ever ventures to Mars.
Another scientist showed us some experiments where they are trying to grow plants under various colors of light emitting diodes. While this portion of the tour was not as visually stimulating as seeing Discovery, hearing about state of the art space research from the scientists was fascinating.
The van then took us back to the Visitors Center and Scott provided us with tickets for admission. We had a quick lunch. After that we headed to the IMAX Theater to see the Space Station 3-D movie.
It was really amazing to be sitting in the theatre sitting next to Yury. Not only did he have a hand in filming parts of the movie but
also appears in the film. So I guess with Yury sitting next to us, this wasn't a 3-D experience but more like a 6-D experience.
After the movie we parted company to head back to our respective hotels in order to freshen up for the private cocktail party that began at 6:30 PM on Friday night.
As I said in the beginning Yury is one of the most sincere and sweetest men you will ever meet. He responded to all of our questions with genuine interest. Undoubtedly he has heard all of these questions hundreds of times before.
We asked him to compare the ride during a launch of a shuttle with the launch of a Soyuz. He said the G-forces are similar in magnitude, but he preferred the Soyuz launch. It seems with the Soyuz and staging you get a break from the g's in between the stages and on the shuttle there is not that kind of break.
We asked him about the differences between the Russian Orlan and US EMU spacesuits. His preference is the Orlan. He said it is much more comfortable. The Hamilton Standard EMU he thought was very restricting and made it tough to breath.
Another question that I asked Yury was how old his daugher was at the time of his first launch. She was 6. I asked him if she knew how long her father was going to be gone when he left. He said at that age, she really did not comprehend.
Yury then related a story from the last time that he parted company with his family just before the launch. He said that after the bus departed with him, his daughter was crying and told her mother "I'll never see Daddy again." Of course this was rather upsetting to Yury's wife, as one never can tell what premonitions a child might be in tune with.
Our final meeting with Yury was after the dinner on Saturday night. My wife and I did not attend the autograph signing on Sunday. I wanted to make sure for her sake that we did something other than space that weekend.
It was with sadness that we told Yury goodbye. After spending the day with him touring KSC on Friday it was like we were saying goodbye to an old friend or even a family member. We told Yury that if he or his family ever makes it back to Texas they have an open invitation to stay with us or we will drive to meet them.
I told Yury that someday we might come to tour Russia and we would try to look him up. He said please do and said that if there was anything he could do in order to get us a better tour of any of their space facilities that he certainly would.
I haven't really discussed the autograph event or dinner at the Air and Space show as I wanted to concentrate on the Yury experience in this message. Suffice it to say, the show was a first class event. Al and his merry band of elves did a fantastic job. It was a Christmas that I will never forget.