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Astronaut Candidates 2004
IMAGE:  2004 astronaut class at a preflight briefing
Prior to boarding a KC-135 reduced gravity aircraft the 2004 astronaut class receives a pre-flight briefing.
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Astronaut Candidates 2004 - Training Journals

Journal #11
March 2005

We've told you a bit about our travels to NASA Centers, but we must finish our tale with our last three visits that took place from late January to the beginning of April.

White Sands Test Facility and the White Sands Space Harbor are in New Mexico, not far from Las Cruces. As the Center's name suggests, a lot of testing takes place here. We had a chance to see the "fastest guns in the West." Recently the two-stage, light-gas gun launchers were used for return-to-flight testing to see how ice impacts the Shuttle, but they are usually used to test materials and see how they withstand micro-meteorite impacts. Other facility testing includes setting up large chambers with sensors and video equipment, and then firing (engines) or operating parts of spacecraft to their extremes. This helps engineers understand how failures occur and how to make the equipment more durable and reliable. In addition to the testing, White Sands is home to the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System facility. In order for astronauts to communicate with Mission Control, as well as data and commands to be sent to and from computers, the receiving and transmitting dishes at White Sands are crucial. About an hour from the Center is the flat lakebed of the White Sands Space Harbor. Here, we watched experienced astronaut pilots fly the Shuttle Training Aircraft (STA). The lakebed makes an excellent practice runway, but it is strange to look at because the numbers, touchdown zones, and centerline are all in black-not white. It's like looking at a picture's negative. In this quiet, desert town, great contributions to space exploration are being made daily.

In mid-March, we headed out to Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Our first briefing got us thinking about Mars exploration. Dr. Joel Levine talked to us about the Mars airplane, ARES, which has already tested successfully in the Earth's atmosphere and waits being accepted to go to Mars. Once it travels there, it will unfold from its capsule and fly like an airplane, collecting information about the atmosphere and rocks of Mars. If you would like more information, check out this website http://marsairplane.larc.nasa.gov.

Other exciting research we got to see at Langley included the 31-inch Mach 10 tunnel, where miniature models of the Shuttle and other vehicles are tested; the structures and materials department, where self-healing and ultra-thin materials are being developed; and the Data Visualization and Analysis Lab, where three-dimensional modeling is helping the medical field understand the effects of radiation. Langley also supports flight research, and during our last day at the Center, we went in the highly-modified Boeing 757 that is used for improving current transportation and looking at how to make future concepts better. We left Hampton knowing that we will someday be using data or designs that come from this Center.

The first week of April concluded our tours, as we traveled to the Kennedy Space Center. When you think of NASA space flight, this Center probably comes to mind, and rightly it should since every mission has launched from the pads on this Florida coastline. We had a chance to go to these historical sites. From the small pad that Alan Shepard launched from, to the massive and monumental pad that the Apollo I fire occurred upon, to Complex 39 B where Discovery will lift off from this spring, we examined and explored the amazing workings that deliver astronauts to space. We even saw the old launching computer that takes up a good portion of a room, yet doesn't even have the capability of a small hand-held calculator. It's hard to believe something so simple got such a complicated job done. In addition to the walk-through history, we looked into the future. We actually got to get within inches of the Shuttle Atlantis. It is being prepared and assembled for launch in July. The numbered tiles, large engines, huge tires-the whole vehicle is impressive. Then we could compare Atlantis to Discovery, which we saw in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Rather than horizontal like Atlantis, Discovery stood vertically attached to the orange external tank that we saw in the fall at Michoud. It also had its solid rocket boosters (SRBs).

Another look at the future came at the Space Station Processing Facility, where the hardware that goes up in the payload bay is stored and tested. Many of these items are only months away from being in space and assembled to the International Space Station. One of the most memorable moments of the trip came the afternoon of April 6. Discovery rolled out of the VAB towards Pad 39-B. The massive crawler doesn't move very fast, slower than walking pace, but that gives you time to take in the beauty of the Shuttle. It was awesome to watch thousands of KSC employees lining the crawler-way to take pictures. They've been working hard for many months, and you could see the pride in their faces. It was the perfect way to end the visit to this Center. We look forward to returning to KSC many times as we support future launches and return to flight!

- The Astronaut Candidate Class of 2004


Curator: Kim Dismukes | Responsible NASA Official: John Ira Petty | Updated: 04/26/2005
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