“Magic happens here,” NASA Payload Specialist Samuel T. Durrance (Ph.D.) told the Astronaut Training Experience participants during our orientation Saturday afternoon. He was referring to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [Read more about Dr. Durrance in this post.]
On day three of my Chevy Tahoe Hybrid adventure the vehicle carried me to Florida’s Space Coast for an unforgettable experience. Despite the space shuttle program coming to an end, NASA is still training astronauts who will reach the International Space Station by hitching rides with the Russians. But don’t get excited. The Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) I engaged in wasn’t for an official mission rather it was a half-day hands-on crash course in what it takes to put a space shuttle mission together.
Do I Have the Right Stuff to Play on the NASA Team?
“This is launch control at Kennedy Space Center…this is the Public Affairs Officer. We are a few minutes away from restarting the countdown for STS- 311 heading for the International Space Station,” is what I read during our simulated space shuttle mission. By total randomness my job on this mission was Public Affairs Officer which isn’t too far from my “day job.”
The larger group of about 30 or so was broken down into smaller groups of about 10 or 11. Being the only solo traveler I was reassigned to another group to balance things out and our first task before the simulated mission was to practice landing a space shuttle and move the robotic arm to perform a task. We were to break up into pairs and since it was just me and no one to pair up with, I was tasked at manning two keypads and a joystick.
On a computer screen, we entered various codes and performed simulated activities. I suppose if I was a teenager who used a joystick for video games I would’ve done okay at these tasks but seeing it’s been more than 20 years since I’ve used a joystick, I ended up crashing the shuttle into the water, into a grove of trees and the Vehicle Assembly Building. Needless to say, I wasn’t selected as commander for our simulated mission.
Next, we toured the interior of a mock space shuttle capsule and seeing photos of the real shuttle’s interior, it was a pretty good simulation. Our simulated mission was next where we each had a station. Some were assigned to the space shuttle and others (like me) were in mission control, wore headsets and viewed various monitors, just like the real mission control.
Afterward, it was the physical hands-on experience: simulating a capsule out of control and experiencing weightlessness. Prone to motion sickness, and watching participants spin made me queasy, I opted out of the spinning experiment but did try the weightlessness. Fun stuff, although the harness gave me an awkward wedgie when climbing up and down the ladder with my arms.
ATX as a Solo Traveler
Honestly, this is the first attraction I’ve visited where I felt a little lonely. Everyone had at least another person and there wasn’t much interaction within the group. Having to do the computer exercise alone was a little frustrating a) because I had to do both jobs (hmm, sounds like my day job) b) the instructor was one of those who did things for you rather than you thinking for yourself, which really irritates me. After the initial exercise, things got better.
I was also concerned I’d be the only one without kids and thankfully, this wasn’t the case. Most of the participants were adults, many older than me, and there were only a handful of kids (minimum participation age is 14-years-old). NASA is for everyone!
Nuts and Bolts of the Astronaut Training Experience
I participated in the afternoon program which meant a 1 p.m. check-in, 1:30 p.m. start with meet-and-greet with the astronaut, followed by training and graduation at about 6 p.m. (Yes, graduation with a certificate and signed photo of the astronaut we met.) All participants must wear the provided (and take home) golf shirt and name badge. Complimentary snacks and beverages are available throughout the program and complimentary lockers make it easy to store those items you don’t want to carry around. Taking photos and videos is permitted.
ATX is located at the Astronaut Hall of Fame and advance reservations are necessary. Participation includes admission into the hall of fame and discount in the gift shop (in which I utilized). The program is run by the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex concession company DNC Parks & Resorts.
Here’s a little trivia about me: a long, long time ago, the company I once worked for, TW Recreational Services (later acquired by Fred Harvey and name was changed to Amfac Parks & Resorts and now called Xanterra Parks & Resorts) managed the visitor complex. (I also submitted my resume to DNC about 10 years ago, they called for an interview but I already committed to another job. Only if…)
Would I do ATX again? Absolutely!
Where to Stay When Visiting the Kennedy Space Center
This trip to Florida’s Space Coast I stayed at the Quality Inn Kennedy Space Center (3655 Cheney Hwy., Titusville). Although it has exterior entries, the facility was clean, felt safe, ample parking, lovely looking pool, complimentary breakfast (included yummy biscuits and gravy and waffle station), and great value.
When I participated in the NASA Tweetup for STS-134 in April, I stayed at Royal Oak Golf Resort & Golf Club (2150 Country Club Dr., Titusville, Tel: 1-800-884-2150 or 321-269-4500). It offered a great rate, spacious accommodations and nice setting on a golf course. Rooms can’t be booked online so give them a call.
Astronaut Training Experience
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
The half-day experience I participated in cost $145 plus tax.
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