The Gerald Bostock Diaries

Latest news from the lyric writer of the original “Thick as a Brick.”

Touring NASA Below Apogee – Part 10

Oh, how we longed for the Heathrow T5 experience. In spite of the now-legendary rocky opening a few years back, it hums now with the precision of a well-oiled baggage carousel and we get through every time (tempting fate here…) in the promised 8 minutes or less. But, of course, it is BA-only in that terminal. Passengers on Delta, Lufthansa, Virgin and the other riff-raff have a much less easy passage through to airside but still better than most international airports in the world. According to Mr A who has seen most of them.

Aboard the skylark for the 747 trip to Miami with promise of dodgy landing weather. But the BA pilot knew his stuff and steered us around the anvil-topped storm clouds for a textbook landing. But not until we had endured the Two-hour delay at LHR due to a faulty onboard air-conditioning system and lost our place in the take-off cue as a result. Pilot was volubly pissed off, as were his passengers, many of whom missed their onward connections in MIA.

An early night, then, for most of us after the long trip and an early load-in next morning at the first venue to break in and test the USA production before soundcheck.

Just as well to have the extra time as the cable between projector and the media server which provides the video sections would not work and the runner spent most of the afternoon finding another to make it back to the venue only as the audience were coming in…. Stress and tension all round. Last thing they needed at the start of the tour but the shows have gone well since.

You can sense both the excitement and the resigned ennui of the impending US election here in the State of Florida. The Sunshine State where sunshine is currently coming out of Mitt Romney’s arse as he nows tries to placate NASA and the supporters of the US Space Programme by suggesting some unlike marriage of civilian, peaceful space exploration and a proposed “defense” priority fro future NASA strategy. That NASA should become effectively a wing of the military is surely to negate the whole point of space research, which has been for 30 years the most fruitful area of cooperation between Russia, the USA and other partners in peaceful space exploration.

Talking of NASA – we were treated to an afternoon of sheer wonder and delight courtesy of Col. Catherine Coleman, US Astronaut, recently returned from a 5 month mission to the International Space Station. She had with her onboard the ISS, Anderson’s flute and they played a duet together during her 100 million kilometre trip in earth orbit. Indeed, said flute returned to earth on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, in the headlines a few days ago as it made its triumphal but rather sad journey inelegantly piggied on the back of a 747 en route to a museum in LA, its final resting place.

On arrival at Kennedy Space Centre, band and crew were ushered from the visitors’ reception area to a waiting NASA bus which ferried us a fair old distance to the Orbiter Processing Facility where a mass of gantries and walkways almost obscured their well-protected and shrouded charge. Space Shuttle Atlantis, cocooned in the safe sanctuary of the massive structure around it stood proudly, if sadly, awaiting partial gutting of some systems and degradable bits and bobs before being slowly hauled – not to the burial pyre – but to the final KSC resting place alongside the other rockets and capsules of the US Space Programme, dating back to the Von Braun years.

We knew we were being taken to the VIP areas of the facility but were not really expecting to get close. Wow! In groups of four or five at a time, we were taken up the ladders, along gantries from tip of the vertical tail stabiliser to the landing gear below and all points in between. The veterans of the shuttle programme who were showing us around were retired volunteers who had spent most of their working lives on the shuttle missions and knew every inch and inner working of their fleet.

The holy sanctuary, the flight deck cockpit, was surprisingly large and sparse. Just two seats for Commander and Pilot. We all got the chance to sit in the commander’s seat and handle the first avionic fly-by-wire system. Just a joystick and a few other simple controls, befitting the world’s biggest and heaviest glider: yes, glider – for that’s what the big moment-of-no-return was on landing where, after the re-entry burn, the pilot had to make the all or nothing hands-on decisions to get the crew back on the ground at the pre-ordained landing site. No powered descent – just the atmosphere-skimming nose-up wing-and-a-prayer attitude to transition to the eventual glide slope into safe harbour, flanked by two T-38 workhorse trainer jets.

Of course, like every VIP visitor to the “backstage” All-Access, high-security area, we individually thought privately of the dreadful moments when Challenger exploded soon after launch and later when Columbia burned up on re-entry after sustaining leading edge wing tile damage, both incidents resulting in the tragic loss of all crew.

Before and since, many brave men and women have walked the lonely walk to the transit vehicles taking them out to the launch pad, no doubt with such thoughts circulating ominously somewhere in the background, however tamed and controlled they have to be at such a moment. Mike Fossum, successor to Cady Coleman on the ISS was our other companion astronaut and gave us, along with Cady, the personal emotive touch that humanises such brave and intrepid endeavour.

Mike took a copy of the Tull Aqualung CD on one of his earlier shuttle missions and it is fun to think of the sounds of Cross-eyed Mary and My God thundering through the still, dry atmosphere of the Shuttle Discovery. Except that he probably wore headphones as respect for privacy must be uppermost in the close confines of a spaceship. Need a tiddle, anyone? Then look the other way.

Actually the lavvy-loo is a mini-cubicle with a suprisingly ordinary loo and seat. Hadn’t the nerve to ask to use it although bursting for a wee. Apparently, there are attachments for connecting the male and female body parts to the waste tank. The early sub-orbital flight of Alan Shepard might not have required strategic thinking to any great degree but from the John Glenn orbital flight onwards, the Shower, Pee and Poo Research department of NASA must have scratched heads and everywhere else in coming up with Solutions To Ablutions for longer stays in space. I would love to have seen some of the designs that didn’t make it… In NASA acronym parlance, that department was probably called SPPR. Or, S2A…..

We then went off to visit the Vehicle Assembly Building (yes – you guessed it – VAB) to stand in the vast space which, at 500 ft high and with a single span roof is still the biggest building of its type in the world, even after nearly 50 years. David Goodier summed up the sight and feeling as “It’s not just a VAB – it’s a cathedral,” which was very apt. The spiritual sense of awe and optimistic hope were truly overwhelming.

At the far end, some 200 metres away, was a mock-up of the proposed new Orion spacecraft and some experimental work going on to test some new ideas for escape mechanisms in the event of immediate post-launch failure. Surprisingly, we were were allowed to watch and even see close-up the working test models of the possible systems. I was tempted to start talking in a Russian or Chinese accent but the joke might not have been appreciated…

Finally, off to Launch Pad A, standing silent, forlorn and empty a few miles away. After a drive-around, some special permission for us to get right up to the pad structure itself was mysteriously granted by “powers-that-be” and we were allowed to take photos but had to remain on the transit bus. Except, of course, Astronaut Catherine Coleman who jumped out and defied regulations by posing in front of the gantry structure for what we can only assume will be a NASA Lady Astronaut photo calendar. Cady remained, discretely and firmly incased in her blue flight suit, or Smurf suit as fellow Astro Mike Fossum dubbed it. All caught on CCTV, I’m sure.

So, many thanks to all at NASA who made this visit possible and who greeted us with such warmth and knowledgable enthusiasm.

As an era of space flight draws to a close, I wonder if the next US President – whoever it turns out to be – will renew support for the work of three generations of engineers, scientists and astronauts who have made all this possible. The funding, cut down as it now is, may not be the most prioritised in the minds of either government or the US tax-payer, but I hope that the future is brighter than the employees at NASA fear. So many have recently lost their jobs in the downsizing and this recession economy. The greatest minds in space exploration surely must be given the resources to continue to pioneer to the other planets, the asteroids and, one day, to the stars. No more fitting legacy could there possibly be for the crews of Columbia and Challenger than to support this work for the long term future.

Per aspera ad astra, and all that.

Over and Out. GB signing off.

PS Houston, we have a problem. AND the solution.