The cutting-edge returns to the Burke Baker Planetarium, where astronauts once trained

Think back to the technology of the late 1980s: corded phones, boom boxes, cathode color TVs. In this era, it’s tough to imagine how anyone achieved the remarkable feat of traveling to space and orbiting the Earth without WiFi or contemporary computers. But Americans did it, and we made history!

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard was the second person and first American to travel into space. He reached a height of 116 statute miles in 1961.

Now imagine what it must have been like being in space, orbiting the Earth fast enough to circle all of humanity in 90 minutes. It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s strange. You’re already disoriented in this zero-gravity, off-world environment. Not much room for error in your flimsy aluminum ship, and not much of a view.

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When you look out the window, you never know whether you’ll see something familiar or some other constellation only visible to Australia. Even easily-recognizable constellations like Ursa Major can be tough to identify when they’re upside-down and you can only see through a tiny porthole. And what if your navigation equipment went dark? How would you find your way?

Navigating and orienting the space shuttle back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was no easy feat, but with the help of HMNS VP of Astronomy and Physical Sciences Dr. Carolyn Sumners and the Burke Baker Planetarium, astronauts could practice finding their way under strange skies. As a partner with NASA, Sumners’s three-hour stellar orienteering course was required learning for every candidate astronaut aspiring to touch space.

NASA2

“The big problem was we had to limit their view to small regions, and they had to be able to find stars in areas you cannot see in Houston,” Sumners said. “We would show them a patch of sky and ask, ‘What do you recognize?’”

The original training program began with Sumners using a Spitz projector, a bulky analog contraption set on cross-braced arms that required the exchange of “star balls” for different views of the sky. The Challenger crew trained using this equipment in ’86, Sumners said. When the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1 digital projector was installed in ’88, lessons were much easier. (Incidentally, Evans & Sutherland also developed NASA flight simulators used by astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.)

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Sumners worked closely with every crew that went into space in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working on their orienteering skills. Her class was so popular and effective, crews would occasionally drop by to brush up or re-test, or just to stop in and say hello (and made an impression when they did).

“The Apollo crew would pop in,” Sumners said. “Many of them were ex-military, so they had the buzz-cut look to them. A lot of gawking went on by the staff.”

With the advent of more reliable digital technology, crews don’t train with Sumners anymore, but partnership with NASA continues, as does her business ties to Evans & Sutherland. The newly-renovated planetarium will feature the world’s first True 8K digital projection system, the Digistar 5, and it was developed by E&S! It’s the clearest, brightest picture of space anywhere on Earth, with software that will allow audiences to see the stars not only in unfamiliar orientations near to our home planet, but from anywhere in the known universe.

ISS aurora

Coupling this projection technology with images from NASA, Sumners expects to bring audiences experiences like the view of the Aurora Borealis from a fish-eye camera mounted on hull of the International Space Station, fed directly through the Cloud.

“They should work beautifully together,” Sumners said.

Astronauts may no longer need orienteering courses, but it’s likely the clarity of this cutting-edge technology will blow even those who have been to space out of this world.

It’s Family Space Day at the George on Saturday: Take your family to the Moon!

Challenger Learning Center Want to go to space? We can take you. Say hello to the Challenger Learning Center and Family Space Day.

The Challenger Learning Center opened at HMNS in 1988 after the tragic last flight of the space shuttle Challenger. A living, teaching memorial to the crew, the Challenger Center continues to teach children about space and space flight and perpetuate all the things the crew loved.

Originally designed for schools and groups, the Challenger takes up to 40 participants to “space” as they experience real astronaut training during their missions to the Moon or Mars. Groups perform real world problem-solving as they train to become astronauts aboard the Space Station Observer. Children and adults are inspired and experience what it feels like to be an astronaut.

At Family Space Days at the George Observatory Challenger Center, individual family members are able to enjoy this memorable experience, too. Special dates are reserved for families to come down to the George Observatory and feel the adventure of space flight. Space Day missions are run by trained NASA volunteers who add to the authenticity of the event.

And guess what? One of those special dates reserved for you and your family to travel into space is this Sat., May 19!

Families are placed on a team and work together toward accomplishing mission goals. Those goals could include assembling a communication satellite, operating on-board robots, monitoring the life support systems, acting as the doctor on-board or navigating through space in order to land gently on the surface of the Moon. But the sky’s the limit.

Each position is vital to the success of the overall mission. And, of course, every good astronaut training session involves having to solve some problems. One never knows when the Sun will erupt with deadly radiation headed toward the craft or when equipment might fail or there could be random asteroid damage.

“Houston, we have a problem” continues to be the familiar report when things go wrong. Family Space Days make the solutions available to everyone.

Interested? We thought you would be. Tickets for Family Space Day are available online until Friday at 5:00 p.m. for $10 per person.

DiscoveryDome

But there’s more! When families come to Family Space Day, we also have the innovative and immersive “Discovery Dome” — a portable planetarium! — showing We Choose Space. Tickets are available at the gift shop for $3 per person. Telescope tickets are also available for $5 per person at 5:00 p.m. for viewing when it gets dark.

What’s better than a day of discovery with the family? For more information or to purchase tickets, click here!

Final Frontier: Free Lecture Series at Rice University

From Dr. David Alexander, Rice Professor of Physics and Astronomy and creator of the Space Frontiers Lecture series:

Yuri Gagarin

This month celebrates a number of notable anniversaries associated with space exploration.  Tuesday, April 12 marked the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight to become the first human to travel in space.  Coincidentally, that same day marked the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first Space Shuttle.  Two historic landmarks in our quest to expand the boundaries of our home planet.  For those of you who are interested, April 12 also marked the 134th anniversary of the first use of a catcher’s face mask in baseball as well as being the date on which the American Civil War began.

In the 50 years since that first flight over 520 humans have ventured out of the Earth’s atmosphere, some for a few days, some for several months, some even went to the moon (and back!).  In fact, there has been an American stationed in space every day for over 10 years!  Needless to say conditions on the moon or on board the space shuttle or International Space Station are quite different from here on Earth with the most striking difference being the microgravity environment in which the astronauts or cosmonauts have to live.

Over the last five decades we have learned a lot about what being in space does to the human body from a wide array of phenomena such as bone loss, muscle atrophy, and radiation exposure.  How does space travel affect humans?  How do we mitigate these effects? How do we prepare for longer and longer space shifts? Experimental stations on the moon and Mars could mean hardy astronauts being away from home for years at a time.

On April 21st, in the final Space Frontiers Lecture of the 2010-2011 academic year, Rice University will host Dr. Bobby Alford, who will discuss the medical and biological aspects of space travel.

Dr. Alford is CEO and Chairman of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, a Distinguished Service Professor at Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also Professor of Otolaryngology.  Dr Alford has also served with distinction on the White House “Blue Ribbon” Advisory Committee for the Redesign of the Space Station, The Aerospace Medicine Advisory Committee (Chairman), The Life and Microgravity Sciences and Applications Committee (Chairman), and the Life Sciences Advisory Committee.

International Space Station

Please bring your bones and muscles to the 1g atmosphere of the McMurtry auditorium on April 21!  See spacefrontiers.rice.edu for details.

Looking Back: 40 Years of Space Travel

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy exclaimed “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

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 JFK’s “Moon speech” given at Rice Stadium on September 12, 1962

His speech became reality when, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Lander and uttered the now well-known phrase “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The journey to the Moon was a culmination of years of work. Several previous missions had launched satellites and probes into space, as well as manned flights and space walks. On October 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite to ever orbit the earth. That same year, Russia launched the first animal, a dog named Laika, into orbit.

On April 12, 1961, Russia successfully sent the first human into outer space. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth for 108 minutes. In 1965, the Russians also completed the first spacewalk.

Not to be outdone by Russia in the heart of the Cold War, the U.S. decided to send a man to the moon. On July 16, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin (Buzz), and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center on the shuttle Apollo 11. Four days later, the lunar module separated from the command module and became the first manned spacecraft to land on the surface of the moon.

Hubble's Largest Galaxy Portrait Offers a new High-Def view
Creative Commons License photo credit: Venom82

Since then, we have landed vehicles on Mars. We have sent satellites and probes to observe all of the planets in our solar system as well as our Sun. We have used the Hubble Telescope to capture images of suns and galaxies millions of light years away. We have a space station where astronauts can live in space for months at a time.

It’s been an amazing journey – and there is still so much left to discover. Interested in learning more about the history – and the future – of space travel? Come see Dawn of the Space Age, a new planetarium show on the Apollo space missions, the Space Race, and expected NASA exploration.

Learn a few more fun facts about Apollo 11’s mission.