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.

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“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.

Wonder Women of STEM: Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut.

Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth in a series featuring influential women from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the lead up to HMNS’ annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event, February 21, 2015. Click here to get involved!

 

We’ve seen some amazing women in STEM, but none are quite so out of this world as Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut. In 1992, she orbited the earth for over a week on the space shuttle Endeavor and logged over 190 hours in space!

Dr. Jemison had numerous accomplishments in addition to her space travel. She began her college career at age 16 by attending Stanford University on scholarship. Within 4 years, she graduated with a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BA in African and African-American Studies from Stanford University. She continued her studies at Cornell University where she received her doctorate degree in medicine. A few years later, she proceeded to volunteer for over two years with the Peace Corps in Western Africa where she taught health education and contributed to research concerning the Hepatitis B vaccination among others.

After all of her volunteer work, Jemison applied to be part of the NASA Space Program and was one of 15 people selected out of 2000 to join the Space Program in 1987. She joined her first orbiting mission in 1992 with Endeavor. While aboard Endeavor, she worked with other astronauts on bone cell research along with other experiments and investigations. Although her time in space was short, she was able to claim the title of first female African-American in space. In May of 1993, Dr. Jemison left NASA to teach at Dartmouth College and continue to educate future generations.

In addition to her space travels, Dr. Jemison has a list of accomplishments that would knock your socks off. She can speak four languages, wrote her own book called “Find Where the Wind Goes,” was on the cover of JET Magazine, hosted the World of Wonders TV show, and was voted one of the 50 Most Beautiful People according to People Magazine. If that’s not enough, she’s also got a sense of humor. She talks about her experiences in Brazil for the 20th anniversary of the Apollo missions and she comments, “Wow!! Y’all need to be glad I didn’t go to Brazil before NASA or I’d still be there doing development work and the Samba on the beach.” Like I said, impressive!

Space was not the first major accomplishment for Dr. Mae Jemison, and it certainly won’t be her last. She continues to expand interest in science education through her foundation, The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. She created The Earth We Share, international science camp for students as well as a program to encourage hands-on, science education through Teachers.

If you are inspired by women such as Dr. Mae Jemison, then you’ll enjoy meeting some of the local ladies of STEM at GEMS this weekend. Come to HMNS between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math! We’ll even have representatives from NASA!

Shaking Hands Now

Sometimes it’s the small things.  I’ve previously written about the power of objects that captivate us.  Objects can make us curious to know more about the world and on occasion turn us into collectors.  Objects can also evoke memories, giving perspective and context to history.

It’s that last ability I’d like to discuss here.  The museum has a small collection of space memorabilia, mostly flight crew publicity photos, plaques, newspaper articles and other documents.  Recently an embroidered souvenir space flight patch entered the collection; probably not of high monetary value, it could have easily been sold in a gift shop at NASA or here at the museum.  Except that this patch was for the Apollo 17–Soyuz 19 mission.  Now unless you’re an ardent fan of NASA history or, ahem, a certain age, that last sentence is very likely meaningless to you.  My reaction however was “Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years!”  Instantly history telescoped.

Context

For those of you either too young or a bit foggy on history, the Apollo-Soyuz mission took place July 15 – 24, 1975.  I’ll leave it to the HMNS Astronomy staff to determine the scientific significance of the flight but politically and historically it was a really big dang deal.  It was the last Apollo program flight and the first joint mission of two different nations in outer space.  Having won the race to be first on the moon six years earlier (1969), the last Apollo spacecraft docked with the Soyuz spacecraft of the USSR, the Americans’ lunar landing rival.  The 1970s were a time of détente, but the Cold War between the USA and the USSR was still raging. The fact that these two countries were able to pull off this joint venture is amazing.  And politics aside, the science and technology to be worked out between the two space agencies was no easy task.  Not to mention the language difficulties.

Our fair city was a big part of the mission. The Soviet cosmonauts, Alexey A. Leonov and Valery N. Kubasov, trained at JSC several times.  In turn, the Apollo astronauts, Thomas P. Stafford, Vance D. Brand, and Donald (Deke) K. Slayton, trained in Moscow and were the first Americans to visit the Russian launch pad.  It was decided that each crew would learn the language of the other and speak to their counterparts in their newly acquired tongue.  Thus during the mission, the cosmonauts spoke in English to the astronauts who spoke to the cosmonauts in Russian.  Neither language is easy to learn, they don’t even share a common alphabet.  Just imagine that, along with all the pressures of a space flight and representing the best of your home country, you’re doing it all in a language that isn’t your native tongue.  When the two spacecrafts docked on July 17, the cosmonauts responded with “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.”  After the hatch between the two spacecrafts opened the crews physically shook hands in a moment transmitted live to earth and seen by a world-wide audience. For a good overview of the entire mission read this.

The Apollo-Soyuz mission wasn’t the only news event in 1975.  A few other things from that same year…Saigon fell to the communists, Franco died in Spain, oil rose to over $13 a barrel, a gallon of gas was about 44¢, Motorola took out its first patent for a mobile phone, a couple of guys named their start-up company Microsoft, some guy from New Jersey named Bruce released a vinyl record album called Born to Run, and NBC let a bunch of unknown comedians fill up dead air time in a show with the unimaginative title of Saturday Night Live.

Perspective

So, zooming thirty-five years forward through the telescope of history, what perspective does this simple patch bring?  Well, Americans and Russians have been working side by side in space for years now.  The USSR dissolved, the Cold War ended (the recent spy swap not withstanding!), and no one gets too excited about the multiple nationalities working together on the International Space Station.  We can see crystal clear NASA shuttle films in 3-D in the IMAX theatre right here at HMNS, no need to gather around a boxy television watching grainy images.  However, sad to say, as we note the 35th anniversary of the last Apollo flight we’re nearing the end of the space shuttle flights that replaced it.  Mobile phones are now ubiquitous, Microsoft, the Boss, and SNL are still influencing American culture, but there seems to be uncertainty about the future of NASA and manned space flights.  Our little souvenir space flight patch represents a distinct moment in both the history of NASA and the history of the country at large.  Small and ordinary it might be, but it allows us to reflect on what’s been and to wonder what’s next.

Webisode: The Swim Test! [Hubble 3d]

Haven’t had the chance to blast into space with Hubble 3D in IMAX? It’s not to late.

Vividly captured in IMAX 3D, Hubble 3D recounts the amazing journey of the most important scientific instrument since Galileo’s original telescope and the greatest success in space since the Moon Landing—the Hubble Space Telescope. Audiences will accompany the space walking astronauts as they attempt some of the most difficult tasks ever undertaken in NASA’s history, and will experience up close the awesome power of the launches, the heartbreaking setbacks, and the dramatic rescues of this most powerful story.

Hubble 3D will also reveal the cosmos as never before, allowing viewers of all ages to explore the grandeur of the nebulae and galaxies, the birth and death of stars, and some of the greatest mysteries of our celestial surroundings, all in amazing IMAX 3D.

In the webisode below, astronaut Mike Massimino talks about the Natural Buoyancy Lab and how it helps astronauts train for space walks.

Can’t see the video? Click here to watch it.

Check back here for exclusive videos and more behind the scenes interviews about Hubble 3D in IMAX.

Did you miss the first webisode? Click here to watch it.
Click here to read about the Hubble Telescope and to view the trailer for Hubble 3D in IMAX.