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.


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.


“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.)


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.

Webisode: Getting Dressed [Hubble 3D]

As we gear up for the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Launch (April 26), this week we bring you another webisode from behind the scenes of the IMAX film Hubble 3D. In this week’s episode, astronaut Mike Massimino talks about the difficulty of getting into his space suit. It takes two people just to help him pull his pants on!

Did you miss the first two webisodes?
See the largest swimming pool in the world and how the astronauts use it to train for space walks.
Learn about the first mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. 

Don’t miss your chance to see Hubble 3D in IMAX. 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. Click here to read about the Hubble Telescope and to view the trailer for Hubble 3D in IMAX.

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.

Watch out for that space boulder!

Thomas D. Jones, PhD is a veteran NASA astronaut, scientist, speaker, author, and consultant. He holds a doctorate in planetary sciences, and in more than eleven years with NASA, flew on four space shuttle missions to Earth orbit. In 2001, Dr. Jones led three spacewalks to install the centerpiece of the International Space Station, the American Destiny Laboratory. He has been privileged to spend fifty-three days working and living in space.

Many of you may remember when Dr. Jones spoke here in May 2008 on spacewalking. He’ll be back on Tuesday, Nov. 17 with an all new lecture on near-Earth objects, potential impacts, the search for alien life, and the formation of planets.

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500-m-wide NEO Itokawa, imaged by the
Japanese Hayabusa probe in 2005 (JAXA)

On November 6, we had a close encounter with a near-Earth object, 2009 VA (a NEO is a near-Earth object, including both asteroids and dormant comets). The space boulder, a 7-meter-diameter asteroid, streaked by at a distance of only 14,000 km, well inside the orbits of our geosynchronous satellites. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab estimates that we have two such encounters each year, on average, with objects of this size. About every five years, Earth is struck by such a body, but objects this small burn up in the atmosphere, resulting in a fireball and the release of several kilotons of energy (TNT equivalent).

The close pass of 2009 VA surprised some news outlets, which speculated on why the small asteroid had not been detected sooner by astronomers (The University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey picked up 2009 VA about 15 hours before the closest approach). The answer is that these small cosmic rocks are so numerous, and so difficult to observe, that we only discover them at random. NASA runs a search program, Spaceguard, to detect larger objects, 1 km and up, that may pose a civilization-ending threat to Earth. So far about 85% of those objects have been found; none pose an immediate threat to Earth, but may in future decades.

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Jet Propulsion Lab depiction
of recent close pass by 2009 VA

Impacts of small objects like 2009 VA create only sky-high fireworks, no harm to us here on the ground. But the Tunguska impact in Siberia a century ago devastated 2,000 square km of Siberian forest. That airburst of about 5 megatons (Mt) of TNT equivalent was caused by an object 30-40 m in diameter; large enough to level a city center. Such an object strikes us every few hundred years. The last one was a century ago; the next one to come along may hit us tomorrow. With current telescopes, we have only a small chance of seeing such an object before it strikes Earth.

Congress has asked NASA to look into what it would cost to search systematically for NEOs down to 140 m in diameter; if we found most of those objects, we would have greater confidence that no “city-buster” NEO is headed for an imminent collision with a populated area on Earth. A report to NASA on the prospects of detecting and even deflecting such potentially hazardous NEOs is due out by year’s end from the National Research Council.

Impact, or cosmic bombardment, is a process that has been altering the faces of the planets since the dawn of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Impacts by giant comets and asteroids have changed the course of life on Earth, possibly ending the reign of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and possibly causing other mass extinctions through Earth’s long history. We now have the technology to both detect damaging NEOs heading for Earth, and with proper warning, to nudge them out of the way. What we lack is the international will to take action should a hazardous NEO be found on a collision course with Earth. The Association of Space Explorers is working with the United Nations to draft such a NEO decision-making agreement.

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Tuesday, Nov. 17, I will be speaking about impact and the other processes that shape the worlds of the solar system, in a talk called Planetology. My talk will discuss these processes — tectonics, volcanism, erosion, for example — and our search for life and “other Earths” across the galaxy. Please join me for the lecture that evening at 6:30 p.m., or turn the pages of Planetology, written by me and noted planetary geologist Ellen Stofan. After the talk, I’ll be answering questions and signing copies of the book.

See reviews and more info on Planetology at: