Friday, July 17, 2009

Awesome Day

Today was pretty awesome.

At 9:15, I went to the 5th floor of my building for a presentation by the crew of the Hubble Space Telescope Space Shuttle mission. People were shy, so the seat right in from of the 7 astronauts was wide open. I sat as they thanked the Boeing company for what we do, and watched a video presentation that Greg Johnson, the pilot, had created about the mission. None of the other astronauts had seen it yet, either, except for the Greg.

The video was amazing. They did a bazillion spacewalks and swapped out the fridge sized telescope instruments that analyzed the stars in different ways. They put on new thermal insulation, the ripped of a handrail that was in the way of getting at the instruments, they swapped out the gyroscopes that let the Hubble point at stars when it is focused way in, and they did open heart surgery on some of the computers, removing dozens of screws at a time, pulling out circuit cards, and putting in new ones.

The most amazing part of the presentation was not the video, but something that all of the crew members did during the video, and I was front row to see it:

Scott Altman, the commander, was explaining how after they had completed their work on Hubble, they released it from the robotic arm. After that, he said something like: "I gave 10 short bursts on the thrusters after we released the Hubble. Even though we weren't moving and it was, it seemed to pass right over us. Because it was so large, it was an imposing sight." Now, that doesn't sound so impressive as the other things that they did, but as the crew watched that part of the video (on the monitor behind me and in front of them) as it showed the massive, amazing Hubble pass over the top of the orbiter.

As I looked at the faces of the crew, all of their eyes were wide. They remembered the awesomeness of that moment, and I had a front row seat to the first time that they had seen it on film since being there. One bit her lip. They all sat almost taught as they relived that moment, and I had a candid peak into an unplanned non-verbal communication from the crew: They were awestruck, even though we in the crowd were less affected. How could we have been? We were sitting on our duffs watching a video. They were remembering the experience that they had lived.

So, Astronauts think that their job is cool. It's not like they practice it so much that it becomes wrote. It is even more amazing to them than it is to all us fanboys because they actually know how awesome it is in a way that words, movies, press conferences, and pictures will never convey.

After the presentation, I asked Scott about the rescue mission that would have happened if their shuttle had been damaged from falling foam. He told me that they had two boxes of power bars that they could have survived on for almost a month while they waited for the rescue shuttle to arrive. They would all have to suit up and climb along a rope strung between the two orbiters and he didn't have a space suit his size on his shuttle: the rescuers would have to bring one for him.

They finished the questions and I asked Drew Fuestel about the merits of a masters vs a PhD program in Planetary Science. He said that masters degrees were the baseline, and people with PhDs were differentiated. I asked him because he is a geophysicist, which is what I want to study at CalTech come 2011 and the completion of my USC masters program in astronautical engineering.

I left that event and drove to the mission control building, where Duane Ross, head of Astronaut selection and training, was speaking to a pretty small group of mission control employed astronaut wannabes about the selection and training of the astronaut class of 2005. That was cool. This was the guy who pics and trains the astronauts. One of the people that was in that astronaut class was Jose Hernandez. The reason that I recognized him in the pictures of his field geology and survival training pictures is because yesterday, when I was in building 4 giving some presentations to my bosses bosses NASA counterpart, I was waiting for the elevator next to this man. Someone walked by and congratulated him on the successful launch of the shuttle on Wednesday, because that meant that he was going to go up soon. I figured that he must be an astronaut as we rode up the elevator together. (I told him that I was going to the 4th floor, and he was kind enough to push the button for me.) That night, I looked him up, and he has a pretty amazing story. So it was cool to come full circle so fast and hear about his selection and training a day later. I asked Duane Ross a couple of questions, as well, like: "Is it more important to develop specialty skills, like experience with hydrology, or get familiar with the more standard things that everyone has to be familiar with, like getting scuba certified?" He said that there were 14 people on the selection board and that there were 14 opinions. That very type of question was asked, he said, and there was no consensus. He said that the most overriding factor was the answer to the following question: Would I want to fly a mission with this guy?

When his presentation was over, I went up to him and discussed the education thing a little bit more, and then went back to the Boeing building. When I got back to my desk, Drew Fuestel was in the row of cubicles right next to mine. He was at my desk in a few minutes and I had the Boeing photographer, who was following him around, take a picture of us with the massive-lensed camera she was carrying around. That should be a good looking picture. (All of the astronauts were in their blue flight suits, which is cool.)

So he left and I got back to work. My job rocks.

Needless to say, after writing this post, I feel a little bit more motivated to slog through the math class that I am doing for USC tonight. 3 credits in 6 weeks. Ouch.