Friday, January 06, 2012

NASA's Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) at the Kennedy Space Center

It's one of the unique things we did in 2011 holidays. Thanks to Preeth who found out about this program and made reservations for the three of us well in advance, we didn't miss it when we were in Florida/Miami for the Christmas holidays :)

So this is a half-day program where the participant is first made to undergo different training activities followed by a space mission simulation! We get to train like astronauts and to carry out a space mission like astronauts :)

The good thing about it was that it wasn't elementary and they assumed that we would know a bit about computers and simulators and started off with training on the simulation programs -we were told what programs to load and the commands to execute in those programs.
The most important ones were programs for docking up with the international space station and to land the space shuttle.
Docking up with the space station involved looking at different camera feeds and moving the joystick to position the space shuttle and while also entering the commands given by the instructor.
And landing the shuttle involved taking manual control, maneuvering the shuttle according to the desired path (adhering to the given altitude, speed), deploying the landing gear and landing the shuttle on the runway and deploying the chute on touchdown. We were made to try the landing sequence multiple number of times and the instructor noted down the speed, altitude and how well the shuttle was landed. I managed to land it correctly only once (and it was not at all a good landing) and I crashed on the runway once and crashed into the river next to the runway another time. Vinay was the best among us in landing (thanks to his PS3 gaming skills) and he was considered for the commander role along with two others who did good. Based on how close the altitudes and speeds were to a perfect landing they would choose a commander and it was not one of us.

Following this we were given a tour of the space shuttle simulator we would use for our mission later in the day. We then trained on the Multi-axis trainer that randomly spins and twirls its occupant in multiple directions, through 360 deg, for one complete minute. The astronauts were also supposed to interpret their motions and compensate the motions with nitrogen boosts to control the tumbling, in the actual simulator. This was one hell of an experience and the good thing about it is that it won't make us nauseous as our stomach stay centered all the time.

This was followed by training on close to zero gravity or micro-gravity wall. I liked this one the best as it felt like I could climb up and down the wall with almost zero effort! I just had to try to reach down to go down and could use one of my finger to hold on to the higher bar to move up. I could also let go of both my hands and just stay there mid air! It was a neat experience :)

After all the training we started with the space mission simulation. I got to be the pilot for the mission, yay! Vinay was a mission specialist, where he had to maneuver the robotic arm to dock the shuttle with the international space station and deliver a payload to them and Preeth was our boss, the flight director managing us from the Mission control room!
Each one of us were given scripts with our actions and words highlighted, as a pilot my job was mainly to help fly the space craft and acknowledge any emergency alarms and attend to them immediately (the crew from mission control would help us troubleshoot the emergency situations) and finally deploy the landing gear at the correct time for landing and deploying the parachute on touchdown. Our commander was awesome and he landed the shuttle just as it had to be and we were all congratulated by the Space center staff on a very successful mission! Oh yes, and I also got to say the famous "Guys, it was a pleasure flying with you all" to my fellow astronauts on the shuttle :)

We then met a NASA astronaut, Jon McBride. He shared with us his experiences as an astronaut and we got to ask him many questions. One of the highlights was that he used to be a fighter pilot before NASA and he flew those combat aircraft more than 200 times! We also had a graduation ceremony mock-up where we were handed out our certificates, signed by Jon. At the end of it all we seemed like three happy kids who had just gotten to play with very fancy new toys for half a day along with other enthusiastic people!