I had the absolute thrill of a private tour in Houston last month of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Dr. Catherine “Cady” Coleman, a United States astronaut with three space flight missions, showed us some of the highlights of this impressive American facility. My favorite part was being in the Mission Control Center, so that is what I will focus on here.
A friend of my sister’s, Cady walked our family group of eight through Houston’s Mission Control Center. Here they manage flight control for the human space program. The current primary focus is directing activity on the International Space Stations (ISS).
Cady led us through a labyrinth of no-nonsense government hallways lined with photos of space teams, the Space Station, and earth. When she looked at her watch she explained it was nearly 3:00 and the shifts were changing. This was an important time, she said, because flight controllers on the departing shift were informing the new shift workers about the events of the past few hours, so we paused in the back corner until the shift change was settled. That was when my writer’s imagination clicked in and my heart sped up; flight engineers talking to astronauts in space, and yet they had a shift change, families at home, Cheerios in the cupboard.
A few minutes later we walked onto the main floor. The commanding visual was the multiple screens at the front: a large map of the world, complicated graphics, flight patterns in various bright colors. The room was filled with long rows of computer panels and flight controllers monitoring the ISS. Each headphoned person sat at a console quietly communicating with space professionals on this planet as well as astronauts in space. It was all so quiet and subdued.
A fast-walking and sprightly veteran of the space program, Cady whisked us through more hallways to get to the now defunct Mission Control Center where historical space shuttle missions like Gemini and Apollo were once commandeered. Our last stop was at the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, a warehouse the size of a football field filled with space equipment and simulators.
With two flights aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia and an expedition to the International Space Station, Coleman has logged more than 4,330 hours in space. Personable and enthusiastic, when we climbed into a space shuttle capsule she commented how much easier it was to get around in space without the drag of gravity, yet her nimble and petite body seemed very light and fluid.
On a Hollywood note, Cady counseled Sandra Bullock, communicating from the ISS, when Bullock was filming “Gravity.”
Countries around the world are not only invested in the same International Space Station, but they are communicating and working together for the sake of these missions regardless of the tension that militarily exists. It is a remarkable array of dedicated aeronautic professionals paving the way for a better understanding of life outside our planet, while exhibiting cooperative codes of conduct right here on planet Earth.
If you are ever in Houston, Texas, set aside a few hours to visit this incredible center of aeronautics where history continues to be shaped.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander