August 3, 2012
The tour of Johnson Space Center (JSC) began in the food sciences laboratory with a presentation about the various types of food and beverages that NASA uses on the ISS. Food is sent in either a rehydrateable state or in a natural form. The natural form foods tend to be items that do not need to be rehydrated such as cereal and granola bars. All food is sent in vacuum packed bags and the food that needs to be rehydrated has ports to allow for hydration at special stations aboard the ISS. Beverages are sent in powder form and are rehydrated at the same station as the food. There is a standard assortment of food aboard the station but each astronaut gets some preference as to what is sent up.
Usability Testing and Analysis
Next, the RAs went to the Usability Testing and Analysis lab where they were shown a presentation about the research and development that this group is performing. The Usability Testing and Analysis group mainly focus on evaluation and testing of the interface between the crews and the vehicles. The group uses a variety of hardware and software tools to create systems to evaluate the effectiveness of interface configurations. The RAs got to see a demonstration of a system that is being used to test telerobotic operations interfaces. Researchers in this group are exploring different camera configurations as well as visualization techniques including augmented reality overlays.
After a brief stop in the lobby of the Mission Operations building to view shuttle compartment mockups, the RAs proceeded to the room that was used as mission control during the shuttle program. At the time of the RAs’ visit, the center was being used for testing telemetry for the unmanned Orion launch that will occur in 2014. While in this room the RAs learned that there are four patches near the entrances of each of the mission control rooms, one each for Apollo 1, Columbia, and Challenger as well as one that represents all three. These patches are there to remind the flight controllers of the extreme responsibility that they have every day on the job.
The next stop on the tour for the RAs was the ISS control room. There, the RAs were given an overview of the operations from several NASA Academy Alumni including Jesse Bazley, Christina Gosling, and Kathleen Coderre. The ISS Mission Operations team is responsible for the operation of the American side of the station. The team works together with a similar team in Russia. The alumni described to the RAs some of the various stations and their functions. Some of the stations have ornaments atop their desks such as the Thermal Control (THOR) console, which is responsible for internal and external thermal control, having a stylized hammer and the attitude control station, responsible for maintaining the attitude of the station using gyroscopic control, having a bat that is labeled “attitude control device”.
The last tour stop before lunch was the historic Apollo Control Room. From that room the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and even some early Shuttle missions were controlled. The RAs were in awe as they walked among the controller stations and gazed at one of the back rooms. It was in that room that the men and women of mission control sent Americans to the moon on Apollo 11 and safely returned astronauts despite a catastrophic failure on Apollo 13. The RAs were reminded what a privilege it is to be a part of the continuing legacy that NASA is leaving this nation.
Cardiovascular Physiology Lab
The first tour stop after lunch was the Cardiovascular Physiology Lab where studies are performed that investigate the effects of long term spaceflight on the cardiovascular system. These studies are performed before, after and during ISS missions. A variety of tools are used for evaluating these studies on the ground including ultrasound, echocardiograms (EKG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Due to the limitations on measuring equipment in space, only ultrasound equipment is used for studies during missions. A special ultrasound machine is on the ISS and was designed to facilitate operation by the astronauts while assisted from the ground. This allows for proper data to be collected with minimal crew training.
Exercise Physiology and Countermeasures
The next stop was the Exercise Physiology and Countermeasures lab where new crew exercise machines and regimens are developed and tested. Microgravity environments provide unique challenges for exercise. Astronauts on long term space missions require exercise to help stave off the effects of bone loss and muscle atrophy. There are two main types of exercise equipment used in space, resistive and aerobic. Both are important to the overall health of the astronaut. As such, strict exercise regimens are developed to keep crew members healthy. These regimens are evaluated using bed rest studies where subjects are kept under bed rest at a -6 degree incline to simulate being in microgravity.
The next stop was the Neuroscience lab where the RAs got to see a setup that is used for balance testing of astronauts as well as standard test subjects in order to assess the effects of spaceflight on balance. The experimental setup involves a treadmill that can be pitched and rolled as well as moved side to side. This is used in conjunction with a projector screen showing motion through a simulated environment. The visuals and the movement of the treadmill are slightly out of sync which poses challenges when it comes to balance. A number of RAs got motion sick from just watching the video.
Space Vehicle Mockup Facility
The next stop was the space mockup facility, a very large building that contains mockups of the ISS modules and other space vehicles that is primarily used for crew training. The first mockups that the RAs viewed were from the front section of the station. These included the European Space Agency (ESA) built Columbus module and the Japanese built Kibo module. The RAs were then shown examples of the racks that contain avionics and payloads aboard the station. Next, the RAs saw some of the Russian modules as well as an example docking structure. The mockup facility also contained a mockup of one of the large truss structures that house the massive solar arrays. Further into the mockup facility were two low fidelity mockups of the forthcoming Orion capsule. Next the RAs got to see a mockup of a Soyuz capsule. It is amazing to think that three astronauts live in a Soyuz for three days in route to the ISS. Additionally, the RAs got to see a small mockup of the Cupola module, a large window on the ISS that allows for Earth observation.
The next stop was a demonstration of the capabilities of Robonaut, a humanoid robot that is designed to assist crew members aboard the ISS with tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous. Robonaut 2 (R2) is quite dexterous, providing 95% of the dexterity of humans. The hand actuation is tendon-based with motors expanding and retracting the artificial tendons to actuate the fingers. This provides the relatively lifelike hand movements. Robonaut has some sophisticated safety systems developed for use on the ISS. It has a maximum amount of force that it can exert. This allows it to stop moving and gently push if some sort of obstacle or crew member is blocking its path. Additionally a kill switch is installed that senses the change in force or jerk. If the jerk goes over a certain threshold, the motors in the robot immediately go into a shutdown state. This allows the crew to shut down the robot by pushing on it suddenly, providing an extra level of safety. The RAs were also shown a set of legs designed to move Robonaut throughout the station that may be implemented in the near future.
Saturn V Center
The final stop before leaving JSC was the Saturn V center, a large building containing an actual Saturn V rocket that was never launched. The Saturn V was quite impressive even split into separate stages. Also, near the building housing the Saturn V was a small rocket garden containing a Redstone rocket and a J-1 engine.
The last stop of the day was a lab Lockheed Martin where work is being done on the Orion Capsule. The RAs got to see two high fidelity Orion mockups. The first was a capsule simulator with actual control panels and simulated view screens. It is used for training crew members to operate the capsule and to test different instrumentation configurations. Unfortunately, the RAs were not able to try it out. The second mockup was full sized and in the launch configuration. It has been used for rapid egress testing.