Martha Wells is the author of nine fantasy novels, including The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods, and the Nebula-nominated The Death of the Necromancer. Her newest novel is The Cloud Roads, just released by Night Shade Books. Her next novel from Night Shade will be The Serpent Sea, coming out next year. Her publications also include two Stargate: Atlantis novels and several short stories.
For the past few years, one of the perks for the guests of honor at ApolloCon, in Houston, Texas, is a VIP tour of NASA, led by Paul A. Abell, Lead Scientist for Planetary Small Bodies. If you are ever lucky enough to be offered the chance, you want to take this tour. Put on your comfortable shoes and leap into the car, because you don’t want to miss it! It takes about eight hours with a break for lunch, but it is worth every second. I was lucky enough to be an ApolloCon guest of honor this year, and took the tour the Thursday before the con started, with my husband and Ann VanderMeer, the ApolloCon editor guest of honor.
You do need a security clearance, and for each section a briefer/escort who works in that particular area will join you to give that part of tour and answer questions and be happy when you stare at everything with wide eyes and tell them how incredible it is.
The first stop was the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where they prepare for space missions involving space walks. This is done under water, which simulates weightlessness for the training. Try to imagine a giant pool. No, bigger. No, bigger than that. Big enough to hold the space shuttle, and all the pieces of the space station. Some of the modules had been taken out for maintenance, so we were able to get a close-up view. And we got to see an equally giant crane lowering one back into the pool. They also have a medical team, and a hyperbaric chamber and a hypobaric chamber.
The next stop was Building 9, the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility, where there are several mock-ups of the space shuttle, the modules on the International Space Station, the Soyuz, the giant robot arm, and others. These are all used for astronaut training. We also saw the Lunar Rover, and POGO, the Partial Gravity Simulator, where astronauts practice walking in space suits over all different kinds of surfaces. There are two highlights to this tour: one is seeing the enclosed glass walkway up on the second floor where people who take the normal tour have to stay while you get to see things close-up, and the second is that you get to climb into one of the shuttle mock-ups. It gives you excellent perspective on how small the living and working space is inside the shuttle. And that it’s much easier to get up the ladder to the flight deck when there’s no gravity.
The next stop was the original Apollo Mission Control, which is no longer used and has been restored to its original state, with the red phone, the pneumatic tubes that were used to send messages, and everything. Again, tourists have to stay in the observation area, you get to run around and sit at the Flight Director’s station.
On our next stop, we had a truly incredible experience. (I think it was finally my karmic payback for all the cool things I never got to see.) We went into the observation area of one of the new Mission Controls, where after a few moments of watching everyone work, we realized that we were about to see an unmanned Russian supply ship dock with the International Space Station. Our guide told us, “This never happens. We never bring a tour in and see something like this.” So we sat down and watched, listening over the loudspeaker as they talked to the Russian mission control, and saw the ship get closer and closer, and finally, on the view from its camera, saw the space station’s lock oscillate. We also caught a glimpse of Kwatsi Alibaruho, NASA’s first African-American Mission Control Flight Director.
Still reeling from watching an actual real life space ship dock with an actual real life space station, we went to lunch, then came back for the tour of the Lunar Viewing Lab for the Apollo samples. The lab is kept under pristine conditions, and the moon rocks are kept as close to their original state and as protected from contamination by earth’s atmosphere as possible. We saw some moon rocks through the glass viewing wall, and heard about the procedures for how they’re studied, stories about how individual ones were collected, and how they’re protected during hurricanes.
Next was the Stardust Lab tour, to see samples from the Stardust mission, where samples of a comet were captured in a medium called aerogel. I recommend you read up about it here, because it’s fascinating. When someone shows you a jar with a tiny, tiny piece of stardust in it, a fragment of the material that built the solar system, that doesn’t happen every day.
The last lab tour was the Antarctic Meteorite Collection, where meteorites with origins of Mars, the moon, and the asteroids have been collected from Antarctica. These are also kept carefully protected from contamination, but we were able to suit up in the white outfits and go into the lab. We saw the cabinets the meteorites are studied in, heard how they’re collected from Antarctica, and saw how they’re cut apart or broken up for study.
Last was Rocket Park, the new building that houses the restored Saturn V rocket. The rocket is huge, and is in sections so you can see the engines of each individual stage, and they look like intricate steampunk art. After that, we went out to dinner, and then we collapsed.
For an extra bonus, Saturday at the convention astronaut Stanley G. Love also gave a presentation about his shuttle mission on the STS-122 Atlantis and his two spacewalks.
And besides all this, there was also a very fun SF/F convention going on. I had a fantastic time, an incredible tour, and an experience I wouldn’t have passed up for anything.