A Place To Get the Feel of Space

WEIGHTLESS, Jamie Scott tried to adjust a satellite that drifted away at every touch. He struggled to maintain position by firing the thrusters on his manned maneuvering unit (MMU), the jet-equipped backpack that astronauts wear during spacewalks.

But unlike a certain starship engineering officer, this Mr. Scott was better suited for life on earth.

"I ended up running out of gas and floating off to my death in space somewhere," the eighth-grade earth sciences teacher laughed after unstrapping from the MMU simulator at Space Center Houston, the $74 million visitor center that opened Oct. 16 at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC).

About 1 million tourists a year visit the JSC, even though there are no advertisements, promotions, or freeway signs. But they have sometimes been disappointed to find that NASA's headquarters is an office park distinguished by a few obsolete rockets on display.

"Our previous attempt at a visitors' center was merely to take the hallway spaces that were available, and fill them with artifacts," says Harold Stall, JSC's director of public affairs and the initiator of the new facility. In 1986, he contacted Walt Disney Imagineering to talk about how to receive the public in an entertaining, educational, and inspirational way.

An important audience would be "that young man who is sitting in the back of an algebra class this morning in school somewhere, and drawing pictures of space shuttles instead of drawing equations on his page," Mr. Stall says. "We want to show him the connection between that algebra and the spaceships that he'd like to design as part of his career, and to inspire him to stay in school and study the subjects that will give him that future."

Disney contracted BRC Imagination Arts of Burbank, Calif., to create the attractions for Space Center Houston. Meanwhile, Stall created the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, which built the 183,000-square-foot facility using corporate contributions and local bond money. Income from visitors, expected to reach 2 million the first year, will be used to retire the bond debt and operate the center. (Admission is $8.75 for adults, $5.25 for children 3-12. Under 3 and qualifying school groups are free. )

Pat Scanlon, executive vice president of BRC Imagination Arts, agrees that the former visitors center "didn't have a lot of life or a lot of energy to it. But even at that, it was still compelling to see," he says. For Space Center Houston, his company designed an "experience center" at which the public can see what it is like to be an astronaut in training and even get the feel of going into space.

"Action was going on all the time," reports teacher Scott of his visit. "They always had a good flow of activities."

Space Center Houston "is the closest thing to space on earth," brags Stall. "It's not just the right stuff - it's the real stuff."

Visitors first enter Space Center Plaza. An Apollo lunar lander dangles above as if on final approach. Straight ahead is the nose of a space shuttle, containing a mockup of the crew quarters.

To the left, past the MMU simulator, mission briefing officer Angela Acton demonstrates the weightlessness features of the habitation module for Space Station Freedom, scheduled to be placed in orbit in the next decade. Since everyone floats, there will be no floor to walk on, just four walls with storage compartments and work surfaces. And since in space there's no "up" or "down," sleeping bags are attached to all the walls.

`THIS is full-size," Ms. Acton reassures a visitor astonished by a shower that offers little elbow room, especially since users must hand-vacuum water from the drainless stall before exiting.

Behind the habitation mockup, students sit at the controls of shuttle-landing simulators.

A computerized flight instructor gets them out of orbit and back into the atmosphere before telling them: "Now you get the fun job: landing a flying brick on the runway. We're gliding in now, so you'll be on the ground in two to three minutes. The big question is: Will you land with the pointy end forward and the wheels down?"

Ali Anderson, a high school senior who wants to design spacecraft, enjoyed the simulator. But did he land properly?

"Oh, no," he laughs. "Oh, no."

After attempting the simulators, students gawked at a collection of spacesuits worn on different missions, then watched "To Be An Astronaut" on Space Center Theater's five-story screen. The 25-minute film, shot in 870 mm format, shows viewers the grind and glory of the profession.

Across the plaza, Mission Status Center is a multiscreen theater where visitors watch live action from locations all across NASA and in space, if a mission is underway.

Beyond that is Starship Gallery. Visitors first watch "On Human Destiny," a 13-minute history of United States manned spaceflight, then they proceed into a spacecraft museum. It begins with a replica of the Goddard rocket, launched in 1926 from Auburn, Mass. (It rose 41 feet and traveled 184 feet in all.)

The climax is a replica of the moon's surface, featuring two astronauts and their lunar rover, the actual rover used for training the Apollo astronauts who traveled 500,000 miles round trip.

The display also contains moon rocks, including one that can be touched, and the gigantic training module for Skylab.

Finally, there's Space Traders, the exhibit gift shop. Assistant manager Sharon Glenn says space food sells briskly, especially astronaut ice cream.

Stall hopes that Space Center Houston will inspire students to become the astronauts that NASA will need for its space station, for a permanent base on the moon, and for a trip to Mars.

Abby Green, a grade-schooler from Metarie, La., already knows she wants to be an astronaut. But where does she hope to go?

"I'm not sure," she muses. "Anywhere - in space."

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