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Houston: Johnson Space Center

The Johnson Space Center in Houston is the largest and most important NASA site in the USA. It serves two purposes; training astronauts and sending them safely into outer space and back. Over 15,000 space technicians, computer engineers and instructors work here around the clock.

This state within a state is closely guarded. Only those who work here can enter. Metre high fences make sure it stays that way. Cameras are installed in front of the perimeter, with security guards watching the entrances and exits to the NASA Johnson Space Center campus in Houston, Texas. Only those who meet the strict safety precautions and can get authorisation are allowed to enter the American space organisation site via a security sluice.

Intense concentration prevails in the different departments housed in over one hundred and fifty buildings. Around 15,000 people work simultaneously on their tasks in perfect synchronisation, just as if it were a bee’s hive. A common will drives the employees. It is the desire to exceed the limits of the possible and it unites space pioneers and NASA veterans during every second of their work. Everyone in the Johnson Space Center has a common goal which drives them. It is to train astronauts and to send them safely up into the cosmos and back. From the space technician to the computer engineer, tens of thousands work towards the success of the around one hundred astronauts on active duty. They are the heroes of those nations taking part. They must carry out the missions which are planned and trained for here in a life-threatening universe, without making a single mistake. Every move has to be perfect. Each course of events is trained over and over again. This is what they are here for. And in this everyone works with them together. The astronauts are the moveable arm of a giant body, an arm which is steered from here with the utmost of accuracy and passion. He or she who makes it this far to the Johnson Space Center has but one role, that of manned space travel.

A jump back in time to the 12th of April 1961, sees the Russian Yuri Gagarin as the first man in outer space. On the 5th of May, Alan Shepard follows, becoming the first American in space. Twenty days later on the 25th of May 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announces to congress the plan to send the first men to the moon within the next decade. The members of congress applaud, rise from their seats and celebrate the president. The U.S. Space Agency, founded just three years previously is on the look out for a suitable base to locate their space travel programme. The choice falls in favour of Texas, the home of the previous U.S President, Dwight D. Eisenhower. On the 1st of March 1962, the Johnson Space Center opens for business. Texas‘ “Rice University“ had presented the site on the outskirts of Houston to the NASA. Cattle had previously grazed the area’s 650 hectares, which is size of 910 football fields/pitches.

The buildings are distributed singly around the site as if they were on a university campus. The NASA has grouped all the necessary training and research departments next to one another on the site, from the new quarantine house, in which the astronauts spend the week before the launch, to the laboratory for space foods. The astronauts only finally get to know some of the buildings as their training comes to a close.

These other buildings remain the domain of highly specialized scientists, such as the Lunar Sample Laboratory Facility, in which the 382 kilogrammes of moon rock gathered during the Apollo missions is housed. The largest of the 2,220 moon rocks are worth many millions of dollars. However as assets of national culture they are unsaleable and remain in possession of the NASA. They were gathered by hand from the surface of the moon by the twelve astronauts from the last seven Apollo missions, except for Apollo 13.

With a quiet voice, David Cisco greets a group of  VIPs. The space engineer has spent countless hours working as a technician on the Apollo programmes lunar modules. Now the 70 year-old NASA veteran is showing guests around building number 30. Here at the heart of the Johnson Space Center is the historical Mission Control Center. It was from here that numerous journeys to the moon were guided during the  Apollo programme. “Look at this”, says Cisco, calling over the group with all the excitement of a youth. “On these chairs and in front of these monitors is where the men were sitting at 3.17 pm local time on the 20th of July 1969. Back then there was deadly silence in the control room. Seconds before the landing on the moon all the men here were holding their breath in excitement. The air was taught with tension until they finally heard Neil Armstrong’s voice over the tinny loud speakers saying ‚Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The eagle has landed‘.“ Cisco briefly looks to the floor, as if he were able to re-live that moment and says laughing: “When I recall that, I still get goose bumps today. That was a grand moment and I was twenty four then.“

Just a few metres further on from the old Apollo control room is room MCC-H. The international space station (ISS) is controlled from here. Metre high monitors show the ISS’s current position, where it is circling the earth at 28 thousand Kilometres per hour. The flight controller responsible for the space station is just checking the latest data arriving by satellite. A green display with AOS (-01.06) on it, indicates that in one minute the satellite contact with the base station will routinely be broken off. Sitting next to the flight director is the CAPCOM, the communications officer. Over the headphones set he upholds the contact between the space station and the ground station. The CAPCOMS are usually themselves astronauts. No one can give commands quicker, or understand the problems explained by astronauts in orbit, other than someone who has himself been in outer space. Without the help of the ground station, the crew of Apollo 13 would never have returned to earth in April 1970. “Houston, we have a problem” is what the CAPCOM Jack Lousma heard, shortly after an oxygen tank had exploded. Today’s CAPCOM sits quietly at his console, as the satellite looses its signal to the space station. It is now the turn of MCC-M, the mission control centre in Moscow, to keep contact with the ISS, which continues steadily in its orbit 400 kilometres above the earth.

Those working in the brightly lit Sonny-Carter hangar at the Johnson Space Center are concentrating hard. The space technicians, the navy divers, safety officers and space trainer listen closely to the instructions given over the loud speakers by the head of operations. The flight technicians are in charge of the astronauts‘ space suits, at the moment for those of Randy Bresnik and Alexander Gerst.

The technicians have accurately laid out the helmets and the expensive special gloves worth 150,000 dollars on the occasional tables. The table on the left has a label with “Bresnik” written on it, the right hand one “Gerst”. The technicians test the torso and the bottom half of the suit one more time. If anything should go wrong with the space suits they would carry the responsibility.

All the while the preparations carry on in the hangar. Its centre piece is a 62 metre long water tank. Submerged in it at a depth of twelve metres is a life-size model of the International Space Station. It is here at the NASA’s, Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL), that weightlessness and the life threatening conditions of outer space are simulated. As if in space, the astronauts glide through the 24 million litres of water in the tank and learn how to carry out repairs to the space ship. They are hermetically shielded from the outside world. Life support systems supply them with oxygen, drinking water and nourishment during their six hours of training.

Decades of research work has gone into the suits,  each one of which is its own space ship, with an on board propulsion system and each worth ten to twenty million dollars. An ingeniously thought out technical system with up to fourteen layers of different material, from neoprene to aluminium, keeps the temperature at a constant 37 degrees Celsius, cancelling out temperature deviations from minus 270 degrees in the shade to plus 120 degrees in the sun. However the high tech suit has even more demands to fulfil. It is pressurised at 1.3 bar, protecting its wearer from the vacuum of outer space and yet other deadly conditions. At twenty kilometres above the earth, the liquid boiling point is just 37 degrees. Without a special suit, an astronaut’s blood would begin to boil in outer space and his bodily fluids would be turned to steam within a few seconds.

A small door opens and the NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik and his ESA (European Space Agency) colleague Alexander Gerst enter the Hangar’s giant main hall. The upper part of each of their spacesuits awaits them on a metal frame, anchored to a mobile platform. The astronauts slip into the torsos from below. Then the space technicians seal the heavy metal rings on the suits which join the upper and the lower parts together. The gloves click on more easily than one might expect. During the missions outside the space station they are the most important tools the astronaut has. The trousers and helmets are of a standard size, whereas the gloves are tailored to fit. The sweat is already running down their foreheads. They breathe in fresh air for the last time before the technicians begin to place their helmets on and join them to the torso sections. Moments later a crane lifts the platform with the astronauts on it and lets it down slowly into the water. Just the helmets remain sticking out above the surface, until they too descend out of sight. Their silhouettes can be seen vaguely twelve metres under the surface.

In the control room, the head of the exercise asks: “EV1 can you hear me?” Out of the depths, the sound of the astronauts breathing can be heard. A computer monitor shows the vital functions signals sent from the spacesuits every second. In the foremost console in the control room, nine monitors show the position of the astronauts in the water. Scott Wray, NASA’s director of testing and astronaut instructor for space walk missions is closely following the pictures from the underwater cameras. A few moments later comes the comforting sound of the astronaut’s answer: “Mission leader, here is EV1, I can hear you loud and clear!”

Below in the water divers are now checking both the astronaut’s space suits. If any bubbles appear from the connecting modules and the seals, then both men have to be fetched out of the water as quickly as possible. Proof that the unexpected can happen, shows the last space walk mission by the Italian Luca Parmitano. He almost suffocated in outer space, when half a litre of water was pressed in to his helmet. The cause of the leak and the catastrophic near drowning in the summer of 2013 was a defective pump in the suit’s cooling system. However today, the divers give Bresnik and Gerst an all “go” and release the spacesuits from the lines securing them to the platform.

Now the astronauts glide freely through the water. They are accompanied by four divers. Many of the NASA men and women working here under water used to serve with the Navy. They help to balance out the space suits using weights and film the training, so that each and every hand movement can be scrutinized by the control room. Gerst and Bresnik now have six hours of heavy labour in front of them. There is no break. There is only a fluid snack for them to eat, which is integrated inside the space suit and can be drunk through a tube. The training mission today is to repair the space station’s cooling system before midday.

In view of the counter pressure inside the space suit this is a strenuous task. However only when the astronauts can master all expected problems and emergencies, only when each of their hand movements is perfect and could be done in their sleep, only then is a real mission within their grasp. Although the work in space is dangerous, a space walk is seen as the ultimate way of experiencing the silence and endlessness of outer space. All astronauts dream of doing this. Whenever they speak of space walking their eyes light up. But the if and when of any mission outside of the ISS is decided by others, but only if their trainers have given them top marks for team spirit, solution finding and keeping to the safety rules.

All the while the international space station is carving its orbits in space. Even while the training is under way in Houston, this outpost of humanity is gliding through the universe, 414 kilometres above the surface of the earth. Continents and countries race by below the ISS. Weighing 420,000 kilos, the heavy ship manages 27,587 kilometres per hour. That is 7,663 metres a second. From on board the ISS the earth looks small. If clouds are not obscuring the view, the carpets of light that are the cities move in relation to one another, constantly reforming and creating new patterns. Lightening flashes give the impression of there being a network full of power down below. Just as the solar sails begin to glow silver in the sunlight, the sun dips down behind the hemisphere. For the ISS, one orbit of the planet takes 90 minutes. In one day the six members of the crew see the sun rise and set again sixteen times.

Thirty-two modules make up the space station’s full length of 110 metres. There are air lock chambers, utility units, research modules, robot arms, connecting nodes, viewing stations and solar panels. At its core are the astronauts‘ work and living quarters. Here new astronauts will find a shoebox-sized container waiting for them. Inside are their personal effects. Unmanned space freighters will have brought them to the station previously. These personal objects are usually kept in nets attached to the walls of their sleeping berths. The soundproof cabins have a reading lamp, a shelf, a cupboard and a desk. Their bed is a sleeping bag, weightlessness means a mattress is unnecessary.

The ISS is actually a giant flying laboratory. Over 1250 experiments have already been carried out in joint ventures with around two hundred universities. Future moon or Mars missions are being prepared for, as well as the testing of robots for use on dangerous missions. The days on board the ISS are carefully structured. A typical working day starts at around 6.10 am when the alarm clock rings. Then come the bathroom obligations and at around 6.40 it is time for breakfast. At 7.30 preparations take place for daily work load, which is followed around   8 by the daily conference between the astronauts and mission control in Houston. Afterwards the schedule consists of inspection rounds, maintenance work and experiments, until the midday meal at 1 pm. Work continues with the testing of the on-board systems, experiments and personal fitness training until the second planned conference at 7 pm. At 7.30 it is time to prepare food for the evening meal, after which follows bedtime as from 9.30 pm. Once a week there is a biochemical urine test and the body functions are checked over. This is followed by a private conference between the astronaut and a doctor at the ground station. Every two weeks there is a scheduled conference with a psychologist. Sundays are “work free” on the ISS. However genuine free time is rare, at most a few minutes in the observation dome, the so called cupola. Otherwise Sunday means fitness training, doing the cleaning and the planning conference for the week. The day’s highlight is the fifteen to thirty minute live link to their family members.

However before an astronaut gets as far as starting out on a six month stint of duty on the space station, he will have had to have gone through many years of training and examination programmes on the earth. A journey into space is only conceivable after all the tests at the Johnson Space Center have been passed. After all, there is one sentence nobody in Texas ever wants to hear again and that is: “Houston, we have a problem”.