I’ve worked in the aerospace field for twenty years and I’m often asked if I’ve been able to fly on any of the aircraft I work on. Well, the short answer is ‘No’. The US Air Force owns most of the platforms I’ve dealt with and then there was the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has a policy to only allow their specially trained astronauts on board their space ships. The Air Force is less selective and I’ve known some engineers who were able to ride aboard a B-52, but for the most part only military personnel are allowed on their aircraft.
Engineers on the ISS program were allowed to ride the ‘Vomit Comet’, a specially modified KC-135 Stratotanker that flies a parabolic path and upon reaching the top, produces a weightless environment for several minutes. These lucky ducks developed the operator interfaces in a specialty known as human factors. Being exposed to the same environment as the astronauts that now inhabit the ISS proved invaluable in empathizing with the needs of the astronauts. I never actually heard of anyone vomiting in the comet, but I figure it didn’t get its name for nothing.
The closest I got to ISS was getting access to the model that was on display at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The tour of the NASA facility included stops at the rocket launch sites used during the heyday of the space race. Werner Von Braun and his other rocket scientists practically founded Huntsville, and enabled the United States to put a man on the moon in 1969.
One of the tour stops included a look at the future of space as it looked in the early 1990’s: the International Space Station. There was a velvet rope separating the public from the models. When I first moved to Huntsville, I took that tour with the rest of the viewing public.
One day I stood at the rope, a working engineer, but I was on the other side of the rope, the working side and to tell you the truth there wasn’t much back there. I just didn’t have to pay for the view; the company paid me. The exhibit included models of the latest design for the various modules that make up the ISS with some of its innards mocked up for fit checking. In addition to providing publicity for NASA, the ‘tourist’ area provided the engineers a look at what the whole product would look like at the end.
When you work a huge development project like the Space Station, your assignment is most likely to be on a subsystem, something like the electrical power or the waste facilities. Viewing the final product, even a model of one, puts your work into perspective. It’s good to keep the big picture in front of you while you toil on just one facet of the program. I was lucky on ISS to have that model. And I did enjoy the tourists eyeing me as if I were Werner Von Braun reincarnated.