Crew Prepares For Shuttle Mission
Semi-circular rows of computers, electronic switchboards and unobtrusive decor make the Operations Control Center (OCC) for NASA's Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF) look like a scaled-down version of the mission control rooms in movies.
This control room is real, however, and located at 1 Hampshire Street, near Kendall Square.
From here, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory will monitor the AXAF telescope after the Space Shuttle Columbia launches it Jan. 26, 1999.
Five of Columbia's crew members visited the facility yesterday and answered questions from an audience which included both OCC staff members and enthusiastic children.
AXAF is the third of NASA's major observatories, along with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
It will travel on a highly elliptical orbit for five to seven years. AXAF will observe the universe in fifty times more detail than any previous X-ray telescope. The satellite combines the ability to make sharp images while measuring precisely the energies of X-rays coming from cosmic sources.
AXAF will study many phenomena, including supernovae, black holes and nebulae.
The crew will be lead by Eileen M. Collins, the first U.S. woman to command a shuttle mission.
The astronauts, dressed in blue jump-suits covered with patches, answered questions about the mission ahead and daily life in outer space.
Mission Specialist Steven A. Hawley explained how the deployment of AFAX will differ from that of the Hubble telescope.
He said Hubble was deployed by a robot arm and stayed in a low orbit, whereas AFAX will use booster rockets to leave earth's orbit for its higher, elliptical orbit.
Collins noted that, unlike Hubble, AFAX cannot be serviced once deployed.
"We can't retrieve AXAF once we let it go," Collins said.
AFAX is also exceptional because it weighs a whopping 248 thousand lbs.
"AFAX is the heaviest weight ever flown on the Space Shuttle," Collins said.
The astronauts also answered less technical, but equally fascinating, questions about their experiences in space.
According to Hawley, an astronaut can eat as if underwater.
"You can take your food and float it right in front of you and you can float up and eat it like a fish," Hawley said.
However, Hawley said the astronauts generally squeeze their food from tubes.
Mission Specialist Catherine G. "Cady" Coleman commented that living in a spacecraft isn't different from living at home, with one major exception.
"It's like being in your living room, except everything floats around, including you," Coleman said.
The astronauts also discussed how the human body adapts from earth to a zero gravity environment.
Hawley said that as the space shuttle struggles to overcome the earth's gravity, the body pumps more blood into the upper half of the body than usual in order to prevent it from pooling in the lower half.
Hawley said that once the shuttle reaches zero gravity, the body "is still preferentially pumping fluid" into the upper half of the body.
The effect lasts for a couple of days, and feels like hanging upside-down.
"You're not terribly efficient for the first several days," Hawley said.
Because of this adaption process, normally deployments do not occur until the third day of a mission, Collins said.
However, the STS-93 crew will launch AXAF on day one of their mission.
Therefore, the crew must "practice over and over again [so that] on the real day it will be a lot easier [and]...we can put aside the adaption and focus on mission," Collins said.
At the end of the presentation, Hawley warned would-be astronauts of NASA's difficult selection process, but encouraged others to pursue their dreams.
"When I applied [to be an astronaut] I was smart enough to know that the chances of me being accepted were the same if I applied or didn't," Hawley said.
"[But] I didn't want to live with the wonder, 'Could I have done this if I had tried?'"