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The Space Station Museum

Until I got an email from my friend Heather Archuletta asking me if I wanted to tour The Space Station Museum in Novato, I must say that I didn’t know that it existed. I’m so glad that I was able join this morning’s tour because it’s clear that we have a gem in the Bay Area. It’s also clear that this museum has a different way of doing things that most space museums that I’ve visited.

The Space Station Museum is located in a storefront in Novato, California. On one side is a coffee shop and on the other is a pizzeria. This is not your typical location for a museum that has a large number of spaceflight artifacts. The other thing different about the museum is that visitors are allowed, in fact encouraged, to touch most of the artifacts there. Have you ever wanted to touch a meteor? If so, head to Novato when the museum is open and you can do it!

Walking into the first room of the museum, the first thing that I noticed were the pictures on the walls. After a closer look, I noticed that many of them had autographs of the astronauts who took or were in the pictures. There are crew photos, pictures taken on the moon, and in the space shuttle. My favorite is a photo from Apollo 16, labeled and autographed by LMP Charlie Duke. It’s a panoramic image and Gen. Duke has labeled some of the major features in the photo, including himself. There’s a photo of Bruce McCandless flying the MMU, a photo of  John Young scooping lunar soil  at North Ray Crater, and a photo of Harrison Schmidt standing in from of a lunar bolder larger than he is with the lunar rover in the foreground, among many others. On the back wall is a large photo of the Space Shuttle Columbia, apparently in orbit, against the blue of the earth and the black of space. More on this photo later.

Our guide to this room was Ken Winans, President of the museum and the man who has amassed much of this space memorabilia. Ken is quick to point out that the museum holds only a small portion of the collection and, as such, the content is rotated on a regular basis. Ken deftly walks us around the room, showing us Soyuz and Mir control panel pieces, space flown pieces and engineering prototypes, Mercury capsule pumps and Soviet and Russian suits. He shows us a Russian Sokol space suit while explaining its mechanics and those of its sister suit, called Orlan, to us. To our sheer delight, he invited us to try on gloves for both types of suit (neither of which fit my hand). He shows us two meteorites, one of iron and the other of rock, and encourages us to touch them! It was just awesome. Ken’s enthusiasm for the museum, the artifacts, and his concept of bring space to the people is contagious.

After spending time with Ken in the first room, we move on to the second room, which among other things, contains two amazing pieces, a 85% size lunar module and a lunar rover trainer. Our guide in this second room is Don Shields, an Apollo program veteran. Mr. Sheilds spent his time in the Apollo program working on the lunar module, so it’s quite fitting that he’s our guide in this room. He regales us with stories of working in the Apollo program and putting astronauts on the moon is amazing! The artifacts in this room are just as amazing, including more Russian control panels, rocket nozzles and a training flag that the Apollo astronauts used to practice putting up a flag on the moon! (Yes, it took practice, remember they were wearing pressurized space suits with limited mobility.

Besides being able to touch artifacts, Mr. Winans has a vision for museums. He don’t believe that they need to be big stodgy affairs. Rather, he puts his artifacts where the people are. As I mentioned above, the Space Station Museum is located in a shopping center in Novato, near a coffee shop, a grocery store, and a yoga studio. He wants people to see the collection and learn from it. Another wonderful feature of the museum is that there is no admission charge. When they’re open, you can walk in, view and touch the artifacts, and learn more about our adventures in space.

I am tremendously thankful to Heather for inviting me to join a group of fellow space enthusiasts on this tour. It amazes me that space can bring a group like this together. We had an aircraft electronics engineer, a lab technician, a City Clerk, a planetary scientist, and an Apollo program hypergolics engineer in the group. It was a lot of fun to talk with and learn from Amy McKinney, Grant McKinney, James Sharkey, Stephanie Evans, Natalie Batalha, Jeffrey Holton, and Robyn Villavecchia.

See the full photo set!


OK, with regard to the Columbia picture mentioned above, Mr. Winans says that he believes the photo is original and not photoshopped. I want to find out if this photo is indeed non-photoshopped. It’s odd because the cargo bay doors are closed, which means that the orbiter is either in the ascent or entry phase. If that’s the case, what would have been with the shuttle to take the photo. Any thoughts? – I’ve found out that it’s a composite photo of one of Columbia’s early landings over a shot from orbit. Lots of them were sold in the 80’s.



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The Horse is Running From a Burning Barn

In 2008, Wayne Hale wrote a blog post entitled, “Shutting Down the Shuttle” in which he it being too late, even then, to restart the Shuttle program. He focused on the fact that the Space Shuttle program had started shutting down in 2004, as directed by Congress and the President. Even in 2008, he noted it would be infeasible to restart the program because of logistical issues and most of all, because of money.

Now that the Soyuz is on a forced hiatus, there is talk of getting the Shuttle program started again to get Americans into space. This is a fallacy. It’s can’t be done. The Shuttle program is over. Getting back into space is important, but the Shuttle isn’t the way to do it. We need to, as Wayne puts it, get out of the Model-T era and into modern era.

The path that we are supposed to be on is that the money formerly used to operate the Shuttle would now be used to develop a new rocket to get us out of low earth orbit and back into the deep space exploration business.

Wayne ended that 2008 blog post by saying, “That horse has left the barn.” He titled his recent post on the same subject, “After the Barn Burned Down.” The Space Shuttle is the only space program I’ve even known. It’s been a part of my life that I’ve been mourning recently because of its end. Much as I hate to say it, the Shuttle program is over, let’s get on with it and get back into deep space.

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Single Points of Failure

In designing a process or a system, it’s always wise to ensure your system is able to withstand multiple failures and keep on operating. If it can’t do that, it’s the victim of a single point of failure. When it comes to the International Space Station, that single point of failure has failed. For the past ten years, both the United States and Russia have had the capability to bring crew members to the station. This year, the Shuttle retired which left us with the Soyuz as the single method of transporting crew members to the station.

When the Progress 44 launch failed on August 24th, the single point of failure was activated. The Progress rocket used the same third stage as the manned Soyuz rockets and that was the stage that failed. So, mere weeks before one half of the crew of the ISS was to depart for earth and another three astronauts were to be launched on a Souyz to replace them, all manned space flights are on hold while the failure is investigated. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time. Soyuz spacecraft has an on-orbit lifespan of about 6 months. The crew of Soyuz TMA-21 launched in early April, 2011 and the crew of Soyuz TMA-02M launched in early June. The TMA-21 crew must get back to earth before October and the TMA-02M must return by November. This means that if the Russian investigation into the cause of the failure draws on, it is possible that the station will have to go unmanned for a while. There is not danger to the station if it goes unmanned for a while, as Slate explains. However, if it occurs, the de-crewing will break the 10 year streak of consistent manned spaceflight.

I hope that we will get beyond the point of having only a single point of failure and get back into the business of launching humans in to space. Whether it’s Russia or the United States, humans need to be in the business of getting off Earth.

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