Tuesday 13th October 2009. Houston. Day off.
Today was slated for a visit to Johnson Space Center, the HQ for NASA. About 20 of us went down and were greeted at the facility by a team of people from NASA who were to be our guides for the day. These included some actual astronauts, which was extremely exciting. We met Tim Kopra, who has just returned from the space station and was part of the on-stage link-ups we did from that stage during various shows on the tour. Also we met Shane Kimbrough and Mike Massimino, both of whom have been up with the space shuttle.
First stop was at the old Mission Control room, the one which was used for the Apollo missions. For those of us old enough to remember the moon missions, this room is iconic beyond words. It has been immortalised in film, but I remember it vividly from black and white television. It's a large windowless room, filled with rows of consoles, populated by clean-cut men in regulation white shirts and ties and that bloke with the thick black glasses who seemed to appear every time.
Just due to how we'd come out of the elevator, Bono and I were first into the room and the pair of us were practically weak at the knees going into this place, which is exactly as I remembered it (except that it's in colour). It is no longer used but has been mothballed just as it was, becoming a shrine to the moon missions. We all sat at the consoles and took pictures of each other, as our guides talked us through how things would have run back in the day. It was a wonderful experience.
From there we went downstairs to the new Mission Control, which looks remarkably similar, though clearly with vastly advanced technology (colour screens and everything). From here Bono and Edge put in a call to the International Space Station, which we were all able to watch live, seeing the space station crew up on the big screen of Mission Control. This transmission was good natured to the point of being hilarious and more informal than our previous ones, partly because it was just for us but perhaps also because we feel like we know these people now, sitting in their tin can, far above the world.
Roman Romanenko is there from Russia and he's just a scream. (Even Guy Laliberte conceded that perhaps his own visit to the space station made him not the first clown in space, as he'd initially claimed, but maybe the second after Roman.) Towards the end of the link-up, Nicole Stott who's up there, revealed that one of the 'personal' items on board ship is a giraffe glove puppet called Harold. In the final moments of our chat, Roman, in a state of great excitement, was operating the puppet so it appeared in the bottom of the screen frame, which was more bizarre than I can adequately describe. Maybe the Muppet Show sketch 'Pigs in Space' wasn't so far fetched after all.
Next up was a look around the training centre with its full size replicas of the space station and other spacecraft. We were able to climb aboard and look around these incredible vehicles, some of which now feel oddly familiar due to our having seen them regularly on our video link-ups. Mike and Shane showed us round and told us many stories about life in space. They were very generous with their time and information, being very patient with one of our party who was inappropriately fascinated by the space toilet (though, let’s be honest, it's the question we're all dying to ask, though frankly I'm not sure you want to know the answer.)
We rounded off the day with a (very) late lunch at Frenchie's Italian which was recommended by the astronauts. It's a couple of miles down NASA Parkway and is a great little Mom and Pop place which has clearly been the local haunt for Space Center employees for a long time. The walls are covered with dozens and dozens of framed, autographed pictures of astronauts and space crews, including, amazingly, the whole crew of Apollo 11, the first moon landing.
Later that same day there was a party at a bar in downtown Houston, organised by Tom our video director, as a slew of his Cajun musician mates had come up from Louisiana. It was great fun on a hot and humid evening, with good food and live music from the Cajun crew. Astronauts Mike and Shane came along and brought their families so we had a chance to thank them for giving us such a wonderful day, looking into their world. I didn't stay long past midnight and ended up leaving them in the hands of the Belgians, so I hope they got home unscathed. Flying rockets is one thing, but drinking with Belgians is space travel of a whole other kind.
What an amazing day. Hard to pick a favourite moment, but the fact that one of the desks at the Space Center really is labeled 'Ground Control' was way up there.