First Stop, Mission Control

13 October 2009
First Stop, Mission Control
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.

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17 December, 2009
We have lift off
I am glad that you got to see NASA & Mission Control while you were in town. Nice write up about your feelings. It is awe inspiring to see for the first time. Just as seeing my first U2 concert was in 2005.
Karen Cardwell Diller
21 November, 2009
Thanks for the nice post re: NASA
Willie- Thanks for the wonderful post. I am a developer in flight software for the shuttle, and my husband works IT security for JSC/Mission Control. The space program is a way of life around here, and we often forget how awe-inspiring it is to so many people outside the area. Thanks for reminding us. And thanks for a fabulous show! We were both there at Reliant on the 14th. (We also saw the Paris show in July). We could tell that Bono truly enjoyed his Houston visit. We wish we'd seen you all at NASA and Frenchies. Come back soon!
07 November, 2009
Ate dinner @ Frenchie's tonight...
& thought of you guys! It really is the best local Italian haunt we've got around here. Truly authentic! If ya could manage to send Frankie some autographed pictures, I'm sure he'd be eternally grateful, as apparently he didn't have his camera the day you all ate there so he could add you all to his wall(s) of fame.
24 October, 2009
Hello from Texas
Willie, so glad all of you enjoyed your visit to the Space Center. Cool place, and nice folks. I live closeby and couldn't believe when I heard you all had been there! And yes, Frenchies has wonderful food. Only wish I could have joined all of you! The Houston show was fabulous. Thanks for the memories. Glad the folks at NASA got a chance to show "ya'll" some Texas-sized hospitality!
24 October, 2009
Thanks for painting an awesome portrait of the day : ) I have a visual of Astronauts jigging around the bar with Belgians... Astronauts livestream to U2 from the can above the earth... Wouldn't it be cool for U2 to Utube livestream to the Astronauts in the can.., the world and beyond livestream... Whoa... my knees are weak : )
24 October, 2009
Nice ;-)
Nice write up! With ground control at "Space station 360" in mind, it's good to know you can still be impressed ;-) Really enjoyed the NASA feed as well...
24 October, 2009
Down to Earth
Willie, what I love about this diary entry (among others) is that, despite your "glamorous" (to me) celebrity-filled life, you are able to show such genuine joy and excitement in something any one of us would find special. And you know that "weak in the knees" feeling you and Bono had upon walking into mission control? That's exactly how I felt when I walked into my first U2 concert and saw the Claw in person!!!!
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