Its name: Saturn V. Occupation: heavy lift vehicle. Claim to fame: the world's most famous rocket which was used as Apollo and Skylab launcher between 1966 and 1973. It lay flat on its belly in a shed in National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Rocket Park in Houston, Texas. Still jaw-dropped, I stood by its fin and imagined Saturn V launching Apollo 11 that took Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin to moon in 1969. Saturn V was a space frequent flyer — it has launched 24 astronauts into moon.
(In pic: Eating, bathing in a low-gravity space can be difficult. This is a life-size display of how astronauts train for their days in space shuttles)
Those astronauts were around me — lifesize, photographed in their space suits. In the Space Centre's lawn, two colossal rockets stood tall as if ready to pierce Earth's orbit and land in space.
Inside the Space Centre, the official visitor's centre of NASA, I turned almostweightless. I stood on a machine, dropped a coin into a slot and lo! I was lighter by one-sixth. I dropped another coin and I was a little fatter than what I was a minute ago, but still trimmer by many kilograms. No, I hadn't quickly enrolled in a weight loss program. The machine was calculating my weight on moon and Mars. On Moon, I'd be 10 kilograms, on Mars, 22 kilograms. That moment in Space Centre, even a size zero seemed obese, overweight.
My new-found weightlessness had to be celebrated. But I wasn't doing it the mundane way. A lean Space Centre robot was serving scoops of frozen yogurt. Two yogurt flavours. One efficient robot. A few extra calories from frozen yogurt were no bother. For, if I were an astronaut I'd only get freeze-dried food in space (see 'Space Food, Anyone?'). But if I waited until 2030, when NASA aims to send humans to Mars, I could perhaps munch on fresh carrots and arugula leaves that astronauts will probably be able to grow in hydroponic containers aboard Orion, the Mars shuttle.
Having been served by a robot, I stepped into the Lunar Artifacts section that has the world's largest collection of lunar artifacts.
A polybag has a shovel full of lunar soil. Behind another sturdy glass pane are minerals from moon. Between 1969 and 1972, six Apollo missions brought back 382 kilograms of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface. Samples are stashed in glass cones and tubes. In the centre is a triangular piece of rock. It is a moon rock, a real piece of moon that visitors can touch. I run my fingers on the rock — it is black, the edges soft, the surface smooth as silk. I feel like Neil Armstrong, the first man on moon. Not too faraway is an image of his bootprint on moon. Armstrong's feet are large. I cannot fit into his shoes. Not literally. Never metaphorically.
Tram Ride through NASA
The closest I could be to being an astronaut was to walk into the Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre. However, I could not just mosey around NASA's facility which is a complex of 100 buildings sprawled across 1, 620 acres. I had to buy a ticket, get photographed (it is mandatory for security reasons) and then hop into a tram for the 90-minute Tram Tour that snakes through NASA's facility in Houston with taped voices spewing information about NASA and real astronauts getting nostalgic with their space stories.
without refrigeration. It is in Building 27, a 12, 000 sq-ft grey Astronaut Quarantine Facility, that astronauts have to be tucked away in isolation before and after space missions. There's the historic Mission Control, where space programs were monitored until 1992. And a patch of land where 38 green oaks grow, planted in honour of the astronauts who lost their lives during space missions. I knew there's one in memory of Indian-born Kalpana Chawla who perished in the Columbia crash on February 1, 2003. I wanted to kneel and say a prayer for her, but could not. Visitors are not allowed to loaf around in NASA.
(Saturn V helped launched several missions to moon in 1960s and 1970s)
In NASA, my first tram stop was Building 9's Space Station Mockup and Training Facility (SSMTF) which is a full-scale, high-fidelity replica of the Space Station where astronauts and scientists are working sedulously for the 2030 Mars Mission. From a visitor's glassed-in catwalk two stories above the floor, I thought I had entered a museum. But the high-bay is not the place for static displays. This is where the Orion dry-run is taking place. There are pressurised trainers that stretch from end to end and robotic astronauts stand amidst countless machines, pipes, other robots and rovers.
(NASA has one of the largest collections of lunar artefacts)
There are pieces of the Canadarm, cutting edge rovers, near-flawless robots, next-level space suits. SSMTF mimics every tiny detail of space. It is Orion that will take humans to an asteroid and Mars. Orion capsule will be 5 meters in diameter and have a mass of about 22.7 metric tons (25 tons). Inside, it will have more than two-and-a-half times the volume of an Apollo capsule. For the astronauts, it is like feeling being on Mars much before they actually Mars-walk. In SSMTF, the red planet does not seem so far away. After all, it is just the fourth planet from the sun!
(A blown-up photograph of Neil Armstrong's footprint on moon in NASA's Space Centre)
There's so much to see in NASA that I was getting this feeling of being an astronaut. The Living in Space module gives a glimpse of life inside an International Space Station — how the astronauts eat, sleep, stay in shape and conduct their experiments. It sure is not an easy task — everything is complicated by a microgravity environment.
One can wriggle into the Launch Entry Suit, a partial-pressure suit that Space Shuttle astronauts wore during ascent and descent. Introduced after the 1986 Challenger accident, it was used until the late 1990s. I could put my feet in a Blast-Off Theatre to watch the launch of a 4.5 million pound vehicle taking off the ground and speeding out of the atmosphere with 7 million pounds of thrust.
(Space Centre, NASA's visitor centre, has fascinating exhibits that include rovers, lunar artefacts, photographs, shuttle replicas)