Ground control is major fun
In its own nostalgic way, the NASA mission control console Colin White recently got working doubles as a time machine. The first time he powered it on, it took him back to 1969.
The Talent resident and ScienceWorks advisory board member — now retired from a career in software engineering — had just graduated from college and was about to start a new job at IBM. It was also the year he joined millions of starry-eyed Americans and watched the moon landing live on television. The memory of that day — July 20 — is so fresh it may as well have happened yesterday, not a half-century ago.
“I think it’s like that in life. There are things you remember very distinctly, and this,” he says, gesturing to the console, “brought this back to that period 50 years ago,” when Neil Armstrong took one small step for mankind.
But the console, which ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum officials acquired through a government surplus website late last year, isn’t just an artifact for White to reminisce about. His months of handiwork in resurrecting the array of buttons, bulbs and circuits inside the sturdy metal housing will be part of the museum’s Apollo 11 50th anniversary exhibit, which opens July 20. Exhibit attendees will have the opportunity to actually use the 8-foot console and take their own trip back in time, and act as operators during simulated rocket launch and lunar landing sequences. To do it correctly, they’ll have to press the correct sequences of buttons.
“They’ll go through each of those steps, and if they’re successful, then you’ll see a launch,” White says. “If you get it wrong, then it blows up and you try again.”
The console had a significant and consistent presence at NASA for many years. It was there when astronauts first walked in space during the Gemini program. It was there for the Apollo moon flybys and landings. It also was part of multiple launches during the Space Shuttle program. It was one of dozens of stations responsible for specific tasks.
ScienceWorks had always planned to do an exhibit for the moon-landing anniversary. The console turned out to be icing on the rocket-shaped cake. ScienceWorks Director Dan Ruby was on the government surplus website looking for NASA artifacts when he found it. He’d used the same site when he worked for a planetarium in Reno, Nevada.
“I wrote a proposal, and we got them,” Ruby says. “Apparently, Southern Oregon doesn’t have a lot of NASA artifacts, so they’re happy to send it here and give exposure to people who normally don’t get to see and play with these kind of things.”
The museum only had to pay for shipping. ScienceWorks officials had initially thought to use the piece of equipment as a display-only exhibit.
“But once we got it, we realized that we could probably just make this mission control (console) functional,” Ruby says.
Enter White. He was more than qualified to take on the task, considering his background in electronics and software engineering — and the fact that he’s a NASA Solar System Ambassador, a role in which he serves as a link between the space agency and the public. Still, it was a daunting task, he said.
“I said, ‘Well, maybe I can get it running,’ ” White says. “I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.”
He spent more than two months rewiring segments of the console at his home. And it wasn’t just that he had to restore it, but enhance it to make it a hands-on simulator. It was a puzzle of sorts, with White working on individual sections until he had them all running. He estimates he spent somewhere between 350 and 400 hours working on it.
“This console was actually fed from NASA computers in the network and, of course, we don’t have that,” White says. “So we’ve had to build sort of a back end to emulate that.”
This month, he brought those sections in, wired them together, and flipped the switch.
“Everything lit up,” White says. “It sounds stupid, but it was quite an emotional moment. ‘Wow! This thing works!’ So, yeah, it was very emotional when I powered it up.”
It wasn’t just that it worked. It was the recollection of so many years ago. And Rogue Valley residents will soon get to experience that history, too. Numerous other exhibits will join it, including a full-scale lunar lander simulator, space suits, an interactive timeline showing the evolution of space technology and more.
T-minus a month and a half.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at email@example.com or 541-776-4468.