Mission control

Apollo 13 is one of the most famous of NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon — not because the astronauts succeeded in landing on the moon, but because they were successful in returning to Earth.

The Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) — known as the Canadarm — is a key part of the International Space Station. The original arm was designed to work in space in zero gravity conditions

The Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS) — known as the Canadarm — is a key part of the International Space Station. The original arm was designed to work in space in zero gravity conditions

Apollo 13 is one of the most famous of NASA’s Apollo missions to the moon — not because the astronauts succeeded in landing on the moon, but because they were successful in returning to Earth.

Apollo 13 was the third Apollo mission intended to land on the moon, but a mid-mission oxygen tank rupture made a lunar landing impossible and put the lives of the crew in serious danger. Fortunately, the ship and its crew made it safely back to earth on April 17, 1970 — exactly 40 years ago.

The entire world breathed a sigh of relief, but nobody celebrated more than the people working at mission control in Houston’s Johnson Space Center.

Terry Hartman worked in mission control when the Apollo 13 incident took place. He was also in mission control on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, so when he tells you what mission control was like “back in the day,” you can believe him.

“In 1969, we used state-of-the-art equipment including rotary dial phones and slide rulers in mission control,” Hartman said with a laugh on a recent tour of the facility. “Those screens you see in the green room aren’t computers like we have today either. Each person looked at raw data on the screen and had to relate it back to what was actually happening aboard the ship.”

Hartman is retired from his original role in the space program, but you can still meet him when you take the NASA Tram Tour at Space Center Houston. He gives tours of mission control to visitors who come to see behind-the scenes at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tex.

Although some of our children questioned the wisdom of standing in the 45-minute lineup to go on the NASA Tram Tour, meeting Hartman and hearing his presentation made it all worthwhile. Meeting someone so closely involved with some of mankind’s greatest achievements is a rare opportunity.

The tram tour also allowed us to see the astronaut training facility and watch astronauts working with replicas of the space shuttle and the International Space Station.

Astronauts practise their skills and prepare themselves for missions in space using exact replicas of the equipment onboard the space station.

From our position above the enormous training room, we could see a group practising a manoeuvre in the replica shuttle and filming their progress. The tour guide explained that astronauts also need to learn how to properly film their operations in space, so they can send video back to mission control.

The tram tour ended with a stop at Rocket Park to see actual rockets used in NASA’s space program.

There is a backup made for every rocket used in the space program. When the Apollo 13 astronauts were in the middle of their crisis, astronauts and employees of Johnson Space Center were working frantically with the second rocket and the simulator to develop a strategy to get the astronauts home.

Fortunately, they succeeded.

If you go:

• Admission to Space Center Houston will cost US$19.95 per adult and US$15.95 per child. Visiting the centre is a full day event. In addition to the opportunity to have a behind-the-scenes tram tour of Johnson Space Center, there is a large play area for younger children, flight simulators, displays, and presentations. To purchase tickets online or to find out more information, visit www.spacecenter.org

• The behind-the-scenes tram tour will take 90 minutes and lineups can add another hour to that. To ensure you get to experience it, plan your tram tour early on the day of your visit.

• If you are planning to visit several attractions in Houston, consider purchasing a Houston Citypass for US$39 per adult and US$29 per child. The pass provides admission to a number of attractions including Space Centre Houston and will save you money if you visit several attractions. (The combined ticket cost for the attractions included in the pass is US$74.96). For more information, visit http://www.citypass.com/city/houston.html

• NASA on the Internet — For more information on NASA and its space programs, visit www.nasa.gov. For kid-friendly activities and space games, visit the NASA Kids’ Club at http://www.nasa.gov/audience/forkids/kidsclub/flash/index.html

• For help planning a visit to Houston, visit www.visithoustontexas.com. For more information on Houston and other great vacation spots in Texas, visit www.traveltex.com

Houston, we’ve had a misquote

When a fault in the electrical system of one of the oxygen tanks caused an overpressure rupture, resulting in loss of power and failure of both oxygen tanks aboard Apollo 13, Commander James A. Lovell made the famous radio transmission: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Fortunately, the astronauts were able to survive this harrowing experience and made it back to Earth in a mission that was later described as a successful failure.

Unfortunately, the famous phrase has been widely misquoted in popular culture. Even the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13 misquoted the phrase as: “Houston, we have a problem.”

One small misstep for a man?

Did Neil Armstrong flub up the first words to be spoken on the moon or was he misquoted?

Ask anyone what Neil Armstrong’s words were when he stepped on the moon and they will likely tell you that Armstrong said: “That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.”

But when Armstrong returned to Earth following his mission, he claimed he had been misquoted and that one small word was omitted from the official version of what he had said.

What Armstrong claimed to have said was: “That’s one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind.” Adding “a” to the sentence completely changes the meaning and makes the statement more literally correct.

According to Armstrong, the “a” apparently went unheard and unrecorded in the transmission due to static. He said he practised it with the “a” and was certain he said it that way.

Some of those who listened worldwide believe Armstrong inadvertently left out the “a.”

A recent computer analysis of the voice recording claims to have found the missing “a,” but the research is not supported by any other scientific sources.

Did you know?

A team of engineers from the University of Toronto helped the Apollo 13 mission return to Earth safely 40 years ago. The group was asked by a NASA contractor to make recommendations on how to separate the spacecraft’s lunar module from the command module — which was crucial to bringing the Apollo 13 crew home safely.

They had four hours to calculate how much pressure would be needed to ditch the lunar module without endangering the astronauts.

The four surviving members of the Canadian group were presented with a pioneer award from the Canadian Air and Space Museum on Wednesday.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.