Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Space travel: Houston's great problem

At the Johnson Space Center, Winston Aldworth meets men from the brave past and bold future of space travel.
The NASA Saturn V rocket is a huge attraction at the Houston Space centre. Photo / Nick Reed
The NASA Saturn V rocket is a huge attraction at the Houston Space centre. Photo / Nick Reed

Better work stories? You want better work stories? Talk to Fred Haise. He has the mother of all work stories.

Y'see, Fred was travelling to work one day, with two colleagues, when their vehicle had a problem. A soon-to-be famous problem. They contacted their bosses immediately: "Houston," said Commander Jim Lovell. "We've had a problem."

Fred was one of the crewmen aboard Apollo 13, the third scheduled moon-landing mission launched by Nasa. He was going to be the sixth man to walk on the moon.

Retired NASA astronaut, Fred Haise who was involved in the dramatic failed lunar mission of Apollo 13. Photo / Nick Reed
Retired NASA astronaut, Fred Haise who was involved in the dramatic failed lunar mission of Apollo 13. Photo / Nick Reed

Instead his mission became - after Neil Armstrong's initial landing - the second-most famous of the moon shots. Apollo 13 was Nasa's most glorious failure.

It started with a bang. Two days into their flight to the moon, an oxygen tank exploded, shredding part of their spaceship. Landing on the moon was no longer an option.

All the crew, and their support staff back in Houston could now hope for was to get the men home safely.

We met Fred at Nasa's Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where he showed us around some of Nasa's grandest hardware.

Fred's dry, laconic demeanour makes him just the kind of guy you'd want sitting next to you during an emergency in space. In Ron Howard's fine movie Apollo 13, the crew argue. It's hard to imagine the real Fred getting heat up about anything.

Fred Haise at Nasa's Johnson Space Center, in Houston. Photo / Nick Reed
Fred Haise at Nasa's Johnson Space Center, in Houston. Photo / Nick Reed

"They added it in for drama," Fred says with a chuckle. "They wanted to make the scene more human, they said."

Consider how often tempers get frayed in your own workplace. It's a luxury you can't afford in a space crisis. Nor could these right-stuff men muck around fretting about their mortality.

"We didn't think about dying. We were pretty focused on doing our jobs," says Fred. "Everytime you go into space, you're taking a risk."

The most stunning thing on display at the Johnson Space Center lies on its side in a giant hangar. The Saturn V is the biggest, most powerful vehicle ever built.

It's also the single coolest thing to fly. When the Apollo moon-landing program was wrapped up in 1972, there were three Saturn V rockets left over. If you stood all three on top of each other, they would be a few metres taller than the Sky Tower.

To the casual observer, these rockets ushered in Nasa's finest hour. The biggest rockets today can only carry about one-tenth the weight of the Saturn Vs.

Brave, cool-headed lunatics like Fred pretty much sat themselves in a tin can that was bolted to the top of another - bigger - tin can, which contained a massive explosion of fuel.

Off to work we go.

The awesome power of the rockets contrasts with the tiny, flimsy parts of the spaceships in which the astronauts sat. A moon lander on display looks like a tent frame covered in tinfoil.

The NASA Apollo 17 Command module from the last moon mission. Photo / Nick Reed
The NASA Apollo 17 Command module from the last moon mission. Photo / Nick Reed

The command module of Gemini 7, in which Jim Lovell (along with Frank Borman) set an endurance record of 14 days in space, sits in a darkened room. The interior is little bigger than a two-man tent.

The most fragile part of all these ambitious programs was the people perched on top of the rockets.

At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and hoovered up four per cent of the USA's GDP. Great fun. An awesome achievement. But wildly unsustainable.

Today, lying on its side like a giant fallen Corinthian column in the ruins of an abandoned Roman city, this Saturn V is a reminder of the vast, ambitious empire that created it.

Where the Romans conquered the known world, the post-war American empire had designs on other worlds.

Adam Steltzner also has a couple of good work stories. Like the one about the time he successfully landed a 3893kg robot on Mars by lowering it from a crane system attached to a rocket-powered platform hovering above the surface of the planet.

Adam is also showing us around.

"I led the landing team that put Curiosity [the Mars rover] on the surface of Mars," Adam says. "Our landing system was called the sky crane. We lowered the rover beneath a sort of jet backpack."

Fred Haise with Adam Steltzner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo / Nick Reed
Fred Haise with Adam Steltzner of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo / Nick Reed

We used to be able to put a man on the moon, and today we can't even put a man on the moon. Maybe we don't need to.

Adam says robotics can do the leg work from here, paving the way for manned explorations in the future. Like the rest of us on the tour, he's in awe of the bravery of the astronauts (he also knows to within a kilogram or two how much all those life-support systems weigh).

The next big mission to Mars, again using Adam's funky sky crane to place a robot vehicle on the surface, is set for 2020. Much of the work on that mission is being done in Houston.

The Johnson Space Center isn't just a tourist attraction. Astronauts are still trained there, Mission Control is based there (visitors can see the old one and the new one, which runs the International Space Station) and it's home to much of Adam's robotics projects. It's a workplace.

The American empire's grand vision of men exploring space aboard gigantic rockets might not have worked out quite how John F. Kennedy had imagined, but the dream is still alive. There are still more cool work stories to be told.

Checklist - Houston

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Houston from Auckland five times a week. One-way Economy class sale fares start from $749, and one-way Premium Economy sale fares from $1599. Sale ends January 18.

Details: For more on the Johnson Space Center, including details of tours on which you can meet astronauts, go to Spacecenter.org.

Online: DiscoverAmerica.com

- NZ Herald

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