The Space Shuttle Trainer exhibit opens this weekend at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. The trainer—flown into Seattle in pieces on NASA’s massive Super Guppy—took almost six months to reassemble in the museum space gallery.
The Full Fuselage Trainer, or FFT, which was originally housed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is a full-scale mockup of the Space Shuttle Orbiter used to train astronauts for all 135 U.S. shuttle missions from the 1980s onwards.
The trainer is 122 feet long and weighs over 32 tons, but its lifelike flight deck and crew compartment are cramped and not for the claustrophobic. Dark scuff marks surround the outside of the hatch where astronauts practiced their emergency evacuations.
Small tour groups can enter the mid-deck through a three-foot-diameter hatch into a 100-square-foot crew compartment. On a real shuttle this is where astronauts spent the majority of their time on space missions. A crew of seven slept, exercised, ate meals and carried out mid-deck experiments in this tiny space.
Similarly, the crew compartment of the trainer is where astronauts practiced these everyday activities like housekeeping procedures, meal preparation, stowage, and trash management.
On the far wall are neatly stacked sleeping bags; in the corner is a tiny fridge (the kitchen). On the left there’s an entire wall of storage compartments—similar to dresser draws—labeled meticulously.
From the crew compartment you can climb a steep ladder and emerge through a small opening onto the flight deck. There’s really only room for two people at a time, but for launch, four astronauts would crowd into this space.
Looming out of the rear window of the flight deck is the gigantic three-pronged docking adaptor used to dock the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts spent many hours in this part of the trainer familiarizing themselves with cockpit buttons and levers as well as learning how to take good photos. Looking out of the windows gives some insight into their visual perspective looking back at Earth.
Astronauts were required to take 20 classes or 100 hours in the trainer and be familiar with all its controls and workings before they were allowed on missions. NASA continues to develop ISS trainers – the outside wooden structure remains the same but today there is more virtual training for astronauts, according to exhibit developer Geoff Nunn.
As part of the new exhibit, visitors can try their hand at landing the space shuttle with a virtual simulator.
The Museum of Flight paid two million dollars for the FFT, which came as a kind of consolation prize after losing bids for Atlantis, Endeavour, Enterprise and Discovery. But museum president Doug King is pleased with the exhibit.
“We’ve got something better because you can go inside and get a feel for it,” King said. We are at an amazing inflection point in history. Very realistically in the lifetime of kids that are in school today and young engineers out in the workforce, anybody’s going to be able to go to space.”
“It’s a lot like the dawn of the personal computer. We can’t even imagine who will be flying what 20 years from now, but we know that some of them are working on it right now here in Seattle. We’re about to make the transition from something that we watch to something that we get to do,” King said.
King believes that the exhibit will serve as both an inspiration and a practical learning tool for school kids, young engineers and space entrepreneurs alike.
“A year or two ago people were opposed to retiring the shuttles and having commercial carriers take astronauts and cargo to the ISS. Well NASA is out of that business now and it’s scary in one way but also exciting and challenging in another,” King said.
“Commercial carriers must get out there and go compete in the market and do it cheaply enough to build a business around it. Entrepreneurs made the commercial airplane business, not the government, and entrepreneurs made the computer business. Now entrepreneurs—including some pretty big companies like Boeing and some new ones like Blue Origin—are going to give the opportunity for all of us to go [into space].
The Space Shuttle Trainer exhibit opens to the general public Saturday, November 10 at 11am.
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