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SAILing back in time

In this July 21, 2011 photo, the maze of wires in the payload bay of the OV-095 is being used for some final tests before the end of the Space Shuttle Program.
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In this July 21, 2011 photo, the maze of wires in the payload bay of the OV-095 is being used for some final tests before the end of the Space Shuttle Program.
Many months of hard work have already been invested in turning the once fully-functional Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) into a Space Center Houston tram tour stop, but there are still a lot of important decisions to be made before its opening in Fall 2012. It may seem like a daunting task ensuring the safety of hundreds of future visitors and keeping the historical integrity of SAIL intact, but the team lead by Paul Miller is hard at work preparing the space for public access. What was once a working laboratory in the SAIL days, now full of wires, switches, crawl spaces, steep stairs and ledges without proper railing, will soon be transformed into a bustling tour stop.

What does it entail?

Much like the planned displays of retired space shuttles across the country, the opening of the SAIL facility tour stop will commemorate another important member of the space shuttle team, the OV-095. The OV stands for Orbiting Vehicle, and the 95 indicates this vehicle was intended to be a mockup, not flight worthy, which is the same for all OVs with a designated number under 100.

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NASA intern Chris St. Julian, a Prairie View A&M electrical engineering major, pilots the shuttle for a simulated landing in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) on July 12, 2011.
Even though the OV-095 is just a skeleton of a space shuttle, it contains a 100-percent-accurate cockpit and avionics system that played vital roles in the beta testing of the shuttle. As the name of the SAIL facility indicates, this is the only mockup that allowed engineers to fully integrate the orbiter’s hardware with flight software.

OV-095 also served as very realistic flight simulator, an invaluable training resource for shuttle-era astronauts. A Roundup article from March 1980, the early days of SAIL testing before the first shuttle flight, described the avionics data collected from SAIL simulations as being so high fidelity that “for all the flight computers know, it was a real mission.”

The tour

Even though the newly proposed Building 16 tram stop is essentially a simulation of a facility that was a simulation itself, the wonder of the Space Shuttle Program is definitely not lost in its translation. Miller said he wanted to maintain the feel of the lab, so the tour felt more like a behind the scenes look than a museum.

: Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats (left) and Robert Winkler of Boeing are pictured on the forward flight deck of OV-095 during final tests in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) at JSC on July 21, 2011.
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: Johnson Space Center Director Mike Coats (left) and Robert Winkler of Boeing are pictured on the forward flight deck of OV-095 during final tests in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) at JSC on July 21, 2011.
On the first floor of the lab, among many other exciting sights, visitors will have access to a one-of-a-kind viewing area inside the payload bay of the OV-095. Inside the naked belly of the mockup, they can gaze at the shuttle’s extensive wiring system, or ‘guts.’ Todd Pryor, project manager of the FMOD Projects Branch, is managing the construction of the SAIL exhibit and calls this one of his favorite parts of the tour.

Level 9 tours will offer access inside the middeck and cockpit of the OV-095, but two shuttle program cockpit simulators have been relocated to an empty area outside of the payload bay viewing area to allow all visitors to get an up-close look at the flight deck controls astronauts trained with.

Fortunately, the new tram stop will allow visitors upstairs because the OV-095 mockup is so massive they couldn’t possibly explore it all on one floor. On the second floor viewing deck, a section of the floor has been removed so visitors can overlook the same payload bay they had a chance to peek under from below. From this big-picture view, they can truly get a sense of the massiveness of the shuttle and the intricateness of the usually concealed maze of thousands of multi-colored wires that gave it flight.

Miller calls the sheer volume of wires in the facility the most exciting part. “It’s amazing to think each wire had a specific function,” Miller says.

Beyond the upstairs viewing deck is a replica of one of Kennedy Space Center’s firing rooms. Every Apollo and space shuttle launch since the unmanned Apollo 4 was commanded from an almost identical room in Florida, which just opened as a tour stop at KSC on June 15, 2012. Flight simulation logs and other props lay scattered across the control center consoles to create the illusion that the people who work there just walked out of the door.

The story will be told … accurately

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The one hundred percent accurate cockpit in the OV-095 mockup was ideal for training shuttle-era astronauts.
Beth LeBlanc, JSC Exhibits manager, stresses the importance of historical accuracy.

“We want to do all we can to honor the great work that was done in this facility,” LeBlanc said.

The facility was combed through, and former employees were consulted about every little idiosyncratic artifact including a binder clip attached to a long, black string that, to an outsider, may seem like spare office supplies but was an essential part of daily operations to the SAIL team. Referred to as the ‘Pony Express,’ the string device, which will be on display in the exhibit, was used to quickly and easily transport paperwork and other small items between the upper and lower levels of the facility.

On top of normal construction challenges like budget and time constraints, Pryor said it was a challenge to preserve the history behind the facility, but it was a challenge he gladly accepted and took very seriously “after seeing how much pride former employees took in the SAIL.”

A pilot’s eye view of controls and displays on the forward flight deck of OV-095 in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) at the JSC in Houston, July 12, 2011.
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A pilot’s eye view of controls and displays on the forward flight deck of OV-095 in the Shuttle Avionics Integration Laboratory (SAIL) at the JSC in Houston, July 12, 2011.
One indicator of success for LeBlanc will be when the exhibits team succeeds in creating the scene so well that former employees will still feel the same pride for SAIL and be proud to bring their families to see where they used to work.

The new SAIL facility tour will be more than just a history lesson. It will help the next generation of innovators understand the meticulous preparations that go into human spaceflight missions.

Michael Kincaid, director of External Relations, explains, “While we want our visitors to understand the complexities associated with operating the space shuttle – we also want them to leave the tram stop with the understanding that ground-based simulations are critical to all our missions – past, present, and future.”

Blast from the past

Check out this article from the March 1980 Roundup that introduced the SAIL: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/roundups/issues/80-03-21.pdf


Hayley Mae Fick
Johnson Space Center, Houston
281-392-7464

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