GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 5)

One reason we continue to return to Florida’s Space Coast, whenever work schedules and finances allow, is that each trip is an opportunity to discover something that we haven’t seen before. Today’s GRAIL scrub gave rise to yet another unexpected chain of events that ultimately led Doug to the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Museum (SWOF, because who doesn’t want to acronymize things related to NASA?).

[If you want to catch up with Parts 1-4 in “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest” before you go on, click HERE.]

Located in downtown Titusville, just a few hundred feet from the water’s edge, SWOF is housed in an unassuming downtown storefront. During Doug’s visit, museum volunteers Betty Conant and Mike Vesey (pronounced like easy) were engaging and enthusiastic about their museum.  SWOF previously had been located in the Sear’s Mall on Route 1, but, as Mike Vesey related to me, the rent kept going up and up, and ultimately the museum was forced to relocate. The move was also a downsizing, and parts of the collection are now kept in storage.

And what a collection it is. The bric-a-brac display has the feeling of a small, Midwestern county historical society. Just imagine the kind of museum that one could create if your county’s history encompassed the whole of the United States’ role in space exploration. This gives a rough idea of the scope and content of the museum’s collection.

SWOF is laid out by rough eras: Mercury (with a smattering of Gemini), Apollo, and Shuttle. Two wildcard collections are included: a reconstituted Atlas launch control room and a room that includes fire-and-rescue team materials and items related to Russia’s space programs.

Some rooms contain glass-covered shelving cases with regalia such as commendation plaques, manuals of various types (control room launch procedures, systems, etc.), safety hard hats with the wearer’s names, mission patches, and signed photographs.  A wonderful example of the bric-a-brac in the Mercury room is the book Exploring Space with a Camera.

Mercury Hatch

Tucked away in another corner of the Mercury room is one of the museum’s more unusual items: a hatch from an actual Mercury capsule. But this isn’t just any old spacecraft hatch (as if that could ever be true anyway). This hatch is the door from Mercury capsule #4, the first to attempt to fly. Mercury Atlas 1 was launched from the Cape on July 29, 1960. Fifty-eight seconds after launch, traveling at a speed of 1700 mph, a structural failure in the Atlas rocket brought the launch to an ignominious end. The museum’s hatch is appropriately charred and battered, and, as the display script points out, the titanium (an especially tough metal) looks to be torn “like tissue paper.” The display script also tells one of those tales of loss and discovery (much like the Los Alamos limousine we discuss in our “In the Footsteps” series), the sort of tale we have started to expect and yet which continues to amaze us. The museum’s spacecraft hatch was found in a scrap yard by an artist looking for materials to incorporate into his work. In a true expression of serendipity, the artist, Gene Hummel, also happened to be a mechanical engineer for McDonnell-Douglas. And he happened to have worked on the Atlas-Mercury program. And he was there for the day of the ill-fated launch; it was his first month on the job at the Cape. So one of the few people who could identify the meaning of this particular piece of scrap found it.

The museum also contains the reconstituted control consoles from Atlas Launch Complex 36 (pads 36A & 36B). Mike Vesey pointed out that NASA had donated the consoles directly to SWOF, and, although their computational innards were removed, volunteers rewired the switches and lights so that kids could enjoy playing with them. Doug would argue that the setup isn’t only suited for kids, because, after all, what space nerd doesn’t enjoy flipping switches, watching flickering lights in response, and falling into a good daydream.

Among the high points displayed in the Fire-and-Rescue and Russian materials room are the following: a photo of a rescue worker, standing  before a Saturn V on a launch pad, clad in his own silvery, spacesuit like garments; a poster of the Lockheed-Martin Family of Launch Vehicles, which contains photos of the Russian Proton launch vehicles; and finally, an item that surreally (that’s our word for the week) blends the room’s two disparate themes, a Russian children’s book about firefirefighters. Like the rug in Lebowski‘s living room, the children’s book “really tied the room together.”

The artifacts in the Apollo room were more astronaut focused than the other collection areas. On the walls hang two training life-support system backpacks and a spacesuit. Just beneath the spacesuit is a display that, in part, answers one of the more common questions asked in the early days of space exploration: how do astronauts go to the bathroom in outer space? As in The Graduate, the answer to the big questions is “plastics.” The complete answer is plastic bags. And they’re here on display.

The room dedicated to Shuttle contains some of the more complete and intricate engineering models in the museum’s collection. On display are a complete Launch Complex 39 crawler, launching pad, rotating service structure (RSS), and shuttle stack. Continuing the theme set up by the Launch Complex 39 models, nearby are pieces of the real thing: mounts that the shuttle assemblage used to rest upon; restraining bolts, thick as an arm, that hold the solid rocket boosters onto the pad; and a 220-lb slice from the crawler’s metal track, or shoe (the entire shoe has approximately the same mass as a Mustang GT, 3500lbs).

Tomorrow, another attempt at launching GRAIL. Doug will rise at 5:00a.m., reconnoiter with the remaining GRAIL Tweetup attendees at the buses at 6:00a.m., and head over to KARS park to witness the launch. The weather is trending better. There exist two “instantaneous” launch windows tomorrow morning, meaning that each opportunity lasts for just a second. Not just a second as in hold on a minute, but exactly 1/60 of a minute. When it comes to this GRAIL launch, just a second means maybe tomorrow.


One thought on “GRAIL: Another Lofty Quest (Part 5)

  1. Keep these trips going! It is so interesting to read about the artifacts, the museum, Doug’s impressions (and yours) keep us remembering what an awesome idea and reality the Space Program has been..

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