Week 18
October 11 - 15, 2004

We had the day off on Monday for Columbus Day.

Tuesday I had my only T-38 flight of the week. It was a beautiful day to fly. The sky was clear and the air was smooth. This flight was a pre-checkout flight and its basic purpose was to see if I am ready for my T-38 check ride. I still have a few more flights left in the syllabus to do, such as, night flying, night formation flying, and some aerobatics, but those flights aren't required before the check ride. For today's flight I was to pretty much do everything except the flying. So, it was very much like all the other flights I have been doing, however there were also few simulated failures thrown in to test my T-38 systems and checklist knowledge.

The plan in the syllabus was for us to stay in the local area, so we zipped over to College Station. We tried to do a few approaches at College Station, but they were too busy to accommodate us, so we headed back to Ellington after just one. I thought I did well on this flight - I may not have done everything perfectly, but I demonstrated that I knew what I was doing (well, most of the time - you are bound to call the air traffic controller the wrong thing every once in awhile. . .). The instructor happened to agree and he signed me off as ready for my check ride. Yea! Unfortunately, we are traveling next week, so it may be awhile before I get to do it. Hope I don't forget everything by then.

But, enough about the T-38 flying. Wednesday brought new and exciting things. We had our KC-135 flight!!!!! Woohoo!!!

What an unbelievable experience. It is an amazing feeling of freedom to be able to zoom around free of gravity. I don't think I can come up with the words to adequately describe what it was like. If anyone ever had dreams as a kid of flying, well, that is what it is like. You can fly. And, all your friends can fly, too.

Here is how the day went. We arrived at Ellington Field bright and early in the morning. Actually, I don't think the sun was quite up yet. We had to get there about an hour and a half before takeoff time for some safety briefings and to take medication. Strictly speaking, the medication is optional. But, as part of the briefings we learned that about 70 percent of people get sick if they don't take the medication while only 20 percent of the people get sick when they do take it. It was an easy choice for me to make. . . What NASA has developed over the years is sort of a medication cocktail. Half of it is an anti-nausea medication. Unfortunately, this medication tends to make folks sleepy. So, the other half of the cocktail is something to keep you awake. Although, for me, this stuff made me very happy and a little buzzy - sort of like having a beer on an empty stomach. The medications also cause dry mouth, so they take a lot of hard candy on the flight to help that situation.

We took off about 9:15 and headed out over the Gulf. There were the 14 of us in our class along with one flight doc in case there were any issues, two "test directors" who ran the show, a NASA photographer, and a NASA videographer. The route the KC flies is basically down the coast toward Corpus Christi and back. I am not sure what altitude(s) at which we were flying, but I believe that someone said that each parabola is about 8,000 feet high, but don't quote me on that. This flight was strictly a familiarization flight for us, which meant that we just got to have fun. Most of the time the plane is filled with the latest experiments or tools that are being tested, but for us they clean out the plane. There are seats in the back of the plane where we sit for takeoff and landing, but the rest of it is wide open play space.

When we got to the appointed area where the parabolas were allowed, the pilots started their routine - 20 parabolas out, followed by 20 back, with 2 Lunar and 2 Martian trajectories added at the end. These trajectories simulated the gravity on the Moon and Mars. I have to say, it is a good thing that the plane is padded. None of us had very good control of our flight patterns at first. Though, with 14 bodies flying around, it sometimes didn't matter if you thought you knew where you were going. For the first couple parabolas, they suggest that you take it easy. This is to get your "sea legs" and to make sure that you don't suffer any ill effects right off the bat. What we did was sit on the floor along the sides of the plane with our feet pointing inwards. At the top of the parabola we sort of slid up the walls and hung on to some straps that went around the plane near the ceiling. Boy, oh boy, was that a wild feeling. One minute you are minding your own business sitting on the floor and the next minute you are hanging on next to the ceiling.

After a few warm up parabolas we were ready to cut loose. We started bouncing all over the place. My favorite thing to do was to pretend I was Superman and try and fly from one end of the plane to the other. I usually didn't make it because there were so many people in the way. When I wasn't doing that I was spinning around, trying to run on the ceiling, or spinning my classmates. Some folks had brought some toys, so we also played catch with balls and a Frisbee. Basically, it was a free for all. Lucky for me, I wasn't bothered at all by motion sickness. Actually, none of us were bothered too much. We all had a grand old time. When we were getting close to the bottom of the parabola, the pilots would tell the test directors over a headset that we would be coming out of the dive. The test directors would yell out, "Feet down! Coming out!" We would then scramble to make sure that we weren't upside down when the gravity hit.

During the bottom of the trajectory we would experience about 2 g's. Most of the time we would sit or lie on the floor waiting for the next parabola. If you ask me, the 40 parabolas went by way too quickly. I could have done that all day. Can't wait until I get the chance to do that. Although, the Shuttle is pretty small on the inside; playing Superman there will be hard. It will be much better to do it on the Space Station. The Lunar and Martian trajectories were also fun. It surely is easy to do push-ups on Mars. At the beginning of the flight most of us took off our shoes since we didn't want to inflict any damage on each other. I had tried to secure my sneakers in one of the seats in the back with the seat belt. I guess I didn't do a good job since they were no longer there at the end of the flight. They had migrated to the back of the plane somehow and hidden themselves. It took us awhile to find them.

We landed about 11:15 and headed out for lunch. Apparently it is a post KC-135 tradition to go to the local BBQ place across the street from Ellington after your flight. Who were we to argue. Following lunch I was pretty much done for. The fun medication had worn off and I was dragging. There was no way I was going to be able to do any meaningful work. So, I did the next best thing. I went home and took a nap. All in all, a mighty fine day.

Thursday it was back to earth. The day started off with a fitness assessment. This is an annual assessment that I will have to do every year around the time of my birthday. Since we are the new class, we are all doing it now for some baseline data. It consisted of a metabolic type assessment (running or biking - I chose biking), sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, and various weight lifting to determine maximum strength. I don't know what the athletic trainers think the data shows, but my own assessment is that I am pretty strong in the legs; it is clear that I haven't done sit-ups in awhile; and, well, don't ask about pull-ups. In the afternoon we had another one our media fests and the rest of the day I spent studying.

Friday was an interesting day. Sadly, in the morning there was a memorial service at JSC for Gordon Cooper who recently passed away. Following the service I participated in reunion activities. Every two years the office holds an astronaut reunion. There is a dinner with a speaker and many of the former astronauts come to town. During the day there are lectures to update folks on what NASA and the office is up to. I attended some of the lectures and a lunch and went to the dinner in the evening. The guest speaker for the evening was quite impressive - Former President Bush. I have to say, he can be quite funny. Who knew? I also got a chance to chit chat with many of the folks I used to work with when I first started at JSC. It was a good evening.

© Shannon Walker   2004

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Revised 11-08-04