This past weekend I got to do something fun with my family. As I’ve mentioned, I have bad anxiety in situations with large groups of people. It is at its worst when I know I will be inside for the bulk of that time. Fortunately, the US Space and Rocket Center (Huntsville, AL) has a lot of outdoor activities and spaces.
We started our day in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration, which houses one of the three Saturn V rockets in the world. As a writer of science fiction there are few things more fascinating than experiencing the actual science behind your fiction. Standing beneath the S-IC first stage’s five massive Rocketdyne F1 engines makes one consider just how enormous an event the space race was. While there were a lot of smaller exhibits with cool stuff, I realized how few gawked at the rare and historic behemoth above them. Most would glance for a moment then move on. “Yeah, sure the space suits are great, but look up, dammit! This got us there!”
The kids got to make rocket fuel, an experiment I missed as I was running around the entire complex trying to find the main entrance. Of all the places to get lost, I picked a great one. I made it back to the lab in time to see the end of their work. My youngest was happy I got a stroller for her to ride in, and the older two were too busy wanting to be on the “simulators” (I know an amusement park ride when I see one, Space Center) to grasp fully what they had just accomplished. And the group moved on...
We slowly realized that we were on a mind-numbing tour that leeched the fun out of everything. We broke off from the tour and let the center breath life into us. This is when I learned something new. The G-Force Accelerator simulator (Ride, damn it. It’s a tilt-a-whirl with fewer steps), spins with a force of around 3 Gs. Before you enter they issue mandatory warnings about heart problems, epilepsy, and asthma (to name a few). Being a dumb guy, I ignored the warnings about asthma. This was not my brightest decision.
Around half-speed I realized I was having difficulty operating my lungs. I felt an elephant standing on my chest. It wasn’t the worst my asthma has done, but I was still a touch concerned. At full speed, it worried me. I could barely inhale. My career as an astronaut would be brief.
The MoonShot launches you straight up at 4 Gs acceleration and you float at the top for 2.5 seconds. The upwards journey has no less than four screaming people. It is an exhilarating and deafening experience.
Being immersed in rockets and space suits is excellent fodder for stories. I’ve got ideas for a few, and experience for one I was already working on. It’s my favorite kind of research. I’ve experienced much of it before (at the Smithsonian Institute and Kennedy Space Center) but never intentionally. I’ve ridden simulators (ri-i-i-i-i-i-des) but never with the purpose of learning. It was amazing and given the chance I will do it again.