Every NASA astronaut who ever rode aboard the space shuttle, more than 350 of them, first sat in its full-motion simulator. And even though the simulator was firmly on the ground, anchored inside Building 5 at Johnson Space Center, it offered one hell of a ride.
“It was absolutely identical to what we flew,” says Bonnie Dunbar, a former NASA astronaut who launched on the space shuttle five times from 1985 to 1998. “It rolled over on its back. It would vibrate as if you were going through a launch and landed like a shuttle entry. If you wanted to go into space, you had to pass the training in the motion simulator.”
After the space shuttle was retired in 2011, artifacts from the program were sent across the country to various museums. Precious little of the shuttle actually remained in Texas, where the program was managed and its astronauts were trained. Texas A&M University sought to keep the full-motion space shuttle simulator, however. The chair of the aerospace engineering department at Texas A&M, Dimitris Lagoudas, led the effort to raise $500,000 and move the simulator to the university’s campus in 2012.
The bulky simulator, with its extended runs of cables, had to be disassembled for the trip. Upon reaching the university, the simulator was put into a large building on campus with enough room to reassemble the simulator and put it on display. Unfortunately, shortly after this, the university unexpectedly lost control of this building. The simulator had to be moved into a smaller storage area not amenable to reconstruction work.
There, it gathered dust.
Saving the simulator
It remained there until Dunbar became a professor of engineering at Texas A&M in 2016. She had the right blend of expertise as an astronaut and curator, having served as president and CEO of The Museum of Flight in Seattle from 2005 to 2010. Dunbar was tasked with finding a suitable home for the simulator.
After it became clear that Texas A&M did not have the space to refurbish and display the artifact, she enlisted the help of two Houston space legends, former Johnson Space Center directors George Abbey and Gerry Griffin. This “Friends of the Simulator” committee began searching for a final home while raising money to move and restore the simulator. Abbey praised Dunbar’s efforts.
“Starting in 1976, every crew that flew on the shuttle onward trained on this simulator,” Abbey said. “It was an artifact that needed to be preserved. This would not have happened without Bonnie.”
With their help, the pieces soon began to fall into place for Dunbar. The Lone Star Flight Museum, located in southeast Houston, near Johnson Space Center, agreed to become the new home for the simulator and provide adequate space for a public display. Carl Brainerd, who managed the simulator for three decades when astronauts trained on it, agreed to supervise its restoration. Finally, then-director of Johnson Space Center Mark Geyer agreed to house the simulator during its reconstruction at the NASA facility, providing a safe place for restorers to meet and work.
Two tractor-trailers delivered the simulator to NASA in Houston earlier this year, and by mid-November, with more than 4,000 volunteer hours invested so far, the interior of the simulator was completely restored. It was no easy task.