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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Simulated mission control and moon landers

There are a few museum exhibits across the country where you get to run a simulated moon landing. They usually take kids from schools to do this, but other groups of people go and do this as well. When I saw it happen, they had both "mission control" downstairs and a huge "lander" upstairs.

I got to do both. They split us in half and my half started in mission control. They had "capcom" who worked the audio and could actually talk to the people upstairs. Everyone else was doing ... who knows what. I seem to recall they were passing a lot of messages back and forth. The other stations would write something down on a slip and would pass it to capcom. They then had to radio it upstairs. They'd get a reply and would pass it back to the right team.

There were also incoming requests from upstairs which had to be routed, and then the replies had to be conveyed. It was your standard store-and-forward stuff, only it was happening with sheets of paper, a lot of scribbling, and a lossy audio channel.

Things were backing up. Meanwhile, I was at the "data" station. It was implemented with a strange computer which had the ability to pull up pictures, print things, and ... add text labels to things. I realized something: hey, this is another comm channel! Granted, instead of talking to the folks upstairs, I'd have to type it and they'd have to read it, but it would reduce some of the bottleneck.

Did I mention that the people upstairs had no idea this was going to happen? I just said "hey, we have a bunch of messages queuing up here, and I can send messages to you guys by typing, so here they come". It seemed to confuse everyone at first, and it didn't really "take", but at least I tried.

One memorable part was dealing with my station's printer. We had a genuine tractor-feed printer, and of course I had encountered them before. It had one of those dubious paper paths which made it impossible to line up the page break under the bar without wasting a top sheet. It also apparently had a broken spring on the part which would snap down and hold the paper down, so it would occasionally slip. This lead to diagonal feeds and a whole bunch of broken sheets and other anomalies. I do not miss those kinds of printers at all.

Later, I was upstairs, also at the "data" position, but this time in the "lander". We had a bunch of videos playing, possibly from Apollo 11. I remember that whoever was doing the audio communications was expected to say things like "kicking up a little dust" when cued by the recording. There were also stations where you could reach in through gloves to handle "specimens" inside a box.

Of course, the thing this didn't capture was the notion of how cramped a real moon lander would be. There's no way you'd have two dozen teens and a bunch of open space that was doing nothing in particular on a real spacecraft. Well, outside of the next 90210-ish Star Trek movie, that is.

One of these days I should go back to a museum with one of these places and try it again. It might be interesting to see how much of it is still the way it used to be.