At Seattle's Museum of Flight, the space-shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer, used to help prepare crews for all 135 U.S. shuttle missions, is being not just reassembled but transformed into a centerpiece exhibit.
Imagine you just brought something home from Ikea that was so cool you were undeterred by the note on the box saying “some assembly required.”
Now, just for fun, let’s say you didn’t actually bring it home yourself, but you had it delivered — in three shipments by air and nine by truck.
Let’s say it arrived in 22 pieces and that the three main sections alone weighed more than 32 tons. And that once you put the whole thing together, it would be 122 feet long, and at its highest point, more than 46 feet tall.
Now you know how Chris Mailander is spending his summer.
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As the director of exhibits at the Museum of Flight, Mailander is coordinating work on the Full Fuselage Trainer, the NASA shuttle mock-up shipped here from Houston for permanent display at the museum.
Built in 1979, the FFT was used to help train the crews for all 135 U.S. shuttle missions, from 1981 until the program ended last year.
“What struck me when I first saw it was that it’s really big,” said Mailander, who made several trips to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to examine the FFT when it was in one piece, and to help shape the plans for its move and display.
Now, museum staffers and a crew from Seattle-based Pacific Studio aren’t just reassembling the trainer, but transforming it into what’s hoped will be a centerpiece exhibit to attract and enlighten visitors for decades.
The exhibit won’t be ready for a couple of months, but Mailander this week allowed a look inside its two main sections:
• The 60-foot payload bay, which will be open to all museum visitors, with an elevator to allow wheelchairs access, and
• The cramped, two-level crew compartment, likely to open to small, special tours, which requires crawling through a three-foot-diameter hatch to get to its mid-deck, and then up a narrow metal ladder to the flight deck.
For now, museum visitors can see the shuttle-trainer sections from behind a rope barrier in the museum’s $12 million Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, reached by a skybridge from the main museum building.
But after Labor Day, the gallery will be closed to visitors to expedite work not just on the shuttle trainer, but also on the interpretive displays that will accompany it.
Lighting is being added, as is a sprinkler system, needed because the trainer is made of wood.
Despite the challenges and delays that accompanied the move, Mailander said, “It has been very rewarding to see the FFT taken apart and moved here in good condition” and exciting to be designing exhibits to show it off.
He hopes the exhibit will be substantially complete for the museum’s fundraising gala in late September, though it may be late October or November before the exhibit is open to the public.
The Museum of Flight, which had unsuccessfully applied to host one of NASA’s four retiring space shuttles as the shuttle program ended last year, paid $2 million to have the trainer moved here and will spend about the same amount to complete the exhibit, Mailander said.
Museum of Flight officials hope to take full advantage of the fact that they can let the public inside the FFT. In contrast, the four museums that got the real shuttles must display them entirely out of reach.
In the payload bay, visitors will see into an airlock — essentially a large tube through which astronauts transferred from the shuttle to the international space station.
Videos will tell about the shuttle program and its accomplishments. And because a relatively small number of visitors will get inside the crew compartment, one video all visitors can see will include a 360-degree look inside the flight deck, showing its hundreds of switches, dials and levers.
In the trainer, those controls were not activated, but they gave the astronauts a sense of the shuttle’s layout. Among the various training moves using the FFT was a drill in which astronauts had to get out through a 2-foot-square hatch on its top and then rappel down its side, in case the maneuver were required in an emergency.
Marc Dirnberger, lead fabricator for Pacific Studio, also had the chance to see the trainer in Houston and get a sense of its importance to the shuttle program.
One question being addressed with the exhibit, Dirnberger said, is how to treat minor nicks and scratches in the trainer’s quarter-inch plywood.
Dirnberger said if the dings were made in the moving process, they’ll likely get repaired. But if they were a normal result of NASA’s three decades of use of the trainer, some of the dings may be left in place.
“The museum isn’t asking us to make it pretty,” he said. “We want it to be authentic.”
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Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org