NASA administrator tours shuttle trainer exhibit at Museum of Flight

NASA Adminstrator Charles Bolden says Seattle’s Museum of Flight scored big when it landed the space agency’s Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer (FFT) for permanent exhibit.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in front of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer at the Museum of Flight in Seattle Jan. 15, 2013. Photo: NASA/Carla Cioffi.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in front of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer at the Museum of Flight in Seattle Jan. 15, 2013. Bolden flew four shuttle missions and trained in the FFT, as did all shuttle astronauts. Photo: NASA/Carla Cioffi.

“I think the Museum of Flight won the prize when it comes to education,” Bolden said during a tour of the exhibit this week at the museum’s Charles Simonyi Space Gallery. “No other place with an orbiter can do what is done here. No other place can have somebody essentially walk in the same footsteps that John Glenn, John Young, other people walked when they go through the payload bay or they go up on the flight deck or the mid-deck. That’s actually where we trained.”

When NASA announced at the end of the shuttle program that it would award the retired orbiters to museums around the country, it set off an intense competition between some two dozen institutions that all wanted one of the prized artifacts. The Museum of Flight went all-in and built the $12 million, 15,500 square-foot space gallery with no guarantee that it would receive a shuttle. When Bolden announced two years ago that the shuttles would go elsewhere, Museum of Flight President and CEO Doug King recognized that being able to go into the FFT would be a great draw for visitors. Sure enough, it’s been very busy since the exhibit opened in November.

Charlie Bolden

NASA administrator Charles Bolden speaks to reporters at the Museum of Flight Jan. 15, 2013. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“It’s been huge,” King said. “We had record attendance all through the holidays and on into this year.” He added that a special education program, though which a small number of visitors actually visit the crew cabin, has sold out every weekend.

The exhibit is truly impressive. For one thing, the FFT is gigantic. I attended several events in the space gallery before the trainer arrived, and the room is enormous. The FFT virtually fills it. The gallery includes a half-scale model of the Hubble Space Telescope, perhaps the most famous payload ever carried by a shuttle, and a mockup of the Boeing-built Inertial Upper Stage that was used to launch satellites into space from the shuttle. There’s also a Soyuz capsule, a Charon Test Vehicle from Blue Origin, and information about many of the commercial spaceflight efforts in the works. These may well be the source for future additions to the exhibit; King already has his eye on one of the Dragon vehicles being flown by SpaceX, and envisions an “arrivals” board for the gallery that identifies what is flying in next. Bolden added that exhibits about the commercial space ventures are important to inspire kids who are the next generation of engineers, space adventurers, and dreamers.

King says he expects the museums with the flown orbiters also will create fantastic exhibits.

Charles Bolden

NASA administrator Charles Bolden emerges from the hatch of the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer, now on exhibit at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, during a tour Jan. 15, 2013. Every shuttle astronaut used that hatch and trained in the FFT. Photo: NASA/Carla Cioffi.

“The one in Los Angeles already looks great, and the building they’re eventually going to put it in will be spectacular,” he said. “We’ll encourage everybody to go see it, then come here and go inside.”

Bolden flew on four shuttle missions and spent countless hours training in the FFT, so for him the museum’s exhibit brings on fond memories, and some painful ones. He joked about using the trainer to practice emergency escapes from the shuttle, and said every astronaut had just one thought in mind during the exercises.

“Do not fall off the rope. You don’t want to look bad,” he laughed, noting that there were always cameras recording the training. “You did not want to be memorialized as one who slipped and fell and looked like an idiot laying down there on the mat.”

The FFT is a most interesting exhibit. Go walk in the footsteps of the astronauts and check it out at the Museum of Flight. Watch the slideshow below for a preview, and for more scenes from Bolden’s visit!