Simulator Becomes Reality

A piece of U.S. space history comes to Texas A&M

Now that NASA's space shuttle program has ended, relics from the program's 40-year history are scattered across the United States. The Shuttle Mission Simulator, or SMS, will find a new home at Texas A&M University. 

The simulator has trained 355 astronauts for 135 missions and will be the only large piece of equipment from the NASA space shuttle program that will remain in Texas. The Department of Aerospace Engineering is spearheading the effort to move the fully operational simulator to Texas A&M for researchers, the public and students of all ages to use for many years to come.

The simulator is expected to open to the public in summer 2013.

John Vlasek, Professor

John Vlasek
Aerospace Engineering

An Educator's Perspective

Texas A&M University will soon have a new attraction for current students and researchers to use and learn from, and for space enthusiasts to visit, when the NASA Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS) opens to the public in summer 2013. 

This opportunity wouldn't have come about without NASA's Paul S. Hill '84, director of Mission Operations at NASA Johnson Space Center. Hill contacted us about this great opportunity to bring this one-of-a-kind experience to Texas A&M so that current and future students could benefit from this, see how engineering is done in the real world, see how NASA prepared astronauts to fly into space, and see a big part of the history of the U.S. space program. 

NASA built this simulator in the late 1970s, and it operated daily until 2011. Every astronaut who has trained to fly the space shuttle has flown this simulator. This sophisticated tool—the only device of its kind—trained astronauts to use the space shuttle to launch into space and fly back to Earth. 

We plan to restore the simulator to the way it was when the last mission flew in July 2011. Those astronauts who flew that last mission will be able to come to Texas A&M, sit in the simulator and say, "That's exactly how I remember it." It's going to be a time capsule, frozen in time so that everyone who comes to see it and fly it will get to experience a piece of space history.

And it's living history. Unlike a typical museum display, where you look at exhibits and read a placard, this is history that you actually get to interact with. You'll get to sit in it, fly it and run the full simulation exactly how the NASA astronauts did.

The simulator will also complement our education and research efforts in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. Our Vehicle Systems and Control Laboratory has simulators for a variety of aircraft, from general aviation to large commercial air transports, such as the Boeing 787, to various types of military aircraft, such as the F-35 Lightning II. The SMS is also a flight simulator, but of a space vehicle. So the basics are the same—the dynamics, the atmospheric models, the cockpit, all the interfaces and displays for the pilots—but the SMS is specialized for space travel. 

You'll get to sit in it, fly it and run the full simulation exactly how the NASA astronauts did.

Several courses in aerospace engineering and other engineering departments will use the simulator—for example, evaluating cockpit–human factors or studying flight mechanics or guidance, navigation, and control. For some courses, we envision creating laboratory sections in which students will use the simulator as part of their work. The SMS will also be available to faculty and students for research, in addition to companies, organizations or individuals who wish to conduct research under contract. Public school students and teachers will also have ample opportunity to experience the SMS.

And this opportunity wouldn't be happening without the dedicated students of Texas A&M. Right now they're doing inventory and helping with site preparation. Students in aerospace engineering honors classes have been working up lesson plans for K–12 teachers and for aerospace engineering courses and laboratory sections at Texas A&M. Members of the Texas A&M chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space are designing the SMS Experience, an immersive experience for the facility, to include everything from selecting the pictures on the wall to the videos shown in the waiting-area monitors to the music playing over the loudspeaker. We want the shuttle simulator experience to be as good as visitors expect it to be, and better.

Approximately 1,000 people each year visit the Vehicle Systems and Control Laboratory on campus to fly the simulators, but I anticipate that visits to the SMS will easily exceed that number. And that's what we want: to make this facility available to the public to see, interact with and learn from. I've already been contacted by people all over the country who want to plan their summer vacations around bringing their families here to fly the simulator. 

We will have a significant piece of the space program sitting right here at Texas A&M so that space enthusiasts can come visit it and get to see something on the same quality and significance level as anything at the National Air and Space Museum or one of the NASA museums. So lots of people are excited, and I'm excited too because this will be the only large piece of the space shuttle program that will remain in Texas. I'm excited that Texas A&M students, faculty, former students and friends will be able to use and enjoy it, and get to experience just a little bit of what flying into space on the shuttle is like. You won't be able to do that anywhere else in the world. 

I'd like to be the first one to fly the SMS once it's up and running here, but I'll reserve that honor for the student technicians who have worked so hard on it. I flew it when it was at NASA, so I know the experience everyone will have—and it's going to be good. Even though I have worked on and flown simulators in industry and academia for my entire career, flying the SMS was still even better than I thought it would be. Everyone needs to experience this—it's great! 

Lisa Warren

Lisa Warren ’12
SMS student volunteer coordinator
Aerospace Engineering major

A Current Student's Perspective

Every good Aggie will boast of Texas A&M’s prowess and grandeur. College Station will soon be a national landmark as home of the only Space Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS) in existence. I am excited that we are receiving not only a vestige of space exploration history but also a critical piece of American history.

The SMS has been a crucial part of the space shuttle program since the program began in the 1970s. Every astronaut who has undertaken a shuttle mission has trained on this extraordinary machine. The SMS is the only major item from the shuttle program that is staying in Texas after the final mission in July 2011.

A team from NASA will assemble the SMS at the Texas A&M University Services Building. The team of student volunteers is aiding reconstruction of the SMS in several ways, including the inventory of parts arriving from Johnson Space Center. Multiple interior walls had to be demolished to install the simulator, and the walls will be rebuilt the full two stories after the simulator’s reconstruction. The student volunteers will continue to assist with every aspect of the up-and-coming SMS program. The next step will be to design and set up the area where the SMS will be housed to ensure that the overall experience is out of this world.

Working with the SMS has reignited the spark that is my passion for aerospace.

When I was a kid, astronauts and the space program fascinated me. I have wanted to know what experiencing spaceflight would be like since the first time I was exposed to the idea of humans going to outer space at Hardin-Simmons University day camp. This interest continued to develop during my sixth-grade field trip to Johnson Space Center. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I might one day fly the SMS, much less be a part of the group maintaining this living piece of history to inspire future space enthusiasts.

I think all college students reach a point in their careers when they ask themselves, “Why am I doing this?” As a senior majoring in aerospace engineering, I have asked myself this very question on many occasions. But experiences such as working with the SMS remind me why I love aerospace engineering, and that’s what gives me the desire to prevail.

Working with the SMS has reignited the spark that is my passion for aerospace. It will be a living piece of history and act as a beacon to future Aggies. We will always be able to remember the significance of the space shuttle program, and having the SMS will allow anybody to experience it firsthand.

Paul Sean Hill

Paul Sean Hill ’84
Director, Mission Operations
NASA Johnson Space Center

A Former Student's Perspective

The Shuttle Mission Simulator (SMS) Motion Base Simulator (MBS) is on its way to reactivation in Aggieland by the aerospace engineering department. What a poignant transition for this historic simulator, NASA’s manned space program and Aggies.

As the name implies, the MBS is a full-fidelity cockpit and full-motion space shuttle simulator. In fact, it is the single full-motion shuttle simulator used by every one of the 852 people from 15 nations who flew on shuttle missions throughout that program’s 30-year flight history. This machine, driven by the same software that also controlled the shuttles, was used extensively in preparation for all 135 shuttle missions, from 1977 through July 2011, for spacecraft software testing, piloting technique development, and astronaut and mission control training.

Imagine what it means to more generations who will have access to the touch and feel experienced by real, spacefaring shuttle astronauts.

A primary role of the MBS was to ensure that astronauts flying a shuttle felt as routine and “normal” as possible while riding into space at the tip of millions of pounds of fire, or flying through a cloud of fire during reentry at the end of a mission. More critically, the MBS was a key platform on which to practice a seemingly infinite combination of shuttle system failures and emergencies during all phases of spaceflight, also ensuring that the astronauts and Mission Control were prepared for anything this dangerous business conjured up.

As a freshman aerospace engineering student in the fall of 1980, and just before the first launch the following spring, I watched my dad, Larry Hill ’56, a NASA manager at Johnson Space Center, describe the shuttle flight profile in the Rudder Auditorium to a group of students and professors. More than 30 years later, I managed both the training that employed the MBS and Mission Control. In that same capacity a few months after the last shuttle landed, I signed the legal agreements with Texas A&M President Bowen Loftin that delivered the MBS to my university and my aerospace engineering department. In the space left behind the MBS, NASA has already begun developing simulators for next-generation spacecraft.

In the summer of 2013, John Valasek and his team in the aerospace engineering department will reactivate this historic simulator in Aggieland. He plans to get much more life out of the MBS, including Aggie and public access to simulated shuttle flight and a range of flight development projects. Valasek also has insisted on keeping all equipment touched by NASA astronauts exactly as it was when astronauts flew their last MBS sortie. Imagine what it means to more generations who will have access to the touch and feel experienced by real, spacefaring shuttle astronauts, and to the engineering students who lead projects with the MBS that still has that historic authenticity. And those experiences are just up Highway 6 from NASA Johnson Space Center at Texas A&M University.

Again, what a poignant transition for this historic simulator, NASA’s manned space program and Aggies.