On Saturday, the Space Shuttle Trainer will make its official debut at the Museum of Flight in Seattle — giving the public an up-close look at the full-sized Space Shuttle replica that served as the training ground for every astronaut in the Space Shuttle’s three decades. The museum and the region have been preparing for this milestone for years, and the giant exhibit will be a must-see for space fans, and everyone else.
On GeekWire’s radio show last week, we invited Doug King, the CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, as our guest. Doug talked about the significance of the Space Shuttle Trainer for the museum and the region, why people will be surprised when they see it for the first time, how the museum has evolved to reflect the growing space industry, the museum’s role in science education, and more.
Doug has a great perspective on all of this, and here’s what he had to say. You can also listen to the audio starting at the 12-minute mark via this MP3 file or the audio player below. Also check out this sneak peek photo gallery of the Space Shuttle Trainer by GeekWire’s Emily Shahan.
GeekWire: So Doug, tell us what the Space Shuttle Trainier is all about?
Doug King: The NASA people still call it the FFT. We’re calling it the Shuttle Trainer and eventually it needs a name. We think it ought to have a name of its own, because every astronaut trained on this full scale mock-up of the shuttle. The crew compartment, the payload bay, everything is there except the wings, which actually is great because it gives us more room to do other exhibits around the edges.
We competed for one of the four retiring shuttles. We were among 29 museums and ended up ranking fifth in NASA’s ranking system. We didn’t get one of those, but honestly we think we got something better. People are going to be able to go inside and use it in our educational programs.
GW: Why do you think this is so special and unique?
King: I’ve seen Enterprise several times at Dulles, and they have the Discovery now in California, the Atlantis down in Florida, but you can’t touch them. You stand back and look at them and say, “that’s cool,” and then you go on to look at the next thing. This is really the vehicle that gets across what it takes to go to space. This is where people got inside and spent a lot of time getting ready to go, rehearsing escape routes, practicing re-entry, practicing putting things in and out of the payload bay. This is where the work got done. One of the main things with the gallery is, what does it take to go to space? Why is it hard? What do you have to do to get ready? What are the physics of all that? People can hear 17,000 MPH, but you’re going five miles per second in orbit. You need to slow down and land. So having the real artifact that you can climb into, look at what they did … it has scratches on the side where they practiced coming out in their full escape suits. It’s the real working deal. The more we got into what you can do with this educationally to get it across to younger people, both what happened over the last 30 years and what’s going to happen next, we really do think we got something better.”
GW: This thing is awesome. It’s essentially a replica of the Space Shuttle, and it’s where the astronauts spent more time in the real shuttles, right?
King: I think what people will be most surprised is how big it is. When I first walked in to Building 9 in Houston I thought, “Oh my gosh, that’s never going to fit in the building we have.” And you saw when it came on three different loads on the Super Guppy and 18 different truck loads and we started putting the pieces back together, it just dominates a 15,000 square foot gallery. It sits right next to a Russian Soyuz. Even today, but especially 50-to-100 years from now, people are going to walk in there and go, “O.K., from 1980 – 2010, this is what the Americans were flying? This is what the Russians were flying? Why is this little tiny thing the one that is still flying? What does that say about how you set national priorities?” Space just wasn’t of interest to people at a time when we could have accomplished a lot. There was no technological barrier. So, what does it take to get people interested enough, or to make commercial markets interested enough to make it happen now?
GW: What are your feelings on the space industry today?
King: I think we’ve past an inflection point a year or two ago that when we look back, it reminds me more of the late 70′s in Silicon Valley — and hate to admit I really was there — if you’d say to people from IBM, “What do you think of a personal computer?” They’d say, “Why do you want one? To keep your recipes on it?” That’s pretty much where we were a few years ago when a lot people were sort of laughing at the idea of commercial space. Well, it’s here. NASA is out of the business of taking people to low earth orbit, people or cargo. There are a lot of companies stepping into that space. There’s Blue Origin, Space X already delivering cargo to the Space Station, Sierra Nevada and a little company called Boeing. It’s really interesting to see Boeing building commercial spacecraft and even beginning to sell seats on it.
So we passed the inflection maybe a year or two ago when we really retired the shuttles. NASA will be there and their plans are probably stronger than it’s been in years to go on to explore beyond the low earth orbit to get it out to the moon and astroids and the capability to get to other planets. But we’re going to be able to g0 — not just kids — we’re going to be able to go even in my lifetime, if you want to as a tourist, researcher, a miner, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities.
King: A lot. It’s very equivalent to what happened to aviation in the 1930′s. Before Charles Lindbergh, people that flew in airplanes were called daredevils. Then they were called passengers. Then in our lifetime, there have been the astronauts that went to space. Now the museum is saying to young people, “Step off this planet into the atmosphere and beyond.” That’s going to be realistic in your time. Anybody can be an astronaut and if they want to bad enough, they can figure out how to get there and go.
GW: One thing that’s fascinating about the museum is that you’re right there on Boeing Field. Tell us about new Aviation High School that’s opening next September.
King: It’s really exciting. The museum started in Seattle Center 50 years ago with one room and no airplanes, so they’ve done a wonderful job over the years. The first building was the red barn that Boeing started in and the great gallery, the personal courage wing, and now, the shuttle trainer gallery. But probably the most indicative of what will be in the future is the Aviation High School. You can see the building coming out of the ground. 400 students come to school there everyday. They’ll be from Highline School District, Seattle Public Schools and districts around the region. The school has been in existence for seven years now down near the airport in a condemned middle school and these kids are already doing a incredible job. We’ll probably learn more from them than they learn from us, but it’s really the idea that all young people deserve that kind of experience that gets them out of high school with the ability to make choices.
GW: How is the museum is integrating with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and other scientific educational opportunities that students have here in the area?
King: The whole point of STEM education is that sure, we hope some of them end up as astronauts, pilots, or geologists. But it’s giving a young person a basic grounding in science literacy. 100 years ago there were jobs you could do without knowing how to read. And then people realized that to be successful in life, everybody needed to know how to read. Well the transition we’re making is that to be successful in life, everybody needs a good basic grounding in science and technology whether they follow that path or not. Just to use the kind of tools to find the information they need to do their job, whether they’re a poet or a lawyer, or whatever they choose to do, just to have a meaningful job or to be a citizen that votes on issues like climate change and energy policy and space policy and things like that. We think everyone deserves that grounding when they all get out of high school and then make a choice with the credentials they already got about where they might want to go with their life.
GW: Do you envision the high school kids coming to the museum?
King: Well their school is on our campus and 50 yards from the new shuttle gallery. And in between right now is the airpark with our big planes outside. Eventually those two things will be linked by a building, so you’ll be able to open a door at Aviation High School and walk into one of our galleries. They’ll essentially use our library and archives as their school library. They use project-based learning, they all have industry mentors and so they’ll be volunteers and explainers and camp counselors and things like that in the museum so the younger kids are learning from them while they are learning, too.”
GW: Doug, you came from St. Louis. What has surprised or interested you the most about the Seattle aerospace and/or tech community since you arrived?
King: One of the other main parts of Boeing is headquartered in St. Louis which is the defense division that actually oversees all the space activity, so I knew the company pretty well. But it’s a lot bigger here. It’s really interesting to learn aircraft manufacturing. Most people take for granted you see these green fuselages on trains going down toward Renton coming from Wichita and 11 days later they fly back to Boeing fields as 737′s and they paint them and fix them up inside and then they fly off all around the world. They’re making 40 of them per month now. And of course there’s incredible facilities at Paine Field. So how does that all work? There’s some pretty cool jobs to get young people excited about the future.
Bill Boeing says to me all the time, “It’s not so much about the airplanes. It’s about how they change the world.” What happened in the last 100 years? I was in Long Island on Sunday visiting my son. I left at 4 p.m. ahead of the storm, got here about midnight, and I was kind of annoyed that it took me 11 whole hours to get here. Think about how different that is from 50 years ago, from 100 years ago. How different will the world be that these kids that are growing up right now in Seattle will live in. It’s about helping them understand the incredible opportunities they have in whatever field they choose. But they can stay right here and do a pretty cool job in aviation.
GW: So where are you headed from here? What’s next for the museum?
King: Well, (last) weekend we are opening the exhibit over on the other side on Frank Piasecki, the great pioneer in helicopters and other Polish designers that he brought to America that did incredible things. We’ve got a brand new exhibit in the lobby of the ScanEagle, one of the first of the unpiloted vehicles, the one that was used in the rescue of the captain of the Maersk Alabama when he was taken by Somalian pirates. You can get a sense of how in the heck they followed that with four pirates around this guy, to save his life. So the aviation side is alive and well and next year we will have some really exciting news about a couple new airplanes coming in. One of them might be made by Boeing and yes, it might have the number 7.
The Grand Opening of the Full Fuselage Trainer is Saturday, Nov. 10, at 11 a.m. at The Museum of Flight, 9404 East Marginal Way S. in Seattle. Here’s the audio of the interview with Doug King, starting at the 12:00 mark.