If there’s one building at NASA’s Johnson Space Center that houses all of the eye candy, it has to be Building 9. Robots! Vehicles! Life-size models! Builds in progress! There’s something new you’d want to explore, drive around or tinker with around every corner. It’s almost too much cool stuff to process all at once.
Building 9 feels like the space program’s version of Porsche’s secret vault. Crammed into every possible space is something else that’s cool to explore, look at or play with. There’s a car that can drive sideways, a robot built to look like a spider and massive machines that simulate microgravity. It’s fantastic.
We got a tour of the giant mockup of the ISS when we went to meet the next crew set to go to the International Space Station, and then friend of Jalopnik Chad Shultz gave us a closer look at the technical side, where all manner of crazy technology is mocked up, tested and made.
Dominating a large chunk of Building 9's main room is a full-scale mockup of the International Space Station, which is part of the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. Each module is roughly the size of a school bus and is assembled by one of the participating space agencies in the ISS. Currently, there are sixteen of them floating around us in space, including a window-filled Cupola, which is a good vantage point for observation and dockings.
These mockups aren’t functional back-ups for space use. Rather, they are used to get astronauts familiarized with different vehicles before they’re sent into space. Familiarity is key in case something happens and obscures the cabin somehow—say, with a loss of power or a fire onboard. Astronauts even get tested on how well they can find things by filling these mockups with smoke and seeing how they fare.
What’s ingenious is how modular even the inside compartments of the ISS are. Nearly everything from storage to sleeping space fits neatly into racks that nest into the curved walls of each of the main modules. Those sleeping racks look like astronauts sleep standing up in the mockup, but because there’s no gravity, it doesn’t matter how the bed is oriented.
Each module serves different purposes. The Japanese module “Kibo” is used for a number of experiments. An interlock allows them to run experiments out in space. There’s a storage module on top. My favorite piece of experimental equipment, however, is the robot arm called the Japanese Experiment Module Remote Manipulator System.
The 10-meter Main Arm and 2.2-meter Small Arm are controlled with a joystick controller inside Kibo. I am now convinced that my rad Gundam-fueled giant space robot dreams will soon come true.
One of the mocked-up Russian modules we toured was even more amusing, as it served as more of a living space with a table to sit at, sleeping racks and most importantly, a toilet.
Space toilets use suction to pull your number twos away from you, as there is no gravity to force them down into the bowl. Microgravity no doubt makes using the bathroom more awkward than it’d otherwise be, but the sheer novelty of crapping in space certainly puts even the most relaxing earthbound poop to shame. New life goal: poop in space.
Urine (which gets collected in a separate tube), sweat and humidity get recycled onboard for water, but solid waste goes into a canister that’s exposed to the vacuum of space. It then gets compressed with other garbage from the ISS, which is sent down in a canister to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
There was also a mock-up of one of the newer items on the ISS: the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. Like every confusing piece of furniture you’ve ever gotten from IKEA, it ships flattened to take up less space, but expands to its full size once it’s in space, offering more space with less hassle. We didn’t get to go inside, but it’s on Google Street View if you’re curious.
While Houston sadly didn’t get one of the decommissioned Space Shuttles to keep on display, Building 9 still had the cockpit used for training. This time of year, it was festively decorated for the holidays.
On the other side of Building 9, however, was where the robots lived. Workspaces for the First Robotics Competition—an international robot-making competition for high schools—were nestled among all manner of vehicle mockups, test machines and even more robots built by NASA themselves.
There we found the space car we’d most like to hoon: the Modular Robotic Vehicle, or MRV for short. NASA and General Motors developed the all-electric MRV together over the course of a year for somewhere around $2.5 million. Its visibly corded R888 tires showed that someone else had hooned it before us. (Drat.)
What this vehicle can do is spectacular. It was meant to be a study into urban mobility solutions for congested areas, and what they came up with would rain shame down upon a Smart ForTwo’s much-touted tiny turning radius.
The MRV parks with its wheels in an X shape to prevent it from moving instead of using a normal handbrake, as each wheel can spin a full 180 degrees and rotate independently of the others. Because of that, it can crabwalk sideways, do donuts around its center axis, and look like it’s drifting without ever breaking traction. It can be controlled remotely, too, and is completely drive-by-wire.
The controls look relatively normal if you decide to drive it yourself, which we totally would—very sideways—if they left us alone with it for long enough.
Behind the MRV was the Space Exploration Vehicle, a couple mockups of which were hanging around to peek into. Think of the SEV like a space-RV for two people. It’s designed for two weeks of surface living in space and can travel as far as six hours out and six hours back.
It’s changed names a couple times and, so far, the extent of its use has been on earth in desert testing. Like the MRV, its wheels spin independently of each other, and it can spin around its own center axis. (Would that be considered doing a donut hole instead of a full donut? Either way, we want to try it.)
Through the several prototypes of the SEV, one thing has remained constant: the spacesuits remain outside and dock up to the rear of the vehicle. It was first envisioned as the Lunar Exploration Rover concept. Dust on the moon never erodes because there is no wind, so particles remain very jagged, making it rather harmful to inhale. Astronauts will want to keep as much of that dust on the outside of the SEV as possible. Hopping into a spacesuit that’s ready to go off the back of the vehicle takes less time and keeps dirty space boots outside.
An updated version of the concept was on hand in another part of the room, continuing the work to inch the SEV ever closer to being a viable space-RV.
Inside, it’s very clean and bright white, but spartan.
There’s not a ton of privacy for two, as the toilet hides under a trapdoor in front of the hatches that go to the external spacesuits.
Most of the controls NASA uses for their vehicles are edge keys around screens, joysticks or selector knobs, as a touchscreen is too dangerous. There’s simply too many vital functions you could accidentally touch and turn off in space with a touchscreen. (Hey, touchscreen-happy car manufacturers: are you listening?)
Close to the vehicle prototypes is the Active Response Gravity Offload System, which helps simulate the microgravity conditions of space. It’s essentially a giant robotically controlled gimbal for humans. It wasn’t in use that day, but my desire to jump around while harnessed into this like it’s the world’s most expensive trampoline is very, very high.
Then there are the robots, which are specifically coming for our own Alanis King, and they’re either amazing or terrifying, depending on how many times you’ve seen the Terminator films.
Robonaut2—or R2, for short—works primarily with its spindly “legs,” as he doesn’t exactly need to use them to stand in space.
The shiny helmet is a nice touch. However, if you really want to have gold-hued robot nightmares, behold Spidernaut.
This fancy climbing robot has eight legs, as it’s based off every nightmare you’ve ever had. Coincidentally that also makes it the oddball NASA item I’d most like to ride through the Whataburger drive-thru.
Bonus: we also got to peek into a few of the fascinating sights outside of Building 9, which were also pretty mind-blowing.
The Mission Control Center lobby had Space Shuttle Trainer #2 on display for all to see, which already looks downright vintage compared to some of the stuff in Building 9.
Inside the Mission Control Center room itself is pretty fascinating. We initially walked in when the ISS had an expected loss of signal as the complex switches from being in range of one satellite to the next. Because the ISS travels at about 5 miles per second overhead, however, we weren’t kept waiting for its video feed for long.
There’s no pilot aboard the ISS itself. Instead, it’s piloted from rooms like this on the ground, which monitor everything from the status of the ISS’s systems to the health of the six crew members. The Flight Director, whose desk is right near the rear of the room, has the final say in the event of a major catastrophe.
There were neat things hiding all over Johnson Space Center. The lobby outside the media room held the only remaining Lunar Landing Training Vehicle—a device used to train for moon landings.
In a big building in the Rocket Park, of course, was the biggest thing we saw on site: a Saturn V rocket, which took astronauts to the moon during the Apollo era. If you ever want to feel small, stand next to this. It’s one of the largest, heaviest rockets ever made, and it’s roughly the size of a 36-story building turned on its side.
It’s all kind of incredible to see some of the older, bulkier items compared to what they’re using now and developing in Building 9. Progress is neat, and nowhere is it more obvious than in NASA’s decades-long collection of robots and vehicles.
Correction [4:48 p.m.]: The ISS moves overhead at about five miles per second, not minute as originally stated. This has been changed above.