Bill Capo / Action Reporter
NEW ORLEANS -- For 50 years, NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas has been home to America's astronauts. They trained here for missions from the Apollo moon landings to the space shuttle launches.
Astronaut and Marine Col. Doug Hurley is now preparing as pilot of the last space shuttle mission, but he's been too busy to think much about his historic role.
"I haven't had a lot of time to think about it. In many ways it is similar to the last time. Any chance to fly in space is a great chance," he said. "But when you do stop and think, it makes you consider all the folks that have gone before."
The last mission aboard the shuttle Atlantis, now scheduled for late June, will be Hurley's second space flight, and he took me aboard the mock-up of the flight deck that the astronauts use to practice for missions, and showed what it is like to fly the shuttle.
"Oh it's, it's, just have to pinch yourself sometimes, because it's like I can't believe I'm flying the space shuttle. I'm the guy flying the space shuttle," Hurley said. "You know everybody grew up, I remember actually being at Tulane and you know, watching shuttle launches while I was there, and thinking about, wow, what an incredible vehicle that is."
The tiny flight deck is jammed with panels containing 2000 switches and five computer systems, but any military pilot will recognize the controls they use to fly the shuttle.
"We manually fly the approach and docking, we manually fly the approach and landing coming back to Kennedy, and we manually fly the undock and fly around," Hurley said. "But we also have an auto pilot, and you can see here, this is an orbital digital auto pilot."
And he showed me how the commander uses two sets of hand controls to maneuver the shuttle in space.
"That in combination with what we call the rotational hand controller, you can fly the vehicle in space," Hurley said.
When asked how easy it is to maneuver in space, he said, "Well it obviously is big, and obviously in space things move fairly slowly, but it handles fairly well."
The flight deck windows are small, but Hurley says there are some pretty spectacular views, especially during take off.
"When you launch, you roll over on your back, and if I look out this window, that's the east coast of the United States, all the way up, not that I get the chance to look, but on my first flight, my commander Mark said 'look out the window, look out the window.'"
He helps fly the shuttle and operates the robotic arm, but he also does manual labor, unloading the supplies brought to the Space Station, and one of his duties is to be a plumber.
"Something as glamorous as cleaning the toilet is typically left for the pilot. It is just one of those things that has been a shuttle tradition, and it hasn't changed," Hurley said. "I get to clean it and maintain it."
Hurley grew up in New York, fascinated by aircraft and space, but when he won a scholarship in the Naval ROTC, his father advised him to get an engineering degree, and he picked a school a long way from home, Tulane University.
"You know it was hard at first. I'll be honest with you, my first semester I was homesick quite a bit, but you know as you make friends and you get involved with the school activities, and you know in engineering you're very busy."
But he also fell in love with New Orleans.
"I think just the people. You know it is just kind of a magical place as far as that goes. The people are just so friendly. You know the friends I made, what are we looking at 25 to 26 years ago, several of them are coming to my launch."
His engineering degree helped him be selected as a test pilot, and being a test pilot sharpened NASA's interest in Hurley.
"Typically when NASA picks pilots for the shuttle, they're all test pilots, so it kinda led from very early. A decision you made when you were 17 years old affected that downstream 10 to 15 years later."
The external tanks, built for decades in New Orleans, were integral to the success of the Space Shuttle program. So I asked the colonel about the people in New Orleans who built those tanks.
"They are the foundation of the shuttle program in a sense, because that tank keeps things together the whole way to orbit," Hurley said.
The engineer part of Doug Hurley still marvels at what a critical role the external tank plays.
"It's just magnificent the engineering that went into that tank, in order to keep that whole stack going in the right direction and connected safely."
Hurley said he'll be too busy to think much about being part of the last mission, until it is all over.
"I think for me, frankly, it's gonna happen when we stop on the runway, hopefully at Kennedy, since that is where Atlantis is going to spend its retirement, I think that is where it is going to hit."
But he doesn't have any plans to retire from the space program. He is not the only astronaut in the family.
"My wife is also an astronaut, and she is going to fly on the Space Station in 2013," he said. "We're seeing a plan formulate as far as what NASA is going to do next as far as exploration, and I'd like to be around for at least in a supporting role if not getting a chance to fly again."