Space Shuttle Trainer, exhibit take flight

Michael Best, 3, of West Seattle, with his grandmother, Judy Williams, tries his hand in flying the landing simulator.  - Brian Beckley/Reporter newspapers
Michael Best, 3, of West Seattle, with his grandmother, Judy Williams, tries his hand in flying the landing simulator.
— image credit: Brian Beckley/Reporter newspapers

By Brian Beckley

Though it looks similar, there are a few differences between the actual Space Shuttles and the Full Fuselage Trainer about to open to the public at the Museum of Flight in Tukwila.

First, unlike the real things, the FFT is made of wood. And, of course, it's not quite flight ready.

"They have wings; we don't have wings," Museum of Flight CEO Douglas King said Thursday, pointing to the back end of the life size, 120-foot model located in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery.

But the other major difference between the FFT and the actual Space Shuttles, now located in New York, Los Angeles, Florida and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C., is even more important.

"This one you get to go inside," King said.

Beginning Saturday, the public is invited to see what up until now has been the purview of the more than 300 astronauts who trained for the 135 shuttle missions over the 30 years of the program.

Astronauts each took about 20 classes in the FFT facility in Houston, known as the Space Vehicle Mockup Building, or about 100 hours per mission.

The trainer was built at Johnson Space Center in Houston in the 1970s and was used by every Shuttle Astronaut in preparation for their flight. According to King, now that the FFT is at the Museum of Flight, it will continue to educate, even more so than the actual orbiters.

"For education purposes, this is it," King said.

Exhibit curator Dan Hagedorn agreed.

"If people can't experience it, they can't learn from it," Hagedorn said.

Perhaps most surprising about the FFT and the Shuttle in general, is the lack of space inside, considering how large the vehicle is overall.

The crew compartment, split on to two levels connected with a ladder, totals less than 165-square-feet of space, shared by up to seven astronauts, often for more than a week.

The crew compartment's mid-deck and flight deck will not be open to the general public due to the confined space, but the 61-foot long payload bay is open, as is a landing simulator. However, beginning Nov. 17 the museum will offer educational programs that take students inside the trainer.

Surrounding the FFT is an additional exhibit about the future of spaceflight, now that the Shuttle has been officially retired. Included are several displays regarding private industry space craft, including Blue Origin from Kent, and an actual Russian Soyuz capsule, donated by the gallery's namesake, Charles Simonyi.

Simonyi was the architect behind Microsoft's Word and Excel programs and following his departure form the company, Simonyi paid for two flights aboard Soyuz spacecrafts to the International Space Station.

Compared to the Shuttle, the Soyuz is tiny – smaller than a compact sedan – and even more cramped inside, with three small "beds" that require the cosmonauts to lay with their knees on their chests for both liftoff and landing.

The official grand opening of the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, including the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday. Gov. Chris Gregoire, former Astronaut Nicholas Patrick, astronauts Janet L. Kavandi and Wendy B. Lawrence, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori B. Garver and Charles Simonyi are scheduled to attend.

The Museum of Flight is at 9404 E. Marginal Way, Seattle. For more information visit

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