Skip to Content

An Out-of-This-World Visit to the Space Shuttle Trainer

Editorial Note: We are pleased to welcome dad Mike Cavanaugh back as a guest blogger. You might remember him from a past post about the role braille has played in his son’s life, as well as his own: Touching Letters, Touching Lives. Mike and his son recently visited the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, and with a little patience, parental advocacy, and some adaptations from the museum staff, had a great visit.

What have your museum-going experiences been like? Which ones can you recommend?


By Michael Cavanaugh

I don’t know what the Cold War, Korean War, and the start of the Vietnam War were like. And I can only imagine what people of this country where going through with McCarthyism only to be followed by the Soviet launch of Sputnik. I have no recollection of the 1950s at all. I was born in the last year of that decade. But do I recall the fascination, exhilaration, awe, and wonderment of the 1960s and the Space Race? Yes I do! Well, that’s not entirely true.

Being only 10 years old when Armstrong walked on the moon, I was more interested in playing tag, hide-n-seek, or kickball with the neighbors. So I’ll admit, that looking back on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs means more to me now than they did at the time. And what little fascination I did have about the U.S. going to the moon died when Apollo was cancelled and the government decided to turn to Skylab and the shuttle program.

Going to the moon was routine?

How could going to the moon be routine? At the time, I didn’t know how much it cost. But then what kid does? I thought it was “neat” that man had walked on the moon, and then they were going back with a car! How groovy was that? I didn’t know how to drive, but to drive on the moon would have been the highlight of anyone’s accomplishments.

I remember Skylab and sporadically followed the shuttle missions. On the morning of January 28, 1986, I was listening to music and preparing to go for a bicycle ride. The news came on and said Challenger had exploded.

The Space Shuttle Trainer

The Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington recently became home to NASA’s Space Shuttle Trainer. The space shuttle program had orbital flights between 1981 and 2011.

Seattle’s museum had lobbied for, and failed, to obtain an orbiter that had flown in space. Well, you know what they say: “Our loss is your gain.” Had the Museum of Flight actually obtained an orbiter that had flown in space, you’d have to admire it from a distance. With the trainer, you get to actually touch it, feel it, and go inside of it!

Educating the Educators

Our tour of the shuttle trainer was done in three stages. This means 1/3 of our group watched a video, 1/3 created small motorized gadgets (kind of like working with Legos), and 1/3 got to go inside the Crew and Flight Decks. Then, after about 15 minutes, the groups rotated.

My 19-year old blind son has played baseball (with live pitching), taken the bus system into downtown Seattle, climbed through caves, ridden horses, flown cross-county by himself, and sped on zip lines. So you can imagine our disappointment when we were told he would not be able to climb the short ladder up to the flight deck of the Space Shuttle Trainer.

While we were waiting in line, I was approached by a member of the museum staff. This young lady told me that my son wouldn’t be allowed onto the flight deck of the shuttle trainer because climbing a ladder was involved. I assured her that my son would have no problem with this and listed some of the above activities that he’d done. She was quite apologetic, but wasn’t changing her mind. I asked to speak to her supervisor.

A few minutes later, the supervisor came over and I tried to get my son (who doesn’t usually lack for words) to advocate for himself. He tried, but somewhat felt like he was on the spot and the words didn’t come quite right, so I chimed in. After some debate, we were told we’d have to wait until the complete tour was over before we’d be allowed to go up to the flight deck. This way, extra staff would be available to help ensure safety. After all, this was a new experience (having the shuttle) and the museum staff didn’t know quite how to handle such a situation.

Once my son was on the flight deck, the staff spent 20+ minutes explaining the controls and displays to him. The most fascinating aspect of the tour for him, as well as us, was the amount of Velcro that was used. The simple explanation was, everything floats in space.

I applaud the staff for making the right choice and allowing my son access to the flight deck. And we had no qualms about waiting until it was clear of other visitors. In a way, we got our own private tour.