Imagine a dream trip to major space facilities, where you meet several astronauts. Add a visit to a geeky aerospace wonderland, and the opportunity to share the fun with your space enthusiast friends. I did such a trip.

From January 14 to 16, 2010, I did a short trip to Germany with Italian friends and space tweeps Giuseppe Albini (@GiuseppeAlbini), Luca Frigerio (@Spazionauta), Michael Sacchi (@signaleleven), Marco Zambianchi (@marcozambi) and Alberto Zampieron (@albyz85). We visited the ESA European Astronaut Centre (EAC) and a major DLR German aerospace agency facility in Cologne, and Technik Museum in Speyer. Space Tweep Society mascot Meco the Birdonaut was also part of the crew.

The trip was made possible by the kindness and assistance of our friend Samantha Cristoforetti, one of the new ESA ascans, whom we met with her colleagues.

Mission Day 1: ESA EAC and DLR

The first day we visited ESA EAC in Cologne. Samantha greeted us and joked that we were probably going to see more in the next few hours than she was able in past months. She and other ascans are so busy with basic training, that they spend most of the time there locked into classrooms.

Our excellent guide Stuart, a biomed support engineer, introduced EAC and showed us ATV (holy lift, it looks heavy) and ISS module mockups, and the Neutral Buoyancy Facility. We were able to venture inside the Node-2 Harmony and Columbus mockups. We also visited the ISS Medops control room while an EVA was under way.

Samantha later invited us for a coffee break with the ascans. They had an unexpected free moment due to a delayed lesson. After considerable deliberation, in which we mumbled something like “let us see, we are not that busy right now, this might fit in our schedule, sure, yeah, why not?”, we finally accepted. The whole decision process took approximately 0.012 seconds, possibly less.

After the coffee break Samantha and the ascans, um, well, “insisted” that we take group photos, which we did in front of the Node-2 and Columbus mockups another 0.012 seconds later. In the photos we wear sweatshirts with the patch of ISAA (Italian Space and Astronautics Association), our space outreach organization. I guess the ascans filed the experience under “survival training”.

Later that day another guide gave us a tour of the DLR facility. We saw such space treats as the Rosetta Philae lander control room, the ISS payload operations control room, and more. DLR has a scope similar to NASA’s in that it does both aviation and space, but it also deals with energy and transportation.

Mission Day 2: Technik Museum Speyer

The second day we drove over 250 km south to visit Technik Museum in Speyer. The museum is such a geek paradise, chock full of interesting and unique aerospace artifacts, that I don’t know where to start. There are many planes, helicopters and ships on display, most of which are walk-in exhibitions: you can freely enter the vehicles, explore them and take pictures. Kudos to the institution.

The most interesting space vehicle at Speyer is the OK-GLI Buran shuttle for atmospheric test flights, a sort of Soviet equivalent of the NASA Enteprise Shuttle. You can climb to the cargo bay and see the cockpit, or inspect Buran’s bowels by peeking inside the aft compartment through the floor hatch.

The large Buran building is packed with planes, cars, motorbikes, and all sorts of vechicles and machines. There are many more interesting space artifacts and flown items: the Soviet BOR-5 suborbital test vehicle (a Buran 1:8 scale model), Sokol and Orlan suits, Soyuz and Mir parts, you name it. So many things to see…

I almost forgot a minor item. In front of the Buran building there is a whole Lufthansa Boeing 747 arliner, which you can again freely enter and explore from the lower deck to the cockpit. What’s amazing about this sky giant is that it is not on the ground, but perched tens of meters above as if it was still flying. Mighty Jumbo.

Mission Day 3: sightseeing and wrapup

We spent the third and last day visiting downtown Cologne and the Cathedral, which stands taller than VAB. Before reentry we spent some wonderful time at an informal private gathering with ESA people. Thanks again to Samantha and all of them for the unique experience.

Just a few hours after we safely landed at Malpensa MXP airport, Samantha told that we had been lucky: all weather hell broke loose, and Cologne was in a snowstorm. Isn’t Buran the Russian for snowstorm?

Photos and videos

We took so many pictures, videos, panoramas and 3D anaglyphs that we are still downlinking and processing, er, posting them. The material is being collected in a few online places, which you may want to keep visiting to check the latest additions: