Discovery's last voyage is go for February 24

By Phil Plait | February 19, 2011 7:00 am

The last scheduled launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery has been set for February 24 at 16:50 Eastern time.

You can keep up with the latest info and NASA’s launch blog on their Shuttle website. The launch will be live, as usual, on NASA TV. As it happens I’ll be on a plane traveling to Florida to visit family at that time, so ironically I’ll be headed toward the launch but won’t be able to see it. The launch window is a very short ten minutes, so if they delay it at all maybe it’ll be for a day and I can see it.

The mission is to go to the International Space Station, as all the final flights have been. I just found out that if all goes as planned, Discovery will have spent a total of 363 days in space, just short of a solid Shuttle-year. That’s pretty amazing.

This flight has been much-delayed due to external tank problems, but NASA says those have been fixed. It’ll be carrying components of the ISS up to orbit, as well as Robonaut 2, a human-like robot designed to help astronauts in space and hunt down Sarah Connor. Not disturbingly at all, you can follow R2 on Twitter too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA

Comments (50)

  1. Ray

    Why do they still have external tank problems? Its not like its a new design or something. We seem to have paid a lot of money for product that continuously gives problems. Did they hire engineers from Northwest East Central Tech or something?

  2. Pete Jackson

    It will be more than nine months after the previous shuttle launch (Atlantis) on May 14, 2010. It seems that the shuttle program is slowly oozing down.

    The shuttle never graduated out of being experimental into production. That probably is related to the continued external tank problems in that procedures were never finalized.

    I think that manned space flight will be better off without the shuttle, which turned out to be an expensive dead end. A grand spectacular dead end, to be sure, and it’s easy to understand nostalgia for its demise.

    Future manned space flight will be motivated by space tourism. Eventually that should lead to flights into orbit for, say, 100 people at a time. Of course these same vehicles could be used for scientific research, much like SOFIA uses a Boeing747SP.

    And space tourism will go to the moon, as well. That would be the limit unless they design and allow nuclear-powered spaceships so that the travel time to Mars and asteroids can be cut to a reasonable duration.

    A nuclear-powered spaceship would have a lot of conceptual similarity with a nuclear powered submarine, but the hull could be much thinner since it would need to support less than an atmosphere of pressure, instead of the hundred or so atmospheres for the sub. Nuclear-powered subs weigh a few thousand tons, while the current largest US rocket (Delta4-Heavy) can lift 5 tons to LEO. The Saturn V could lift 50 tons to LEO. Can the nuclear-powered spaceship weight and rocket capabilities eventually meet at around 250 tons? That would be the future.

    Only a few nuclear-powered spaceships would need to be launched. Once launched, they would stay up there and serve for a long time.

  3. frankenstein monster

    bye bye space age. at least the American one. Russian one, it seems, still goes on, and they may well be the only ones to depart before the world plunges into a new dark age.

  4. Andy G

    Is there any word on whether or not there will be an ISS family portrait while it’s up there?

  5. The Space Shuttle is the most complex vehicle known to humanity. It is a 10 story structure with 2 million moving parts on 7 million pounds of thrust. It’s capabilities are currently unmatched with anything known to humanity. It’s had problems due to the complexity. And, as engineers will tell you – many of these same problems will be faced in the future with our “new” vehicle – whatever it turns out to be – when faced with continual budget cuts.

    It is pure irony the one Government Agency with verifiable return on investment spending less than 1% of the Federal Budget for science and research faces constant cutbacks. If anyone can name any civilization, Nation, Country- heck, tribe for that matter in the history of our great Earth benefitting from cutting space, exploration or technology – please do so….

  6. Jeff

    Change your flight and see the launch, please! Oddly, it’ll make me feel better. My kid had off of school at the end of the November launch window, so that Thursday we decided on a whim to fly down to FL (from MD) early Friday morning. By the time we landed, the launch had already been scrubbed. We made a good weekend out of it, but there was still the disappointment. (Lots of money for us to spend on a gamble that didn’t pay off, but I wanted my 6yo, who lives space, rockets, and robots, to have a chance to see a shuttle launch.) You’ve probably seen a launch before, so maybe it isn’t a big deal. For me, I can’t image a more incredible sight, except the look of awe I would have seen on my son’s face had we been able to see a launch.

  7. Sam H

    FINALLY!! About time they got this problem fixed.

    @4: I’m pretty sure they do a full portrait of the station on every new flight.

  8. Jon Hanford

    @7 Sam H,

    While true that the station & shuttle do inspect each other before and after rendezvous with the ISS, the option being considered, involving undocking of a Soyuz capsule while the Shuttle is docked, has not been attempted before with the ISS (in it’s “full” configuration). Details here: http://www.universetoday.com/83399/nasa-weighs-risks-of-unique-photo-op-at-space-station/

    I hope they get the go-ahead. It would be spectacular!

  9. Ray

    @ Jason,

    The Romans, Persians, Mongols, and a host of other empires/nations did just fine without any space program at all.

  10. Ron1

    @2. Pete Jackson Said:

    I think that manned space flight will be better off without the shuttle, which turned out to be an expensive dead end. A grand spectacular dead end, to be sure, and it’s easy to understand nostalgia for its demise. … Future manned space flight will be motivated by space tourism. Eventually that should lead to flights into orbit for, say, 100 people at a time. Of course these same vehicles could be used for scientific research, much like SOFIA uses a Boeing747SP.

    ……………………………………………………………………

    I think you are absolutely correct about the shuttle itself. While I love the shuttle concept and am a big fan of the program itself ( got to see Discovery launch last April), embedding the crew compartment in the middle of all that explosive fuel turned out to be a big, deadly, expensive mistake.

    As for your other comment, I’m not sure if I agree with you about the future of manned spaceflight. To explain, I’m falling back on the moral argument that robots can do the job faster and cheaper without diverting scarce resources that could be better allocated to improving human lives (and that space tourism is a perversion for the benefit of the wealthy).

    While there is no doubting the inspiration that a manned mission to an asteroid or Mars will provide (although I’m not so sure how inspiring manned tourist flights will be?), I think, in the end, those trips will actually be nothing more than very expensive diversions that robots can more extensively and cheaply accomplish. After all, space robots are really nothing more than extensions of ourselves.

    Fix our social and environmental problems, explore widely with robots and then, if we still want it, send humans out into the black.

    cheers

  11. Mike

    I understand that on this docking with the ISS there will also be two Soyuz craft, one Progress, one European ATV-2, one Japanese HTV-2 and a completed ISS. That may make the ISS more massive than it will ever be again. The plan is to use one Soyuz to do a fly around for the photo shoot.

  12. Jon Hanford

    @11 Mike:

    See my link above. I really hope they will do this.

  13. stonemason89

    Alas poor Discovery. We knew it well.

  14. Hey Ray -

    One question..

    WHERE are these great empires today?

    Just asking….

  15. Hey Roni -

    What Spirit and Opportunity have done in 5 1/2 years on the Red Planet – humans could have done in a few hours. These “cheap robotic” missions do costs hundreds of millions of dollars. They are not necessarily cheap or better..here’s what Steve says about the matter.
    http://www.space.com/6972-steve-squyres-robot-guy-humans-mars.html

    I’m sure the space program would gladly trade budgets with any social program currently on the market. Without innovation – without imagination – we have a need for MORE social programs for what you speak – and we are ALL seeking to eliminate them.

  16. marsjunkiegirl

    @ Pete Jackson: You forgot to say, “Alas, but there are no nuclear-powered vehicles that have been tested yet.” Or ion rockets, or anything else. Sure, there are a few prototypes out there, but none that have actually broken atmo. There are actually some people who think we could do a Mars mission with current technology http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Direct. Personally, I’ve always liked Mars Direct, because it doesn’t depend on whiz-bang tech, have large teams of people that require lots of resources to support them, or focus only on planting a flag in the Martian soil instead of, you know, actually doing science.

  17. Patrick

    If you only knew how many United States security missions and hardware have been put in place by these 133 missions of 30 years, you would probably say that it has been well worth it.

  18. here

    @16: if i understand correctly, ion rockets are well tested and pretty widely applied: I count around 8 spacecraft since 1964 employing them. Apparently they are also widely used by the Russians for station keeping.

  19. Ray

    @ Jason

    All three of the ones I listed lasted longer than the USA has.

  20. Ray

    @ Patrick:

    It depends. How many of those payloads could have been put on a rocket we already had?

  21. Sam H

    I hope for a future for manned spaceflight, and I must go into space at least once in my life (which is why I’m now curious about methods of saving at least $200,000 within the next 10 years). But unfortunately, space travel lives off a healthy flow of money, infrastructure, and cheap oil. Once the price of oil skyrockets after production peaks (which just happened in Saudi Arabia, and will happen to the world almost certainly no later than 2025 my guess), the heavy lift rockets needed for complex space missions simply won’t fly. The only way I can now see space travel surviving is by a Pacific-based space elevator built before the price climb – the cost problem of space access would then be virtually moot.

    I still hope man will make it to Mars…and beyond. If we don’t have some kind of new frontier that we can still conquer, humanity will simply decay. And as we all know, space is the final frontier… :)

  22. Keith Bowden

    I remember watching the first moon landing when I was five. I was excited and curious, but didn’t understand that we didn’t do this all the time.

    I remember when the shuttle program was announced and the Enterprise named.

    I remember the shuttle disasters.

    I remember Skylab and the launch of Hubble. Voyagers.

    I look forward to the next events and programs that I’ll add to my memories.

  23. Aaron

    If all goes as planned, I’ll be there to see it!

  24. It’s sad that a program that first launched five years before I was born is coming to an end, but I think it’s a little overdue. The whole plan for “reusable spacecraft” was great, I just don’t think they anticipated reusing them for 30 years. Still I remember living in Florida when I was a kid and watching space shuttle launches with all their excitement. I hope it’s not long until we have a new program for regular launches, unless we are truly to rely on private heavy launch systems…

  25. The Man Version

    I’ll be there! Never seen one before. Can’t wait :)

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    @5. Jason Fontaine :

    The Space Shuttle is the most complex vehicle known to humanity. It is a 10 story structure with 2 million moving parts on 7 million pounds of thrust. It’s capabilities are currently unmatched with anything known to humanity. It’s had problems due to the complexity. And, as engineers will tell you – many of these same problems will be faced in the future with our “new” vehicle – whatever it turns out to be – when faced with continual budget cuts.
    It is pure irony the one Government Agency with verifiable return on investment spending less than 1% of the Federal Budget for science and research faces constant cutbacks. If anyone can name any civilization, Nation, Country- heck, tribe for that matter in the history of our great Earth benefitting from cutting space, exploration or technology – please do so….

    Well said and so very true. Seconded by me. :-)

    @19. Ray :

    @ Jason – All three of the ones I listed lasted longer than the USA has.

    The USA is still going, it isn’t finished yet. Also you might want to check again regarding the length of time the Mongol empire lasted. That one split apart pretty quickly – Genghis Khan founded it, it reached its greatest extent under Khan Ogodei (his son) then split in three with Kubilai being the mainstay of the Yaun dynasty in China but with two or three other rival khanates – Chagatid / Golden Horde / Ilkhanate – outside his control and none of these lasted that long historically speaking.

    @9. Ray Says:

    @ Jason, The Romans, Persians, Mongols, and a host of other empires/nations did just fine without any space program at all.

    Did fine in what sense? They ruled a lot of territory and spread their culture – but they also explored n other ways. Also all were pretty brutal and oppressive at times far more than the US and had slavery, oppressed women and minorities etc ..

    Remember Carthage? Rome had it stamped out of existence after the third Punic war – all its people killed or enslaved and the ground sown with salt.

    The Mongols invaded Russia and most of Asia and left pyramids of skulls destroying whole cities and cultures.

    The Persians were pretty dredful too – see their invasion of what is now Greece that was opposed by the Athenians and Spartans.

    In contrast the USA rebuilt the lands of its enemies -Germany & Jpaan post WWII – has freed the slaves and respected women’s rights and civil rights and minorities right and has explored the Moon all toobriefly alas “..in peace for all mankind.”

    We are not so bad.

    In fact of all the great empires and cultures in history I’d say the US American-Western civilisation was the best. (No, I don’t buy into the whole cultural relativism, all cultures are equal left-wing humbug.)

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    D’oh. Stuffed up with the italics – the’re meant to stop after “mankind” above.

    On a far brighter note apparently Gabrielle Giffords* is recovering very well -so much so that her husband will now be flying on schedule. :-)

    * Is it Gifford or Giffords can’t recall. y’know who I mean.

  28. here

    @5: being the most complex vehicle known to man isn’t a compliment, especially given the design trade-offs that were made. Design trade-offs that have long since ceased to make sense.

  29. réalta fuar

    As beautiful as the space shuttles are, from practical, human, and engineering points of view, they’ve been a complete and utter disaster. They were oversold from the beginning and never came close to meeting the over-hyped claims that sold them to the U.S. Congress. Had NASA just continued with relatively simple expendable vehicles, not only would the American manned spaceflight program have been much more successful (and probably much safer) but the shuttles wouldn’t have drained the funds that could have been spent on doing perhaps twice as much science.

  30. JLE

    I’ve read nothing but doom and gloom since the late 1970′s, early 1980′s when I was in high school. Then it was the coming Ice Age, and the doom of the economy and no jobs for my generation etc. I’ve had a fairly successful career first in business/technology and now as an educator. Is life perfect? No. Are there radicals today as there was in many eras of this country? Yes. However and unfortunate money is the leading factor in our country today and there is far too much money to be made through innovations that solve problems. Thus though there will be ups and downs, I firmly believe that the human race responds via being innovative to the problems it will face. The question for the United States is will we become innovative enough in terms of transportation and space to continue to lead the world? Or will we see a transition to other powers? Despite the challenges, I say yes because there is money to be made. So though I will be sad to say good-bye to the Shuttle Program, I do believe that in some way, man flight from this country will continue. We may see a pause, but its not over. I will never forget when I lived in Jacksonville Fl. going down to watch several launches, and I loved the night launch I saw. However, the program is old, and it is time to move forward. We may not have anything right now, but we will. Life is not as bleak as some would like it to be. Despite the challenges facing us, I do believe we will rise above them, we have in the past.

  31. Ron1

    @15. Jason Fontaine Said, “What Spirit and Opportunity have done in 5 1/2 years on the Red Planet – humans could have done in a few hours. These “cheap robotic” missions do cost hundreds of millions of dollars. They are not necessarily cheap or better. … I’m sure the space program would gladly trade budgets with any social program currently on the market. Without innovation – without imagination – we have a need for MORE social programs for what you speak – and we are ALL seeking to eliminate them”.

    ………………………………

    Jason, in the end, I don’t think there is much more that humans could have done than what the rovers have done, for massively less capital and risk. As for the future, keep in mind, robotic technology is getting better and better, and time is not relevant — we have an unlimited supply of time.

    As for comparison of price, a few hundred million dollars IS cheap for space flight. Compare that to the multi-hundred billion (if not trillion) dollars required for a manned Mars mission. That`s an awful lot of robotic missions to a lot of destinations for the price of one trip to Mars (although given the cost cutting underway, I don`t think that is where the funding would be allocated). Ultimately, the primary benefit of sending humans into space is for political ‘chest thumping rights’.

    As for your second comment, you`re right — innovation and imagination are absolutely necessary. But, so is education, and education is under attack in much of the world under the guise of lack of funding. Education also suffers when students are afraid or hungry or otherwise financially challenged, which is the result of lack of social support.

    Therefore, I ask, without funding for social programs, how will your future generation go to Mars? How will they innovate and use their imagination if they don`t have the requisite education, if they`re hungry, afraid or sick, or simply don`t care? How can you afford Mars, provide for the needs of your population and fight in unending wars without income, ie taxes? Or, is the dream of space only meant for the wealthy?

    Jason, I want to be perfectly clear that I also hold to the dream of man leaving Earth and heading out into the stars. It’s a powerful, powerful dream for me. I just think it`s a want vs a need, at least for now.

    Cheers

  32. We speak of the Shuttle and the less than 1% of the overall Federal Budget given to the program – but you do realize this includes things like the Mars rovers…Hubble Space Telescope – the New Horizons spacecraft zooming to Pluto – Cassini at Saturn and countless Earth monitoring satellites helping us understand our home planet.

    The Shuttles have been just one part of this….so when we discuss value – we cannot forget all the other accomplishments NASA makes each and every day. With an ROI anywhere between 4:1 and 8:1 – I do not call it an expenditure – but an investment. We have many problems here on Earth and those are being addressed. Again, without innovation – without challenge – those problems will only expand…this is why it is fundamentally essential to grow NASA.

    I cannot help to think in the same fiscal year our Federal Government will spend close to 700BILLION on DOD – and NASA receives a little over 18 – why so many immediately wish to cut NASA????

    Great discussion by all involved – thanks for the words and safe travels in all future endeavors! Now, GO DISCOVERY!!!!!!

  33. R2 is coming after Sarah Connor? Well, I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    @32. Jason Fontaine : Seconded by me. :-)

    On a far brighter note apparently Gabrielle Giffords* is recovering very well -so much so that her husband will now be flying on schedule. (Is it Gifford or Giffords can’t recall. Y’know who I mean.)

    Original press release on that is here :

    http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/feb/HQ_11-036_Kelly_Returns.html

    The Congresswoman’s surname is Giffords with an ‘s’.

    My thoughts on the Space Shuttle are expressed here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/11/05/shuttle-launch-delayed-until-monday/#comment-329033

    For whatever they’re worth.

    In a nutshell : The Shuttle was a mixed success, an engineering marvel and a bit of a disappointment that never quite lived up to high expectations. Yet we owe it an awful lot – for the Hubble Telescope, the Galileo mission, the International Space Station & so much more. I fear we’ll only really appreciate how great it was when its gone.

    Growing up in the 1980′s as a kid I thought the Shuttle was *the future*; the first step towards us really having space planes like this :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttxT9oXVJzQ&feature=related

    SF example. :-)

    I for one will really miss the Shuttles. :-(

    But the worst thing is that the Shuttle spacecraft are finishing their lives without any replacement that is an improvement on them. :-(

    *****

    Countdown now – four days, eighteen hours, five minutes and thirty seven seconds till launch.

  35. Sigmund

    I read and realize most of you don’t realize what the real agenda is in ending the shuttle program. If you want to kill ones will, kill their dreams first. We have all the tech we need to truly explore and capitalize on the moon and go to Mars. To do so will take a global effort of cooperation and that is not part of the agenda. It’s not about funding. The USA gives BILLIONS of dollars to countries like Egypt and we get NOTHING in return. The money is there, redirected and wasted. Keep the people on the planet and distracted. Kill the dreams and defame the dreamers. Blame the economy (government waste) and voile’. We become isolationists and splintered, but mostly controlled and manipulated. Why you ask? Money and Power, what else?

  36. Zathras

    I partly agree with the comments advocating robotic exploration, for the simple reason that it is easier and cheaper to send robot explorers first. However, I emphatically DISAGREE that we humans should not follow. The reason we MUST follow our robotic pathfinders into space and on to the stars was said better by J. Michael Stracnski’s Commander Sinclair of Babylon 5:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkj2lR9CT08&feature=feedf

    (Yeah I know he doesn’t quite get the astrophysics quite right with the “sun will go cold” comment, but the spirit of this scene is right on the money).

  37. Messier Tidy Upper

    There’s also a video of an interview with Gabrielle Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly here :

    http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/videogallery/index.html?collection_id=14554&media_id=59802041

    discussing her recovery and his return to training for the next flight after this – STS-134 :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/STS-134

    the final scheduled flight of the Endeavour orbiter.

    … Giffords’ condition was upgraded to “serious” on January 17,[70] and to “good” on January 25.[71] … Upon her arrival in Houston, her doctors were optimistic, saying she has “great rehabilitation potential”.[73] On February 9, spokesperson C.J. Karamargin stated that Giffords has been regaining her ability to speak. Giffords’ husband said that he expects her to travel to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to witness the launch of his final Space Shuttle mission scheduled for April 2011.

    Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabrielle_Giffords

    She was, in my view, one of the very precious few congresscritters worth their wage & a great advocate for space exploration and science. Terrible what happened to her – good to learn she’s on the mend.

    I know this is a bit off topic, sorry, but I figured, hopefully correctly, that some folks here might be interested.

  38. locklin

    Too bad the robot is fixed -it could take the shot. You would think that with all the trouble they have had examining the shuttle/ISS in orbit, someone would have rigged up a remote-controlled flying camera or something that could take this shot.

  39. frankenstein monster

    Jason, in the end, I don’t think there is much more that humans could have done than what the rovers have done, for massively less capital and risk.

    Yeah like one day of geologist’s work in one year.

    As for the future, keep in mind, robotic technology is getting better and better, and time is not relevant — we have an unlimited supply of time.

    O RLY ?

  40. sHx

    @17 Patrick
    “If you only knew how many United States security missions and hardware have been put in place by these 133 missions of 30 years, you would probably say that it has been well worth it.”

    133 missions in 30 years isn’t much, when you also take into account 6 shuttles that were built, 2 shuttles that were destroyed, and 14 lives lost. The price tag for each shuttle was around a billion dollars (or so we were told) in the early 80s. Now it takes more than that to get just one of them off the ground.

    I remember watching on live TV the first take off and the landing of the shuttle. Although I was a kid at the time, the spectacle failed to capture my imagination. 30 years on and I am still ambivalent towards the space shuttle. What did shuttle do that could not have been done better and cheaper by other means?

    The Russians were wise to abandon their shuttle program and to re-direct their resources for the Mir space station. They continue using rockets and capsules to this day, and they haven’t had a single fatality since 1971.

    One can only imagine just how different the shape of space exploration would have been except for the shuttle and the international space station programs. I tend to think that the space station was inevitable, but not the shuttle program. And the fact that it’s been canceled after 30 years and a pretty dismal performance record, just shows what a big mistake it was.

    The shuttle program was an albatross around NASA’s neck. The sooner it’s cast out the better it will be.

  41. Jay Fox

    The very fact that “space is hard” is what drives the technology we benefit from. The need to do things faster, simpler, better, cheaper, and with less energy in a space environment continues to spur new tech. It seems that we benefit from both manned and unmanned endeavors.

    Digital photography owes it’s roots to the military/space robotics programs. And underwater divers use technology developed first for astronauts. Both of these technologies revolutionized the study of our own planet, and might have risen on their own without “space money,” but we got these quicker by needing to solve the problems first in space.

    We sent a lot of stuff to mars on robotic missions that were never heard from again. On at least two moon missions, men on board saved missions that would otherwise have been lost. There were indeed some losses during manned missions, but try to find an astronaut who lets that dim their enthusiasm. They know and accept the risks, just like we do when we drive a car. And a lot more of us die in cars than astronauts die in space.

    Doing the “hard things” in space benefits all of us when that technology filters into general use on the planet. When we stop exploring, we stifle technological advance.

  42. Howard

    I still think it is absolutely asinine to end the shuttle program with no viable alternative to take its place. Now we have to rely on other countries, that don’t particularly like us, to get us into space until who knows when. Their only motivation to help us is the money we pay for a launch. Money that should be spent here to keep us on top of the space program.

  43. marsjunkiegirl

    @Howard: Well, we know who’s to blame for that; the Augustine Commission.
    I had qualms about the Constellation plan, but it was still a really sad day for this nation when it was cancelled.

  44. Curious Jorge

    Phil how exactly do they determine the launch window? What exactly goes in to that calculation. Is it weather?

  45. Linda

    My fingers are crossed really hard for 1) a safe trip and 2) a great landing out here at Edwards AFB. :) Just sayin’!

  46. Ben H.

    Phil,
    Maybe you’ll get lucky and see the launch from the air like in this youtube video?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xv5J5cBwwFc

    Here’s hoping!

  47. Ben H.

    Curious Jorge,
    The launch window depends mainly on the current orbit of the Space Station. A shuttle flight to ISS has a very specific launch profile of how it gets there, much like you take the same route to work every day. If you want to get to work by 8, you know what time you need to leave. Just so, if they want to leave on the 24th and make it to the ISS on flight day 3 (docking is always flight day 3) they need to leave at a certain time of day for the timing to work out.

    Thus, it is completely independent of weather and those types of factors.

    - Ben
    Space City, TX

  48. Buzz Parsec

    The ISS (or any object in orbit about any other object) orbits in a fixed* plane. If the shuttle were to launch at any random time, it would most likely end up in a plane inclined to the ISS and wouldn’t be able to dock with it. Instead it would crash into it at hundreds or thousands of miles per hour. It is possible for it to change planes by firing its onboard rocket engines at an appropriate time (basically when its at the crossing point of the plane its in with the plane it wants to be in), but this is extremely expensive in fuel. The key to determining when to launch is waiting until the Earth’s rotation carries the launch site into the plane of ISS’s orbit. This happens twice a day, but only one of the opportunities is suitable for launching. Since the ISS’s orbit is inclined at about 50 degrees to the equator, to match it, they have to launch either to the northeast, or 12 hours later, to the southeast. Launching to the northeast basically follows the east coast of the US, which provides good tracking and a bunch of emergency landing sites (e.g. Bangor, Maine) while staying out over the ocean until they reach orbit. Launching southeast would cross populated areas of Florida, Cuba or other Caribbean islands and South America, so they avoid this.

    The launch window for the space shuttle is about 10 minutes, because it carries enough maneuvering fuel to adjust its orbit slightly, and it can dog-leg a little during the launch to compensate, but for example during last weeks 1st attempt to launch the ATV-2, they had a minor problem with a fuel gauge at T-5 minutes and had to scrub for a day because the launch window was instantaneous. (Either launch precisely on time or not at all.) The size of the launch window depends on the rocket, the guidance system, the margin (how much extra fuel the rocket or spacecraft carries vs. what it needs), and even the latitude of the launch site. The closer to the Equator, the more rapidly the Earth’s rotation carries it through the desired plane.

    For a little of the math, see the Wikipedia article on Orbital Mechanics.

    [*] relatively fixed… The Earth’s equatorial bulge, the Sun and the Moon all cause the plane to precess, but this takes weeks or months to have a significant effect. I suppose you could take advantage of differential precession** to make plane changes, but that could take years.

    [**] orbits at different altitudes and different eccentricities precess at different rates.

  49. Sweet! I’ll be there with some of the other UVa Astro ladies :-)

  50. CB

    @ marsjunkiegirl

    The Shuttle program was already planned to end before the Augustine Commission convened. There’s really only so much you can do when you’re already cannibalizing orbiters for parts to keep some of them flying.

    And Falcon IXs will be sending U.S. astronauts up to the ISS before Constellation would have been able to, based on both programs’ given schedules, and even more so on real-world adherence to those schedules. I’m not sorry one tiny bit to see Giant Unnecessary Government Lift Vehicle 2.0 go.

    Commodity access to orbit: That’s what we’ve been dreaming about for years, it’s what the Shuttle never gave us, what it’s doubtful any NASA vehicle could, and private (non-defense-contractor) enterprise is closer to delivering than we’ve ever been before.

    Barring Sigmund’s comments coming to fruition, I’m more hopeful about U.S. spaceflight than I have been in a long time.

    P.S. I have to admit that I too am a little sad seeing the shuttle preparing for its last flight ever. Despite everything, it is pretty awesome and has done a lot for us.

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