On Tuesday, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery took one last flight from Florida to Washington DC, where it will be placed in a museum. This event really put a big punctuation mark on America’s ability to put humans in space. I was on The Alyona Show Tuesday to talk to her about what this means, and what’s next for us. That interview is now online:
I had to squeeze in a bunch of things there at the end, and I hope I didn’t gloss over ideas too much. I said, for example, that nationalism is fine; but what I meant is that national pride is fine, and American citizens wanting our country to do what’s best — specifically, to explore space — is fine by me. I do think that a key step in that is getting people educated and excited about space travel.
Many, perhaps even most, people are interested in it, but in a vague, fuzzy way. Apollo galvanized that natural desire, but we don’t have an Apollo-scale program in the works right now (or do we…?). I’m attending several meetings in the next few weeks with space scientists, astronauts, and movers and shakers in both private and public space exploration, so I’ll be very curious to see what they think about this. I may have one or two things of my own to say to them as well.
[Updated to note: for some reason, every time I type Alyona's name, I misspell it. There are a handful of typos like that I always seem to make, and someday psychologists will have a name for it. Perhaps Plait's Phumble Phingers. Anyway, I apologize to Alyona and I'll try harder to spellcheck next time!]
This morning, the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery took one last flight. Mated on top of a specially-adapted 747, it flew from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Dulles airport just west of Washington DC.
My brother-in-law works in DC and got this phenomenal shot of it:
Discovery’s ultimate destination is the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex outside of DC. It will be put on display for people to see, which is nice, if bittersweet.
I have mixed emotions about all this. Discovery is special to me; it was the only Shuttle I saw launch live, in 1997, when it carried a camera I helped build up to Hubble Space Telescope. And of course, for decades the Shuttles were the main rocket fleet of NASA.
But they were expensive, and had a host of other problems (I enumerate many in an article I wrote for the NY Post). I really wish we had stuck with Werner von Braun’s plan to keep building bigger and better rockets, back when the Saturn V was thundering into the sky and it looked like we’d be walking on Mars by the 1980s.
But that future didn’t happen. We made that shining tomorrow into the somewhat drab today, where shifting political winds — both inside and exterior to NASA itself — have had us going around in circles for 30 years.
Still… sometimes that wind blows fresh. We’re still exploring the solar system, still looking up. Hubble’s still going strong with its 22nd anniversary next week. We have rovers on Mars, a spacecraft around Saturn, another on its way to Jupiter, and yet another orbiting the asteroid Vesta while setting its sights to move on to Ceres soon. Space X is about to launch its first rocket to the space station.
But all of this is still fragile, still tentative, still threatened. We need a far, far stronger presence in space. If you’re a US citizen, let your Senators and Representative know you support a strong space effort.
Listen to Bill Nye:
I know there’s a wave of support for space exploration. People want to touch the sky; as my brother-in-law wrote me about the Discovery flyby today, "Every building that had roof access was full, maintenance folks had ‘jobs’ to do on the roof between 10 and 11." They wanted to be a part of that piece of history.
Always remember: Ships are safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
Here’s something you don’t see every day.. or will ever again: two Space Shuttle Orbiters, nose to nose:
[Click to enspaceplanate.]
The two Orbiters, Discovery and Endeavour, are seen here outside the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Both are being cleaned up and prepped to be shipped (or, more properly, flown) to museums; Discovery to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and Endeavour to the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
[UPDATE: Here's a shot of the two Orbiters seen from the air!
Very, very cool.]
I expect at some point I’ll pay these ladies a visit. Discovery and I have a connection — it took a camera I worked on up to Hubble back in 1997 — and it’ll be interesting, if also a touch melancholy, to see them up close.
Image credit: NASA
The Space Shuttle project may be over, but we can still get some pretty cool stuff from it. The NASA Goddard Space Light Center put out a time lapse video of the Orbiter Discovery orbiting the Earth while docked to the International Space Station, and like all time lapse animations, it’s enthralling:
[Make sure to click the HD button on the lower right.]
That last shot of the Sun rising on an Orbiter is actually of Atlantis, and was taken on July 19, 2011, not long before the Orbiter undocked from the space station and returned to Earth one last time.
News recently broke that the private company SpaceX is planning on sending its new Dragon capsule to the ISS as early as November of this year. The original plan was for a flyby in a test mission, but now they want to combine the second and third tests and perform an actual docking maneuver. Orbital Sciences is planning to unveil their own capsule next year. So I wonder: what sort of images from the ISS will we be seeing next?
- Time lapsed: the Moon plunges into shadow
- Time lapse video: from North Carolina to the galactic center
- Gorgeous Milky Way Time Lapse
- Incredibly, impossibly beautiful time lapse video
- Time lapse: Journey through canyons
Both Brian and Tara are friends, so congrats to them both! On seeing the launch of Discovery, I mean. That’s a memory to last a lifetime… together.
- Science can be funny
- Space travel isn’t funny. Well, OK, maybe it is a little.
- Endeavour sets wheel to Earth one last time
- Touchdown (Discovery’s last landing)
NASA has announced the target launch dates of the last two flights of the Shuttle: February 24 at 16:50 Eastern time for the beleaguered Discovery, and April 19 at 19:48 Eastern for Endeavour.
Discovery’s launch has been delayed several times due to cracks found in the external tank. Foam falling off that tank is what doomed Columbia, so NASA takes issues with the ET very seriously. Repairs have been underway to strengthen and reinforce the cracked supports, and NASA is now confident the fixes will work.
Endeavour’s launch, like Discovery’s will be her last. It will also be the last of the Shuttle program. The commander is Mark Kelly, whose wife, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was the victim of the Tucson shooting last week. NASA has announced a backup commander in case Kelly cannot fly, but we’ll see how that works out. Giffords is reportedly doing well, and she is such a strong supporter of the space program it wouldn’t surprise me if she urges him to fly. The symbolism of that would be particularly strong, I think.
NASA just announced date changes for the next Shuttle launches:
STS 133 with Discovery is planned for a 16:33 EDT launch on Nov. 1 , 2010. STS 134′s Endeavour will fly on February 26, 2011 at 16:19 EDT.
According to the press release:
The target dates were adjusted because critical payload hardware for STS-133 will not be ready in time to support the previously plannedSept. 16 launch. With STS-133 moving to November, STS-134 cannot fly as planned, so the next available launch window is in February 2011.
Both flights will carry payloads up to the space station, but Endeavour will be lofting the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, an expensive piece of scientific equipment. That makes me happy; it was unclear for a long time that the AMS would ever make it to space.
… but that’s it. These are the last two launches of the Shuttle, unless NASA, Congress, and the President decide to do more. I suspect that will add a huge budget burden to the program, since it’s now winding down. But the way of space is not yet decided, and we’ll see how things shake out in the coming months.
[Update: Frequent BABlog contributer Thierry Legault also captured an incredible image of Discovery as well!]
"Amateur" astronomer Ralf Vandebergh took this incredible shot of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Discovery as it was docked to the space station. Mind you, this picture was taken from the ground!
Wow! Discovery was 369 km (220 miles) away from Ralf when he snapped this shot using his 25 cm (10″) telescope. The atmosphere above his observing site was calm and steady, aiding him in getting such an astounding picture. Incredibly, he was tracking the Orbiter and station manually, moving his telescope by hand!
[Update: The Shuttle landing was waved off today due to low cloud coverage. The first landing attempt opportunity will be Tuesday at 07:34 EDT.]
The Space Shuttle Discovery is scheduled to land at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center Monday morning at 08:48 EDT (12:48 GMT).
ISS astronaut Soichi Noguchi took this picture of Discovery over the Caribbean as she undocked from the station and prepped for landing. After she lands, there will be one more flight for the Orbiter, scheduled for September. In fact, each of the Orbiters — Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis — each have one flight left before they are retired. Assuming their lives aren’t extended, but that’s still in the scuttlebutt (shuttlebutt?) stage.
If you want to watch this landing yourself, the de-orbit burn will be at 07:43, so stay tuned to NASA TV around then to find out if weather will permit it to touch down. The ground track is unusual this time, taking the Orbiter over most of the country. It’s a bit too far north to get a good view from Boulder, and it’s also a bit early for me… but I might try for it anyway. It’s not like there are many more chances to see it.
[Update: I just noticed that if the landing is delayed one orbit -- about 90 minutes -- then Discovery will pass almost overhead at my location (and it'll be at a more decent hour of the morning, too). Keep your eyes and ears open for news of when it lands, and check those ground tracks.]