The Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour made its way from LAX to the California Science Center a few days ago. A huge throng of people showed up to watch and take pictures. Among them was Matthew Givot and his team, who took many thousands of pictures, and then created a stunning and moving time lapse tribute to NASA’s youngest and now-retired Orbiter.
That was wonderful. As I’ve written several times, my feelings about the Shuttle program are mixed. But even as this amazing machine is put on display, Earthbound forever more, I’m hopeful about American space flight. We stand on the cusp of the future, and it won’t be long before we make that next giant leap.
I didn’t say much about the last flight of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Endeavour here on the blog (though I did tweet links to some cool pictures, so follow me on Twitter to stay up on that sort of thing) mostly because I knew pictures would be coming in so fast I wouldn’t be able to keep up!
But then one very special image came along, and I just had to put it here: Endeavour and its 747 ride as seen from the DigitalGlobe satellite:
This image was featured on the Google Earth blog (which also provides a KML file so you can see it for yourself if you have the GE software installed). At the time, the 747 and the Orbiter were about 40 km southeast of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Note that I rotated the picture a bit to fit better here on the blog.
Here’s a zoom of the plane and Orbiter. The blue shadow is an artifact, created due to the satellite swapping out filters as it took pictures. Because the plane was moving, you get what’s essentially a double exposure. But you can see the real shadow in the big picture above.
Endeavour was on its way to Edwards Air Force Base at the time (and eventually to the Los Angeles Airport) in California, and will soon be transferred via surface roads to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. If you thought LA traffic was bad before…
I’ll note that a lot of people were sad to see this last flight of the Orbiter. I’ll admit my own feelings are mixed – I’ve written about this before. While the Shuttles were magnificent machines, they were only designed to go into low Earth orbit, and our destiny is in much deeper space. And it’s my strong fact-based opinion that we are still well on our way to that destination. It won’t be right away, but it won’t necessarily be too long, either.
The last flight of Endeavour may be bittersweet, but looking back only helps if you use the past as a basis to venture farther in the future. And we have the whole sky open to us. We just have to choose to do it.
I choose the future. I hope others do as well.
Image credit: Google Earth
- Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
- Debating space
- NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space (NOTE: the title I chose for this was misleading, so I wrote an addendum to the post in the first paragraph)
I’ve been stuck in some epic traffic jams, but I think this one wins:
Those are the Space Shuttle orbiters Endeavour and Atlantis [click to embiggen] at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour has just finished being processed for travel, and will soon be on its way to California to eventually go to the California Science Center in LA. Atlantis is staying at Kennedy Space Center itself at the Visitor’s Center.
Funny – a year ago I posted a similar picture Endeavour and Discovery, saying it was the last time we’d see a shot like that. I guess I was wrong.
Either way, there won’t be too many more like this… but soon we’ll be launching humans back into space once again. My hope is that when we do it’ll be easier, less expensive, more reliable, and the beginning of not just tentative toes-in-the-water, but plunging full into the ocean of space.
Image credit: NASA
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.
On Google+, Michael Interbartolo — who worked for ten years on the Space Shuttle Program in Mission Control in Houston — just posted about this amazing video from cameras mounted on the Shuttle solid rockets as they rode into space. We’ve seen videos from rocketcams before, but this is very clear, and has enhanced sound that’ll rock your speakers:
Makes sure you have it set to HD and crank up the volume!
There’s a lot to see here! The ascent is very cool, of course, and at two minutes the solid rocket boosters (or SRBs) separate from the external tank and Orbiter. As they tumble away we see the Earth spinning around, and several times you can see the plume from the launch in the view poking up from the surface into the sky. You can also see the bright "star" of the Orbiter as it continues on into space — the SRBs only burn for about two minutes, and are used as an assist to boost the Orbiter above the atmosphere. Once the SRBs drop away, the Orbiter burns liquid fuel from the orange external tank until it has enough speed to attain orbit.
The drop back to Earth is fascinating to watch as well. The sounds are odd and hypnotic; roaring, moaning, rushing air… and then the parachutes open. Finally, the boosters splash down in the Atlantic, and it was a jolt to see once again how hard they smack into the water.
I was also interested in watching the numbers flashing past: on the upper left is elapsed time, and on the upper right is the air speed as calculated using on board instruments. Watch as the speed increases… and then the increase increases! In other words, the acceleration of the whole system increases quite a bit with time. That’s because the thrust from the rockets — the force they apply to the stack — is roughly constant, but as they burn fuel, the mass decreases. Since force = mass × acceleration (F = ma, with a hat tip to Isaac Newton!), as the mass drops, the acceleration must increase.
The astronauts inside at first feel only a moderate force (about 1.7 g), but it increases up to 2.7 g right before the SRBs stop burning and then detach. The ride gets much smoother then, since burning liquid fuel is a more gentle process. Because the main engines don’t generate as much thrust as the SRBs, the acceleration drops right after the SRBs fall away. But it begins to increase again as liquid fuel continues to burn and the mass decreases, topping off at 3 g until the main tank runs out of gas and detaches, leaving just the Orbiter with its onboard fuel to head into orbit.
This video is part of an extra bit of footage that’ll be on a DVD/BluRay called "Ascent: Commemorating the Space Shuttle" put together by NASA. There’s a lot to say about this now-retired rocket system, of course, both good and bad. But video like this reminds me of how amazing it is that we have the ability to go into space. All we have to do is choose to do it… and do it wisely.
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
Well, today is certainly shaping up to be "jaw-dropping pictures of Atlantis day"! How so? Well, I already posted the stunning image of the Orbiter’s descent as seen from space, and just the other day I mentioned how I was hoping Nathanial Burton-Bradford would make more 3D images… so guess what? Get out your red/cyan glasses: here’s the plasma-lit descent of Atlantis as seen from space in 3D!
Wow! The ISS astronauts took several pictures of the Orbiter as it descended. Nathanial took two of them from NASA’s spaceflight gallery and combined them to make this anaglyph. If you click between the two original shots (here and here) you can see they were taken a few seconds apart; the motion of the stars, the Earth, and the plasma plume change a little bit (click between them rapidly and you’ll actually get a feel of the motion. Weird).
The other pictures at the NASA page are amazing as well. Funny, when I first heard of the plasma picture I poked around NASA’s site and couldn’t find any other images, but clearly I either missed them or they weren’t up yet. I’m glad Nathanial dug deeper! In his shot, you really get a sense of how far away the Orbiter was from the ISS. In fact, there is a layered feel to the whole scene, with the stars far away, the ISS in the foreground, and the Earth itself stretched out from below you to the horizon.
If you don’t have red/cyan glasses, this one shot makes it worth the effort. It’s truly amazing. More than just a gimmick, a picture like this really gives you a visceral sense of what you’re seeing. Truly wonderful.