Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Last Flight

Launch of STS-1




Cat's Eye Nebula

Spiral Galaxy Messier 74



Atlantis Docked with the ISS


The shuttle, attached to it's huge external fuel tank and two solid rocket boosters, launched. Mountains of fire erupted from the boosters and the orbiters own three engines, slowly lifting its 2,030 tons off the launch pad into the sky, gaining speed each second. After about two minutes into the flight explosive bolts released the boosters, each falling back to Earth to be retrieved later. The flight path moved into an increasing horizontal line, and when the shuttle reached a speed of 17, 500 miles per hour the powerful engines shut off as the ship had now achieved low Earth orbit. The external tank jettisoned to fall back and burn in the atmosphere.
The two man crew, Commander John W. Young and Pilot Robert L. Crippin, maneuvered the craft further into orbit. The mission lasted 2 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes, and 53 seconds, floating around our planet 37 times before returning to Earth, gliding down to runway 23 right here in California at Edwards Airforce Base in the Antelope Valley. The date was April 14, 1981, and this was the successful conclusion to Mission STS-1, the first flight of the shuttle Columbia, and the very first flight of a shuttle at all. It had been a test run to check the craft out. There were a few problems, but the damn thing worked. The first reusable spacecraft had finally been realized. I was in the Navy at the time, possibly up in Portland in dry dock, so I did not hear the double sonic boom that is so closely associated with the shuttles reentry. Too bad for me.
I've heard it many times since.
On the second day of the flight the crew received a phone call from Vice President George Walker Bush. Too bad for them.
During the shuttle program's 30 year run many milestones, and two tragic catastrophes occurred:
*As I've already mentioned the success of STS-1 ensured that the United States had a reusable port of entry into space, much cheaper then the rockets that had been used in the past for the maned space flights of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Soon four more functioning shuttles would join the Columbia, making them a fleet (the shuttle Enterprise was used for flight tests before STS-1, and was never capable of space flight).
*The large cargo bay of the shuttles allowed them to deploy telecommunication and military satellites, or reversely bring back satellites or other payloads from the Earth's orbit if required.
*Satellites could now be easily repaired in orbit.
*The Challenger shuttle brought astronaut and physicist Sally Ride into space on STS-7, the first American woman to get there.
*On the very next mission Challenger brought engineer and astronaut Guion Bluford, the first African American into space.
*The first untethered spacewalk. Astronauts Bruce McCandless and Robert L. Stewart tested out the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), a robotic backpack with its own thrusters that allowed the spaceflyers to move around, becoming the first human satellites to orbit the Earth during STS-41B (Personal note: I have to tell you the truth, looking at the picture above of that space walk, and having a healthy fear of heights, that would absolutely drive me completely insane within three nanoseconds. It makes me queasy just looking at it).
*In April of 1990 the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed into orbit by Discovery. It had a problem with the mirror it used to image. Endeavor returned in December of 1993 and fixed it, allowing the above pictures, and hundreds of thousands of others to be acquired and studied.
*And the shuttle has been used extensively to inexpensively (relatively speaking) build, supply, and man, the International Space Station.
On January 28th, 1986 The first shuttle, Challenger lifted off again as was described above, only this time it exploded 73 seconds into the flight with six astronauts and one school teacher, Christa McAuliffe aboard. (Personal note: I was sitting in the little one room house me and the love of my life, Jan shared in Van Nuys, California, watching the launch on television. I was by myself. Jan must have been at the Veterinary hospital where we both worked. I saw the lift off... I saw the explosion. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The camera kept shifting from the explosion as it expanded in the sky above, to a crowd on some bleachers, presumably guests of NASA, possibly the relatives of the crew. They could not believe what they were seeing either, hoping that there was some reasonable explanation for what was going on, probably in denial. After a moment or two, the NASA announcer stated that there was a major problem with the launch.
On February 1st, 2003, I was lying back on a leather couch donating blood plasma in Reseda. Jan and I had broken up over 14 years earlier. The events of "Salvation Diary" had transpired. I was watching television when news of the shuttle Columbia's disintegration upon re-entry after a successful 16 day mission was broadcast. All seven crew members of course perished.
The shuttle program continued with the three remaining craft; Endeavor, Discovery, and Atlantis.
Last Friday, the eighth of July, Atlantis lifted off for the last time from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It will be the last time any space shuttle will be launched. After it concludes it's mission July 20th, it will be retired and displayed at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. (Discovery was retired after STS-133 last March, and is on, or will be on display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Endeavor was decommissioned last May after STS-134, and will be displayed in the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York).
The last mission of Atlantis, STS-135, is mostly one of resupply. The shuttle, and it's four person crew (3 men, 1 woman), will bring along with it what is called a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, which is a bus sized, pressurized container, that is loaded with 9,403 pounds of supplies and equipment, including 2,677 pounds of food, that will help keep the station crew supplied throughout 2012. The module was made in Italy and is named Raffaello, a possible reference to Raffaello Santi (1483-1520), a great painter and architect of the Italian Renaissance. Three of these have been built and have been used eleven times. It will take a full week to unload Raffaello, and fill it back up with space trash which will be returned to earth.
A few hours after this is posted the only space walk of the mission will commence. It's purpose is primarily to move a failed ammonia coolant pump to the shuttle for return to Earth and to install an experimental robotic refueling experiment on the station.
Oh yes, during that space walk a little piece of an old Soviet satellite will zip by. It's now been determined it will pose no danger to the ISS and Atlantis.
Now that all of the shuttles are out of business, it will be up to our Russian friends to keep the space station supplied and crewed. We are also hoping that commercial, private space concerns will eventually develop and chip in.
For our own future in space is very uncertain. It was planned to replace the shuttle with the Orion space plane. Unfortunately for us, the President and Congress have deprioritized this program, and it's survival is very much in doubt, leaving us... well I don't know where it leaves us.
Back to freaking rockets I guess.

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