Space Shuttle: The Elusive

As I mentioned in the previous posting, seeing a shuttle in person proved to be daunting.  I just didn’t know how daunting it would be.  With STS-121 (Discovery) now behind me I started to look for the next opportunity.  It would be a little more than a month later in August.

We made all the arrangements with travel, lodging, tickets, and everything.  Luckily we reside in Georgia so we don’t live very far away, relatively speaking.  STS-115 was going to be our target and this time I only thought it was fitting to bring my mom along.  We loaded up and got underway the day BEFORE the launch.  I wasn’t taking chances this time around.  I will note that we had our oldest son with us at the very patient and quiet age of THREE.

Mike Mullane and I
Mike Mullane and I

The trip down wasn’t too eventful.  We made some pit stops and really just enjoyed the trip down.  All was well until literally 30 minutes before reaching Titusville.  My sister sent my mom a message informing her that due to a lightning strike at the pad the day before, it was scrubbed until further notice.  I was speechless; petrified; stunned.  “Not again…” I thought to myself.  Having gone well past the point of no return, I sucked it up and decided we’d make the most of it.  I certainly didn’t want NASA to take any chances after a lightning strike.  Better safe than sorry.

We went ahead and toured KSC the next day which was just mind boggling and amazing.  We saw the Saturn V up close and personal.  So much of it literally takes your breath away.  To top things off I got to meet astronaut Mike Mullane and got the book he was selling autographed.  The book was fantastic as it gave me some great insight into the program and to top it off, it was entertaining.  I loved the gift shop as I could easily have blown a couple of lifes savings accounts in there.  So much to take in and so little time to do it in.  It really was a great experience, despite not having seen the launch, I’d do it again.

Scrub #2 was in the books.  Atlantis would launch a couple of weeks later with no issues.  Once again, I watched from home.

Next attempt wouldn’t happen for well over a year for STS-120.  Again, arrangements made, tickets bought and we were set.  The day came to leave and I second guessed the weather.  Probability of launch being scrubbed due to weather was around 60%.  Not good odds.  Also working against me was limited time off from work and limited money to use for lodging.  I made the decision to stay put for one day.  It cost me big time.  Launch was a go.  A hole opened up and Atlantis was cleared for launch.  I was, again, stunned.  My luck in trying to catch a launch was laughing at me.  We watched from home, again.  I’ll note that the cloud deck was low and the shuttle was only visible for maybe 10-15 second after clearing the pad.  I didn’t feel completely jipped – despite having wasted money on tickets.  The only thing that helped me keep sanity was knowing our view would have been blocked by the clouds anyway.  It wasn’t that good of an excuse but I talked myself into believing it.

Attempt #3, which was supposed to be a scrub, was now in the books.  For the third time in a row, I had watched from home.

That last attempt was fall of 2007.  It would be nearly 4 more years before I made one final attempt; an attempt that nearly fell apart at the last minute.

Space Shuttle: A Personal Journey

Space Shuttle Night Launch

The Space Shuttle lifts off at night. The same photo that is on my shirt.

I knew this day was rapidly approaching; the day the shuttle program would come to a close.  This journey began almost exactly 5 years ago.  I’m going to do a number of posts to chronicle the journey because one just isn’t enough.  That or one would be way too long.  So, here’s how it all started.

From the beginning

I was doing some laundry one day and I picked up a shirt my mother had given me as a gift.  It was a black t-shirt with a screen print of a night launch on it.  The words NASA were faded in the background.  I looked at the shirt for a minute and it hit me: I want to see this.  In an instant, my infatuation was born.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been a fan of space exploration and science.  This was different, like a light-bulb lit up.

I stopped everything (sorry, laundry!) and went straight to my computer.  I did a search for anything to do with launches and to my utter amazement, Discovery (STS-121) was set to go up in only a few days.  I had no idea what I was in store for!  I told my wife we were going to Florida to see a launch with about 3 days notice.  She never turned down the idea of a spontaneous road trip.  Though she was surprised I suggested it since that’s usually not my style.  On top of that,  I had no idea where I was going, when to get there, where to look or anything.

The day, Saturday, July 2nd, arrives and the launch is slated for mid afternoon, I think a bit before 4pm.  I figured we’d leave at 8am and 8 hours of driving would be plenty fine.  Wrong!  The drive was uneventful until we reached Orlando and then it all hit the fan.  I kept wondering why the hell all of these people were in the road, on the road, on overpasses.  What were they all looking for?  It was the ultimate “duh!” moment.  They were all here for the launch.  Even from this far out people had begun to line up for it.  I had no idea it was that popular!

We listened in on the local radio station and with minutes to spare, the launch was scrubbed due to the weather.  Not a bad thing because we were still stuck in traffic, 25 miles out and with overcast skies.  I doubt we’d have seen anything and certainly wouldn’t have heard it.  The drive down was long but the drive back was longer.  We had left around 8am and after nonstop driving we arrived home shortly after 1AM on Sunday morning.  I had been defeated but I chalked it up to learning and a little road trip never hurt.

The Rocket’s Red Glare

The following Monday, July 4th, I called my mom up and told her they were about to launch Discovery.  We chatted on the phone through a good chunk of the countdown.  The entire time I’m getting more and more nervous.  Why was I getting nervous?  It was the most bizarre thing.  As the countdown passed into 9 minutes and counting I started pacing.  You’d have thought I had personal stock in this thing going up.  It’s understandable though when you think about it.  You’re watching humans go into space.  They’re sitting atop a machine thats filled to the brim with explosive propellants.  Margin for error: close to 0.  Anything goes wrong and it’s likely that you bought the farm.  Ok, so maybe our nerves were justified.  Also this was only the second flight post Columbia.

As the minutes passed I settled down a little and I remember going into the final 60 seconds.  This tunnel vision came over me.  I was just staring at the screen watching intently.  The whole time I’m still jabbering with my mom.  We were making jokes because we both seemed to be jittery.

T-31 and GLS (ground launch sequencer) was go for auto sequence start.  This is the point where the shuttle takes over and everything runs internally.  Seconds seemed to stretch out and yet they flew by in a blur.  Before I knew it the engines roared to life.  Seconds later the solid rockets lit and it was off the pad.  All I could think was “GO!”.  I didn’t speak a word for several seconds until the throttle up call, to which we always held our breath (It was after throttle up that Challenger exploded).  I think our conversation consisted of a few “wow”s and “go”s.  It was a picture perfect launch.  I knew the next big event was solid rocket jettison and once it occurred I started to breathe again.

I contently watched the entire ascent.  It was beautiful.  To see man and machine working together so harmoniously was poetry in motion.  I’ll also note that seeing a launch on the 4th of July made it that much better.  How could any other fireworks compare to the greatest show on Earth?

The next thing I thought was “I really gotta see this!”

In the next post I’ll talk about just how hard it is to see a launch in person.

The first day of the rest of the year

Now that our very large company function is over with, I can get back to a bit of normalcy.  Although, reading about the stuff Charlie Sheen has been saying, I think even Tom Cruise might be considered normal? I digress.  Also, I cut the feed off from my other blog, I think.  So there shouldn’t be any double dipping going on as far as posts go.

I have a few things to add to my site as far as sites/designs go.  I’ll be getting to that today or tomorrow.  It’s been a few months since I last updated that stuff.  It’s all good though because prior to that I had gone a few YEARS between updates.  Complacency takes hold sometimes.  Time to practice some positive jing.

Billions and billions…of miles away (and still going)

Voyager 1 is one amazing spacecraft.  It was launched at a time when the planets were aligned in such a way that would be ideal to take a “grand tour” of the outer solar system.  A second craft Voyager II was also launched two weeks earlier.  What makes Voyager 1 so special?  Well it was put on a faster track for one.  That means it went farther and faster than its sister spacecraft.   Currently it’s the farthest spacecraft from Earth than man has built.  Even New Horizons, which is speeding towards Pluto, won’t overtake it.  So far, nothing we’ve launched will ever overtake it.

Voyager 1 is our messenger to the stars beyond our own.  In a few years it will officially reach interstellar space.  At that point, our Sun will be nothing more than a point of light in the sky.  The Sun will likely have no influence on the spacecraft at that point.  She’ll keep forging ahead until she collides with another celestial body.  Given the expanse of space, that could take eons.  Imagine how far it will have traveled by then.  Here is a writeup from JPL that I’m going to copy/paste because, seriously, why re-invent the wheel eh?

NASA Probe Sees Solar Wind Decline
12.13.10

PASADENA, Calif. – The 33-year odyssey of NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has reached a distant point at the edge of our solar system where there is no outward motion of solar wind.

Now hurtling toward interstellar space some 17.4 billion kilometers (10.8 billion miles) from the sun, Voyager 1 has crossed into an area where the velocity of the hot ionized gas, or plasma, emanating directly outward from the sun has slowed to zero. Scientists suspect the solar wind has been turned sideways by the pressure from the interstellar wind in the region between stars.

The event is a major milestone in Voyager 1’s passage through the heliosheath, the turbulent outer shell of the sun’s sphere of influence, and the spacecraft’s upcoming departure from our solar system.

“The solar wind has turned the corner,” said Ed Stone, Voyager project scientist based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. “Voyager 1 is getting close to interstellar space.”

Our sun gives off a stream of charged particles that form a bubble known as the heliosphere around our solar system. The solar wind travels at supersonic speed until it crosses a shockwave called the termination shock. At this point, the solar wind dramatically slows down and heats up in the heliosheath.

Launched on Sept. 5, 1977, Voyager 1 crossed the termination shock in December 2004 into the heliosheath. Scientists have used data from Voyager 1’s Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument to deduce the solar wind’s velocity. When the speed of the charged particles hitting the outward face of Voyager 1 matched the spacecraft’s speed, researchers knew that the net outward speed of the solar wind was zero. This occurred in June, when Voyager 1 was about 17 billion kilometers (10.6 billion miles) from the sun.

Because the velocities can fluctuate, scientists watched four more monthly readings before they were convinced the solar wind’s outward speed actually had slowed to zero. Analysis of the data shows the velocity of the solar wind has steadily slowed at a rate of about 20 kilometers per second each year (45,000 mph each year) since August 2007, when the solar wind was speeding outward at about 60 kilometers per second (130,000 mph). The outward speed has remained at zero since June.

The results were presented today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

“When I realized that we were getting solid zeroes, I was amazed,” said Rob Decker, a Voyager Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument co-investigator and senior staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md. “Here was Voyager, a spacecraft that has been a workhorse for 33 years, showing us something completely new again.”

Scientists believe Voyager 1 has not crossed the heliosheath into interstellar space. Crossing into interstellar space would mean a sudden drop in the density of hot particles and an increase in the density of cold particles. Scientists are putting the data into their models of the heliosphere’s structure and should be able to better estimate when Voyager 1 will reach interstellar space. Researchers currently estimate Voyager 1 will cross that frontier in about four years.

“In science, there is nothing like a reality check to shake things up, and Voyager 1 provided that with hard facts,” said Tom Krimigis, principal investigator on the Low-Energy Charged Particle Instrument, who is based at the Applied Physics Laboratory and the Academy of Athens, Greece. “Once again, we face the predicament of redoing our models.”

A sister spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched in Aug. 20, 1977 and has reached a position 14.2 billion kilometers (8.8 billion miles) from the sun. Both spacecraft have been traveling along different trajectories and at different speeds. Voyager 1 is traveling faster, at a speed of about 17 kilometers per second (38,000 mph), compared to Voyager 2’s velocity of 15 kilometers per second (35,000 mph). In the next few years, scientists expect Voyager 2 to encounter the same kind of phenomenon as Voyager 1.

The Voyagers were built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which continues to operate both spacecraft. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/voyager . JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Here is the link to the original article.

It was Carl Sagan who suggested Voyager 1 take one last photo of Earth before it diminished into the void of space.  Voyager 1 gave us the Pale Blue Dot;  A tiny portrait of everything that every Earth-bound creature has ever known and will know, for some time.

Profound?  Yes.  Yes, it is.

Keep carrying the torch for space exploration, Voyager 1.  Thanks to all the men and women involved in such a great mission.

In the name of Science

A couple of weeks ago I posted something about being overweight, feeling run down, etc.  Well shortly afterwords I purchased my first ‘smart’ phone.   I can now track my caloric intake + exercise on the phone and it syncs up to a website so I can view the detailed information.

I’ve done this for the past two weeks and it’s been eye opening.  I was much more mindful of what I ate.  The intake was lower than it would have been but it wasn’t balanced.  My fat/carb/protein ratio is wonky.  I am way high on carbs, high-ish on fat and abysmal on protein.  This week my aim was to bring that more into balance.

Thus, the great experiment starts.  If I can thoroughly track my intake and expenditure then, theoretically, I can track my results with low margin of error.  Weight loss isn’t magic.  Waving a wand doesn’t work, unless it’s a 20lb wand that I wave vigorously for 20 minutes.  Don’t get me started on how insane the shake-weight looks!

A Wave of Reason

John Boswell, the guy that does the Symphony of Science videos, has another one.  This one is pretty good.  I still like the Glorious Dawn one the best but that’s because Carl Sagan is da man.   I look forward to these song/videos and hope there are more to come.  I’m glad they’ve gotten the recognition they deserve. 🙂

They’re all worth listening to and done quite well.  This one is no different:

Scienthusiast

What is that word?  I made it up.  It’s a mix of science + enthusiast.  I have to be careful though.  I’m NOT a scientist.  I’m enthusiastic about science.  So it’s what I’m going to start calling myself.

Yes, I’m a scienthusiast.

I guess it could be hyphenated  sci-enthusiast?  Maybe scien-thusiast?  Either way, I looked around Google briefly and it’s possible I thought of this before billions of other people?  Maybe it’s some horrible word that I shouldn’t use?  Nah, it’s great!  It describes me quite fittingly, I think.

So there, it’s my word.  It’s OK, you can borrow it.  I expect royalties though!

What to do with it?  Well, I think the world needs more enthusiasm for science.  Not to solve every lurking problem in our lives but to better understand how the world around us works.  Some mysteries shall remain so.  There are some exceedingly complex things in the Universe that aren’t really practical for everyone to know.  Unless it’s your job to know them, that is.

So, perhaps one of my goals in life is to help spread the word of science; Turn people on to how it all works, at a fundamental level.  It always goes back to a quote from Carl Sagan.  Roughly, we live in a world filled with technology.  So few people understand how it all works.  You don’t have to be a scientist to understand.  You simply have to open your mind to it.  When people learn how things actually work, it’s usually one of those “wow…” moments.

In saying that, remember, we can’t let go of reason for madness.  There was a time when people who studied the heavens feared retribution.  Good people were arrested, exiled or even killed for observing something knowable versus believing in something we couldn’t know.  It might seem insane to think that could happen again, but remember as a species, we’re very young.  There are a lot of good and honest people out there that speak for science.

Science is interesting because it changes based on observation.  In that sense, our view of the world has evolved, as our methods and tools have evolved.  The next few decades should prove to be very exciting in the realm of understanding.  How the forefathers of great thinkers should like to be alive today to have a glimpse at what we know.  How the great thinkers of our future might look back and realize how primitive our thinking was.  Each new generation stands on the shoulders of giants from the previous.

Life; space; time; the Cosmos; all encompassing and all waiting to be discovered and understood.  We are, in a way, how the Universe understands itself.

We, as the human race, must keep it going.  If we’re not to be scientists, we should at least be enthusiastic about science.

Enter: The Scienthusiast.

We Are Here: The Pale Blue Dot

This all revolves around a photograph taken by a small spacecraft a little over 20 years ago.  Carl Sagan thought for a while it’d be a good idea to have the spacecraft turn around and snap a photo of the Earth.  Fearing damage to the spacecraft the controllers were reluctant.  It was February 14, 1990 and Voyager I had completed all of its primary mission objectives.  Now was the time to have Voyager turn around and snap a photo.  If they had waited much longer the Earth would be too distant to even register.

So here we are.  We are given this photo.

The Pale Blue Dot

The Pale Blue Dot. As taken by Voyager I some 4 billion miles from Earth. February 14, 1990.

It sure doesn’t look like much.  To us, it is everything.  Now, I could go on about this and that regarding the photo.  The thing is, it’s already been done.  In fact, so well done, that to redo or try and out do it would be folly.  Now to read what is said about the photograph is one thing but hearing the voice of Carl Sagan means a little more.  It was his idea, so his words and voice are fitting.

The original audio was from an audio-book I do believe.  Some crafty people have done things with it in videos.  This one is probably the best I’ve found.  It really is moving. (Yes, yes, I posted this video on Facebook a while back, I know.)  So have a look now.

We are here: The Pale Blue Dot

Here is the text:

Consider again, that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say;  That one is worth everything we’ve ever known.

Space: The Final Frontier

No truer words can ever be spoken. The depths of the mind are indeed complex but not tangible. Our oceans floors hold many secrets about life and the history of our planet. Space is, for all intensive purposes, infinite. This isn’t technically true, to our knowledge. We estimate the true size of the Universe to be 93 Billion Light Years. So vast, in fact, that light from one side will never reach the other. This is why it is the pinnacle of exploration.

Eventually, one day, our destiny will lie somewhere in space. Perhaps another planetary body in this solar system or even another star system. That is, if we don’t blow ourselves up or suffer a cataclysmic set back.

The recent White House budget leaves me both concerned and yet I see an opportunity to be optimistic. I’ve been reading forums to get people’s takes on this. Mind you this is coming from people who work in the industry to plain people like myself. It is inevitable that politics gets head-firsted into the mix. I made that slang up. Nice eh? I guess there is no way around it but the degree of “This was Bush’s fault!”; “This was Griffin’s fault”; “Obama sux!” is just a little much.

I try my damnedest to take a middle road approach. I want science. I want exploration. I want a manned flight program (also termed HSF for Human Space Flight). At the moment we have it with Shuttle. In a few short months, it will be done and gone. What happens after that? We’re grounded, at least humans are.

Private companies are really getting into the mix of things which does excite me. Thing is, they’re a ways off from manned flight. It will happen, just not quite soon as we’d like.

Constellation is dead. I’m sad and yet I can understand this move. Some claim to have had the insight or ESP enough to know it was doomed from day one. I think having a pessimistic attitude isn’t very healthy. I don’t work in the industry, I follow it from a few rows back. I can say that my interest is important, not as a single entity but gathered with the combined interest of persons just like myself. Lack of public interest will kill a program deader than dead. Apollo anyone?

So, I thought about the cancellation of that program and realized, ok, maybe this isn’t as bad as it seems. I’m still icky feeling about not having the ability to put humans up but lets think this out. The downfall of Constellation was reaching back to the past to sort of re-use older technologies or at least model from them. What we need are newer technologies that are laced with our learnings of the past.

I think the biggest technological advance we need is in propulsion. Chemical rockets are dandy at getting heavy vehicles off the ground and into space but once in space you need something else. Something that’s less cumbersome, less prone to failure and has some oomph! These technologies should be researched to make Moon and Mars missions faster. Transit time to Mars is MONTHS. With new propulsion you could get it down to weeks; or so I’ve heard.

So, new technologies and private companies. I think I actually like the sound of that. Will they deliver? The talk is there, the walk is yet to come.

More notes on the budget are promised robotics and planetary missions. This is very exciting to me. Rovers are great tools for science! Just look at Spirit and Opportunity; they vastly outlived their planned mission time. If we had a mission going up every other month, I’d be stoked.

A final note about canceling the Moon program. Listen, we’ve been there before. Yes, actual people walked on the actual Moon. That program was initially a race; a race we would win. After that, you had a group of giddy scientists drooling over the prospect of getting some precious samples back. That came later and Apollo XVII was the final Moon-shot. We never spent more than a couple of days there. When we go back, we need to plan on STAYING for a length of time. Weeks, not days.

China wants to go there. Let them go, plant their flag and then come back. It’s a great thing for a country. I’d applaud them for it. As the saying goes “been there, done that”. It’s time we went a step ahead. That way when countries are landing and planting their flags, we can wave at them from our cozy Moon habitats. From that point we can build on and then eyeball Mars or even asteroids.

So, finally, it’s bittersweet for me. I wanted to see Constellation work but ultimately I want to see anything work. I’ll hold on the promise of some serious R&D and science missions. I’ll hold on to private companies keeping us in orbit too. It’s a big time shake up of things. Perhaps it was needed.

Obama says we need to get young people into science and math. I couldn’t agree more. If he truly means this then he needs to deliver on this budget. NASA has inspired generations of people. Let’s keep it that way.

If this flops as a dud and our space program is left floundering for years, I’ll be one mad space cadet. >:o

The Scale of the Universe [Updated]

This is a very clever little bit of flash put together by someone whom I have no idea who they are. All I know is that the site was blocked at work. I went in and nabbed the SWF file and I’m going to place it on my blog. You still have to endure the Newgrounds logo to see the animation.

[swfobj src=”http://static.onemorelevel.com/games3/scale-of-the-universe-2.swf” alt=”Scale of the Universe” width=”640″ height=”440″]

Use the keyboard to move left or right for a smoother experience. The largest things in the Universe are mind boggling. The really fascinating stuff is all of the tiny things that go into making the world around us. You can see how small a neutrino is for instance; and why it passes unhindered through just about everything (including entire planets!).

The music is very pleasant too. 🙂

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