Posts tagged Atlantis

Space Shuttle: All Systems Go

Atlantis sits on the pad in the early dawn hours

Atlantis sits on the pad in the early dawn hours

I really hoped I wouldn’t be tired when I woke up to get on the road but I wasn’t even a bit tired.  My son handled the 3:30am wake up call rather well.  It was my mother that woke us both us.  I don’t think she slept very well.  Our first destination was a local mall parking lot to get my son’s KSCVC (Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex) ticket.  We made the stop only to find out we had to travel to KSCVC to get the ticket.  We were given a name to ask for and off we went, again.

It was dark and following my GPS didn’t seem as reliable as following the signs since millions had been here before me.  I took the first exit that read KSC.  Upon taking that exit I realized it was the back way into KSC.  With such a high profile launch would it be closed off?  I was nervous and irritated but still followed the signs.  We got to a checkpoint and the guard was as happy as he could be.  He told me to keep the placard in the window and which way to go.  He said not to make any wrong turns and then laughed again.  Do not make any wrong turns: noted.

As we drove down a few winding roads we could see lights just on the horizon.  I knew that was the shuttle as it was always very well lit when being prepped during the night.  A couple of turns later we were pulling into KSCVC and we were routed to a parking spot.

We were here.  Would the weather cooperate?

We made our way to where we had to pick up our extra ticket and completed that transaction with no problems at all.  We then had to stand in line for security checks.  The air was soupy thick with humidity and I wondered how we’d stand waiting for launch.  It was nearing 5AM at this point and we were inside the Visitor’s Center.  After a bathroom break we made our way out towards the Rocket Garden and we would set up camp there.

It was so bizarre seeing so many people wide awake at such an hour.  I should say that most people were wide awake.  I saw more than a few people completely laid out trying to catch a snooze.  Once again, the question was if the weather would improve enough.

I would like to note that my phone had next to no service, despite having full bars.  The only thing I can pin it down to would be that some half a million other people were trying to get onto the same network.  A text here and there would make it through but it was folly to try and do anything else.  Phone was useless at this point but it would come in handy later.

The waiting game began as soon as we got there.  While we had plenty to do we were all there for the main event.  It seems there were the ones that weren’t very concerned with what was going on, how I do not know, and the ones that were obsessively trying to figure out what was going on.  I fit into the latter.  I had my phone, which was useless as a source of info due to the data network but the biggest info updates came via the P.A. system.  A couple of guys behind us had a scratchy radio that would cut in and out.  We mostly just sat and waited.

As T-0 drew nearer, we began to look at the sky more and more.  It was looking promising and given that the previous 12-14 hours looked terribe, we’d take it.  The clouds seemed to be pushing out over the ocean and a clear patch was directly above us and to the west.  Weather forecasters were still unsure if any rain shows might pop up inside of the 15 mile radius.  We crossed our fingers and to lighten things up we went and ahead and gave our go for launch.  Would they listen to us?  Doubt it!  T-0 was 11:27AM EST and it was fast approaching.

It’s strange how the atmosphere began to get really charged at around 30 minutes to T-0.  Whereas people had been wandering and exploring, they began to flock to their camped out areas and wait contently.  Add us to that bunch but I couldn’t sit still and just wait, so I kept popping over to the nearby PA speakers to listen to the commentators on NASA TV.  The polling of all the groups is one of the most exciting parts for me.  That signifies that it’s really about to go down, assuming  no one says “no go”.  Mike Leinbach was the launch director and he was the one that made the final call.  After having made the rounds he finally got to Houston Flight.  They said to keep going around to poll others and to come back to them.  That made my heart skip a beat but when Mike came back to Houston they said that for the record they were “go”.  I little voice in my head silently shouted “yes!”  I felt like I was on the team that had scored the touchdown to give us the lead yet with time still on the clock, the game wasn’t over!

Now we found our way back to our spot and waited.  The next big event would be coming out of the T-9 hold.  Once the countdown from there began it was a fully automated process and no other holds were built in.  For all intents and purposes, once it started, you’d see a launch in 9 minutes.   I held my breath as it drew near and just like that the clock read 8:59, 8:58, 8:57… It was really happening.  I could hardly contain myself I was probably blabbering like a fool though I don’t recall acting that way.  During this part of the countdown we would encounter several milestones.  A few being retracting of the arm that fuels the external tank, switching to internal power, pressurizing tanks and having the astronauts close and lock their visors.  Everything was going as planned until T-0:31.

The damn thing stopped

At 31 seconds until liftoff the clock suddently stopped*.  My stomach sank and a groan eminated from the crowd.  All this way, all this time and all for nothing?  It was the nightmare scenario of it coming down to the final seconds and it being scrubbed because maybe a bird landed on the tank or something obscure and unforseen had happened.  We could hear controllers rambling on about something but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  Before I could really catch on a cheer erupted from the crowd.  Ok, that’s good, I’m assuming that’s good, right?  At that point I could hear the controllers saying they’d like to resume the countdown.  At that point I was nearing being in tears from joy.  I didn’t know why the clock had stopped but who cares as long as it goes up!  The slight delay pushed the launch time back by about 2 minutes to 11:29AM.

Tunnel vision

The controller came over the PA and said the countdown would resume on his mark; 3, 2, mark!  The clock was moving again and whereas it had seemed to drag on and on for hours, the final few dozen seconds were flying by.  My mind was racing, my heart was racing.  I had no idead how I would react to what I was about to see.

10 seconds

The igniters start up to burn off excess hydrogen that might have gathered under the vehicle

7 seconds

Go for main engine start.  We all watched the three main engines roar to life on the big screen television near the rocket garden.  My heart was pounding and we had all started to count down with the commentator, George Diller.

6

5

4

3

2

Suddenly everyone stopped counting as maybe we all held our breath…

0

Lift off of Atlantis!

Atlantis lifting off one last time marking the final space shuttle launch ever.

LIFTOFF!

Cheers erupted and I think we all lost our minds momentarily as we watched it jump off the pad with a jolt.  We were 8 miles from the pad so the sound would take some time to reach us but we’d easily be able to see Atlantis clear the building in front of us.  We were all straining our eyes looking…looking and finally, there she was.  Atlantis came out from behind the IMAX building.  My first thought was “WOW that thing is hauling ass!”  though I think I only said “WHOA!”.

There it was.  There we were.  We had finally done it.  We gazed upon the shuttle in flight one last time with millions of other people sharing one common goal; to witness history.  It was short lived though as the low cloud deck would soon swallow her up and allow to to ride into the heavens with a bit of privacy.  The show wasn’t over yet because shortly after going into the clouds, the sound came.  What a sound it was.  It’s hard to describe, really.  It wasn’t loud so much as it was deep.  It was the deepest, lowest sound I’d ever heard and felt.  It shook everything from the buildings to the ground to your ear drums.   My grin stretched from ear to ear and my mom and I hugged each other.  My son wasn’t quite 8 years old yet and he hadn’t fully understood what he was witnessing but he was into it and carrying on with everyone else.

Our view of Atlantis

It wasn’t long before Atlantis vanished into the clouds. Snapped this by just pointing and clicking. Not bad!

Relax and enjoy the show

We watched Atlantis ride into orbit on the big screen.  Most people had started to scatter before then but I traditionally watched all eight and a half minutes of the ascent.  Today was no different.  It was only after that we began to call people and text people.  My cousin had texted me and said he heard it was going up and wished the best.  My wife said she was crossing fingers as well.  I was so glad it went up so I could offload my excitement to them.  I hadn’t relaxed in so long it was like taking a deep breath.  At that point, nothing mattered to me.  Life was good, despite the lingering possibility of having to have my gallbladder removed.  I would let nothing rain on my parade.  It was a great day and I was going to relish it for the rest of my life.

*As for why the countdown stopped. It was a simple computer error. The swing arm (orbiter access) didn’t tell the computer it had moved out of the way. They visually confirmed it was retracted and off she went

UPDATE:

I wanted to add this video to the post.  It starts with the NASA TV coverage and while the visual coverage remains, I slowly blend in the sounds we heard. The audio is surprisingly good for a basic smartphone. I was told to not focus on snapping pics and vid of your first launch. I figured I’d turn it on and put it down in the chair and watch the shuttle go up with my own eyes. 🙂

 

Space Shuttle: The Final Year

That last attempt was in 2007.  A lot happened in that year.  Our youngest son was born in August and I got a new job in November.  For the time being I was grounded as far as launch attempts go.  They are expensive and mostly time consuming.  Time is what I didn’t have a lot of.

Launches would come and go and each time I’d ruminate as to whether I should attempt one.  These wouldn’t be planned out attempts.  They would be midnight runs so to speak.  Driving down, watching and driving right back.  I’d been there before and that just didn’t sound too appealing.  The ever so present threat of coming up empty handed put that thought to rest each time.

I didn’t miss a single launch, be it television or webcast.  I take that back.  I did miss the initial lift-off of a 4am launch.  Seriously, can you blame me?  I woke up right as the throttle up call was made.  Oops!  I watched it go into orbit and then passed out.

The End of an Era

STS-134 Mission Patch

Patch for the penultimate flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour. Notably carrying the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)

We all knew this year was coming.  It was mandated by President George W. Bush to retire the shuttle. This isn’t something I disagreed with, actually.  The timing was off and politics as usual don’t help.  Change is hard but it’s harder when there is nothing to change to.  Constellation was in trouble from the get go.  So, instead of having a system in the test phase, we’re left with one seemingly meaningless test of the Ares I-X in 2009.  All things said, a rocket is a rocket and I enjoyed every second of that test.  I would like to note that just a couple of days ago NASA released it’s heavy lift plans.  I’ll post about that another time.

Three launches were set for this year.  Each flight would be that vehicle’s last.

Discovery was first up, followed by Endeavour and finally Atlantis.  As each one landed it would never see space flight again, save for the dreams of those who wished to touch the night sky in such a beautiful machine.

The February launch of Discovery was out of the question.  My job has me tied up for the first two months of the year.  It would have been a nightmare.  Discovery would go up without me at the Cape.

The Endeavour launch was especially tempting as it was a late spring launch.  A gut feeling had me reconsider.  I don’t believe in superstitions but I decided I would not attempt this one and watch, once more, via web.  My decision paid off.  The initial launch was delayed. A woman that works at my same company actually attemped that launch.  I know that feeling all too well.  I believe that one was pushed back more than two weeks.  Again, this one went up with me watching from a tiny computer screen.

Atlantis

The gravity of the situation really hit me after Endeavour made it’s final “wheel stop” on the shuttle runway.  There was just one final launch of the shuttle; ever.  It was at that point I knew it was launch or nothing.  I was going to have to pull all the stops.  I can safely safe I knew I wasn’t alone in my mission.

For the better part of June I spent hours researching, planning, debating, and otherwise pulling my hair out trying to assure this attempt would succeed.  The pressure was intense and I wasn’t even one of the astronauts!  The 4.5 million pound gorilla in the room was Atlantis itself.  Even the best planned trip would be nothing if it didn’t go up.  I couldn’t think about what might not happen.  I had to think about what I wanted to happen.

STS-135 Parking Placard

STS-135 Parking Placard - Collectors items? I think so!

This was all we needed:

  • A place to stay
  • Tickets to KSC

It sounds easy enough.  Tickets weren’t a big deal.  I got KSC tickets with little problem though they were expensive.  I didn’t make in the lottery of initial cheaper tickets. There are tour companies that are given tickets also and I ended up paying premium prices for them.  Honestly, it was a one time deal.  It was all or nothing.  So, tickets? Check!

A place to stay was a different story.  Every single hotel, motel, tent, cave, hut, box or habitable structure was rented out for 30 miles all around Titusville.  Keep in mind, Titusville isn’t a tourist Mecca.  It’s a small town that just happens to be across the water from Kennedy Space Center (KSC).  I scoured rental sites.  I scoured craigslist and even put up a wanted ad for a place.  It would be my mother, son and myself. I emailed condo owners and even considered renting a place for the entire MONTH just for an event that would last minutes.  I kept coming up empty and it looked like Orlando would be our only bet.  Not terribly far but far for driving in at 3:00AM.  I made my reservations and settled for Orlando

A couple of days later I got an email from one of the condo owners that she had a guest house she’d be willing to rent.  The best part? It was just a few miles from KSC.  The rocket gods smiled upon for once during this ordeal.  The price was right.  The location was right.  To top it all off, I bought a parking placard so we could park at Kennedy, rather than take a bus in.

We were all set to go.  Or were we?  In the next post I’ll talk about how it all nearly fell apart from something I would have never suspected.

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.

Hubble Space Telescope – One Last Time

Monday, May 11, 2009, Space Shuttle Atlantis will embark on a mission to give Hubble one last upgrade and servicing. Missions STS-125 is a veteran crew and a special mission in many ways. If you’ve followed this mission, then you know it’s the first since Columbia was lost (STS-107) that an orbiter will not be going to the ISS. This is special in that if a problem develops on Atlantis, the crew will need to be rescued as the ISS will not be available. Endeavour is on standby as a rescue vehicle, should it be needed. You will never see two space shuttles on the launchpad at the same time, ever again.

Two shuttles

The mission will be intense as the Hubble is old and stubborn. The crew wants no surprises but they train for them. Many eyes will be upon them as they replace cameras, gyros and other various electronics vital to its operation.

It is still hard to believe that it was initially one of NASA’s greatest embarrassments. Now Hubble is synonymous with success and wonder. After an incredibly difficult emergency servicing mission in 1993, the Hubble’s vision was corrected. Our understanding of the Universe from that day forward has never been the same.

A few Hubble facts:

  • Astronomers have used Hubble data to publish more than 7,500 scientific papers, making it one of the most productive scientific instruments ever built. In 2007 scientists published more than 700 journal articles based on Hubble data.
  • Hubble’s 18 years’ worth of observations have produced about 32 terabytes of data, equaling the content of about 9,600 digital feature-length films.
  • Hubble is nearly the size of a large school bus. It is 43.5 ft (13.2 m) in length and weighs 24,500 lb (11,110 kg).
  • In its 18-year lifetime, the telescope has made more than 100,000 trips around our planet. As a result, Hubble has racked up plenty of frequent-flier miles, about 2.5 billion. This distance is equivalent to traveling from Saturn to the Sun and back.
  • In its 18 years of observing the universe, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has made about 870,000 observations resulting in more than 560,000 images of celestial objects.

So I wish the crew of Atlantis Godspeed. Make Hubble able to bring us more breathtaking images and data. After the crew leaves, it’s likely no human hands will ever touch her again. It would be nice though, if one day, she was retrieved.

If I could one day take my grandchildren to a museum and say “that’s the Hubble telescope, your dad was named after Edwin Hubble” now that would be cool.

Atlantis is set to lift off on May 11, 2009 at 2:01pm EDT. For more info on this mission go here

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