Posts tagged shuttle

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: 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.

Shuttle ‘go’ for April 5th launch

STS-131Seems there were some technical issues that threatened a delay of the launch.  Normally I’m all over the news on this stuff but I’ve slacked a bit.  I am happy though that we’ll get to see a launch in less than a week.

Here are several articles on STS-131

From NASA’s website:

Discovery will carry a multi-purpose logistics module filled with science racks for the laboratories aboard the station. The mission has three planned spacewalks, with work to include replacing an ammonia tank assembly, retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station’s exterior, and switching out a rate gyro assembly on the S0 segment of the station’s truss structure.

STS-131 will be the 33rd shuttle mission to the station.

We’re behind you Discovery!

What can you do in 10 seconds?

Some time ago I came across a video that mesmerizes me even now.  I had this thing up on my MySpace page for a long time but I think it deserves a more permanent home here.  I’m going to copy/paste the information from YouTube and not take credit for writing it up at all.  The thing to remember is that all of this happens from T-10 seconds to T-0.  Just 10 seconds. (The sparklers start at T-10 by the way)

Closeup, slow motion of SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) startup (no audio).

Several things to note (if you care):

* The “sparks” are igniters meant to burn off excess hydrogen gas during engine start but before mainstage (full power) operation. Without these, a large cloud of explosive hydrogen and air could form under the Shuttle. If it exploded, it could damage the Shuttle structure or knock off tiles. These sparks DO NOT “ignite” the rocket engines. Engine ignition is accomplished by an internal “blowtorch” of fuel and oxidizer in each engine, which is ignited with sparkplugs!

* Notice that the engines start in a sequence which is about 120 milliseconds (a touch more than 1/10 second) apart. They do not start at the exact same time.

* At engine start, the engines are moved (gimballed) away from each other because they jump around during start. If they were too close, they might collide.

* The engine steering hardware is hydraulically “disconnected” from the engines during start so that the engines can bounce around without breaking the “steering linkages”.

* During engine start, before full power is reached, the exhaust (flames) disconnect or separate from the nozzle interior, causing violent thrust vector movements and misalignments. This is what makes the engines jump and wobble during startup.

* After the engines are fully started and running, the hydraulic steering is re enabled and the engines are steered toward proper liftoff angles.

* Once the engines are started, the Space Shuttle tips forward several feet, then springs back. When it is sprung back to true vertical (and if the 3 engines are OK), the two large solid rockets are started, hold down nuts are blown off with explosives and it’s LIFTOFF!

* For comparison, all THREE Space Shuttle Main Engines (not counting the two large, tall tubular solid rockets) generate about as much thrust as only ONE first stage moon rocket engine (the F1) did.

* The propellants for the Space Shuttle Main Engines are all contained in the big central “external tank”. Oxygen on the top 1/4 and hydrogen on the bottom 3/4. The fuel (hydrogen) is so cold it would freeze AIR into a solid “ice” which means fuel lines must be free of all air (they are purged with helium).

God Bless NASA and our Astronauts, for they are doing difficult and potentially dangerous work in order that their research and findings may make all of our lives better through new and improved technology.

Think about that if you feel NASA gets “too much money”.

The budget for NASA is 0.7% of the entire Federal Budget.  That’s 70 cents for every 100 dollars.

Hubble Servicing Mission

Does anyone remember when Hubble was launched?  Remember how we all waited to see those brilliant images come down?  As they started to beam down to earth we all looked at each other thinking “that’s good, right?”  Those in the know immediately knew it wasn’t right.  Hubble was near-sighted.  The most expensive telescope ever built didn’t work.

Two years later a daring plan was set into motion to fix hubble.  Essentially it would be given glasses and other hardware would be upgraded as well (solar panels, gyros, etc).   Astronauts worked feverishly on Hubble until all the repairs were made.  Would they work?  Could NASA redeem itself?

The answer is a resounding “yes”.  Not only redemption but triumph.  As the new images came in, it was clear the mission was a success and our view on the Universe would never be the same again.  Chances are that you’ve seen a photo taken by Hubble.  To be more clear, if you’ve seen a picture of space in the last 15 years, it’s a good chance Hubble took it.  Sure there are scopes that are larger and gather more light but Hubble has the advantage.  It doesn’t put up with atmosphere.  No rainy days, cloudy days and it’s always night time in space.  Well to a degree it is.

NASA has serviced the Hubble a couple of times since that first servicing.  Upgrades to equipment, new cameras, better cameras and more sensitive instruments to bolster it’s scientific contribution even more.

Later this year NASA will service the Hubble one final time.  The telescope has been a workhorse for so many years and taken some of the most stunning images of the Cosmos known to man.  I’d love to be there to see the shuttle go up.  Might still happen but I won’t set my heart on it.

http://hubblesite.org/gallery/

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