Space history of the past few decades is dominated by the Space Shuttle. Envisioned as a revolution in access to space it was designed to be launched numerous times per year, dramatically reducing the costs of access to space. The reality was unfortunately not in line with the vision as the numerous design concessions made, coupled with the incredibly long average turnaround time for missions, meant that the costs far exceeded that of many other alternative systems. Still it was an iconic craft, one that several generations will point to as the one thing they remember about our trips beyond our atmosphere. What few people realise though is that there was potential for the shuttle to have a Russian sister and her name was Buran.
The Buran project started in 1974, only 5 or so years after the Space Shuttle program was kicked off by NASA. The goals of both projects were quite similar in nature, both aiming to develop a reusable craft that could deliver satellites, cosmonauts and other cargo into orbit. Indeed when you look at the resulting craft, one of which is shown above in its abandoned complex at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the similarities are striking. It gets even more interesting when you compare their resulting specifications as they’re almost identical with only a meter or two difference between them. Of course under the hood there’s a lot of differences, especially when it comes to the primary purpose of the Buran launch system,
The propulsion system of the Buran differed significantly from the Shuttle with the boosters being a liquid oxygen/hydrogen mix rather than a solid rocket fuel. There are advantages to this, chief among them being able to shut down the engines once you start them (something solid rocket boosters can’t do) however at the same time these were not designed to be reusable, unlike their Shuttle compatriots. This would mean that the only reusable part of the Buran launch system was the orbiter itself which would increase the per-launch cost. Additionally the Buran included a fully autonomous flight control system from the get go, something the Shuttle only received during an upgrade later in its life.
That last part is somewhat telling of Buran’s true purpose as, whilst it could service non-military goals, it was primarily developed to assist Russia’s (then the Soviet Union) military interests. Indeed the winged profile of the craft enables many mission profiles that are simply of no interest to non-military agencies and having it fully autonomous from the get go shows it was meant more conflict than research. Indeed when commenting on the programme’s cancellation a Russian cosmonaut commented that the Buran didn’t have any civilian tasks planned for it and, with a lack of requirements to fuel a military programme, it was cancelled.
That was not before it saw numerous test flights, including a successful orbital test flight. The achievements that the Buran made during its single flight are not to be underestimated as it was the first craft to perform such a flight fully unmanned and to make a fully automated landing. That latter feat is even more impressive when you consider that there was a very strong crosswind, some 60 kilometers per hour, and it managed to land mere meters off its originally intended mark. Indeed had Russia continued development of the Buran shuttle there’s every chance that it would have been a much more advanced version of its American sister for a very long time.
Today however the Buran shuttles and their various test components lie scattered around the globe in varying states of disrepair and decay. Every so often rumours about a resurrection of the program surface, however it’s been so long since the program was in operation that such a program would only share the name and little more. Russia’s space program has continued on to great success however, their Soyuz craft becoming the backbone of many of humanity’s endeavours in space. Whilst the Buran may never have become the icon for space that its sister Shuttle did it remains the highly advanced concept that could have been, a testament to the ingenuity and capability of the Russian space program.
There’s no denying that the Space Shuttle was an unique design being the only spacecraft that was capable aerodynamic flight after reentry. That capability, initially born out of military requirements for one-orbit trips that required significant downrange flight, came at a high cost in both financial and complexity terms dashing any hopes it had of being the revolutionary gateway space it was intended to be. A lot of the designs and engineering were sound though and so it should come as little surprise to see elements of it popping up in other, more modern spacecraft designs. The most recent of those (to come to my attention at least) is the European Space Agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, a curious little craft that could be Europe’s ticket to delivering much more than dry cargo to space.
Whilst this might not be an almost exact replica like the X-37B is it’s hard to deny that the IXV bears a lot of the characteristics that many of us associated with the Space Shuttle. The rounded nose, blackened bottom, white top and sleek profile are all very reminisicent of that iconic design but that’s where the similarities end. The IXV is a tiny little craft weighing not a lot more than your typical car and lacking the giant wings that allowed the Shuttle to fly so far. This doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of flight however as the entire craft is a lifting body, capable of generating lift comparable to a winged aircraft. Steering is accomplished 2 little paddles attached to the back enabling the IXV to keep its thermal protective layer facing the right direction upon reentry. For now the IXV is a completely robotic craft with little room to spare save for a few on board experiments.
Much like the X-37B the IXV is being designed as a test bed for the technologies that the ESA wants to use in upcoming craft for future missions. Primarily this relates to its lifting body profile and the little flaps it uses for attitude control, things which have a very sound theoretical basis but haven’t seen many real world applications. If all goes according to plan the IXV will be making its maiden flight in October this year, rocketing up to the same altitude as the International Space Station, nearly completing an orbit and then descending back down to earth. Whilst it’s design would make you think it’d then be landing at an air strip this model will actually end up in the Pacific ocean, using its aerodynamic capabilities to guide it to a smaller region than you could typically achieve otherwise. It also lacks any landing gear to speak of, relying instead on parachutes to cushion its final stages of descent.
Future craft based on the IXV platform won’t be your typical cargo carrying ISS ferries however as the ESA is looking to adapt the platform to be an orbital platform, much like the Shuttle was early on in its life. The downrange capability is something that a lot of space fairing nations currently lack with most relying on Russian craft or pinning their hopes on the capabilities of the up and coming private space industry. This opens up a lot of opportunities for scientists to conduct experiments that might be cost prohibitive to complete on the ISS or even ones that might be considered to be too dangerous. There doesn’t appear to be any intention to make an IXV variant that will carry humans into space however, although there’s already numerous lifting body craft in various stages of production that are aiming to have that capability.
It’s going to be interesting to see where the ESA takes the IXV platform as it definitely fills a niche that’s currently not serviced particularly well. Should they be able to transform the IXV from a prototype craft into a full production vehicle within 3 years that would be mightily impressive but I have the feeling that’s a best case scenario, something which is rare when designing new craft. Still it’s an interesting craft and I’m very excited to see what missions it will end up flying.
The International Space Station hasn’t really been struggling since the retirement of the Shuttle with it still being able to maintain its full 6 person crew even with the significantly reduced launch capacity. Indeed the bevy of alternative craft that have been visiting the ISS, such as the SpaceX Dragon and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus, have meant that it’s also been well supplied in the absence of a largo cargo tug like the Shuttle. Still there is no current replacement for getting humans up there with that responsibility falling solely to the Russian Soyuz craft although NASA is funding some alternatives. I’ve covered most of them in the past but one of the main contenders, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser, just passed a significant milestone, albeit with a few issues.
Their craft bears a striking resemblance to the Shuttle, sporting the same thermal tile underside and similar aerodynamic profile. It’s quite a bit smaller than the Shuttle however, being about a quarter of the length and a seventh of the mass, mostly due to its lack of payload bay. It can still carry up a comparable number of astronauts however, up to 7 in its current configuration which is only 1 shy of the Shuttle’s maximum. The design is also quite interesting as whilst it looks like any other space plane it is in fact a lifting body with those wings being on there for control purposes only.
Lifting bodies are an interesting type of craft whereby the craft’s design makes it one giant aerofoil, eliminating the need for big wings in order to generate lift. Indeed NASA has quite a history with lifting body craft having designed and built at least 3 of them in the past. The idea was solid enough for it even to be considered as one of the alternative designs for the Space Shuttle itself although the other requirements (primarily from the Department of Defense) meant that it wasn’t used in the end. Dream Chaser’s design then uses the lifting body for simplicity and efficiency, allowing for their smaller craft to do the one task of ferrying humans into orbit well without any of the additional cruft that plagued the Shuttle.
Dream Chaser recently underwent its first unmanned drop test to confirm its flight characteristics and to give all of its systems their first shakedown. For the most part the mission was a success with the lifting body performing as expected and the remote control systems functioning perfectly. However upon landing the left landing gear failed to deploy causing the craft to spin uncontrollably when the left wing contacted the run way. It’s eerily similar to the landing skid failure that SpaceShipOne encountered during one of its shakedown flights, although that one had a person inside it at the time (he was unscathed, however). It’s not a show stopping issue but it will probably mean furthering testing will be delayed until they can figure out why it happened, and make repairs to their prototype.
For what its worth I think the future of space travel will be in craft like Dream Chaser, ones that favour simplicity and efficiency over trying to make a multi-purpose craft. Indeed all the current contenders in the private space industry are doing just that, building craft with a specific purpose in mind and ensuring they do it efficiently. Whilst this first drop test might have had some hiccups it’s shown that the lifting body idea is aerodynamically sound and that there’s no fundamental flaws in their idea. Once they’ve worked out that landing gear kink I’m sure we’ll see dozens of successful drop tests to follow and, hopefully, some fully powered tests in the not too distant future.
It’s getting close to 2 years ago now that I was waiting in Orlando desperately hoping that I’d get to see the Space Shuttle Discovery launch in person, only to have it ripped away from me. I take solace in the fact that it was one of the longest launch delays in the Shuttle’s long history and whilst I didn’t get to go and see it when it did launch all those months later I did watch the online stream and my heart was renewed. Ever since then I’ve wanted to know what the experience would have been like and today it looks like I got my wish.
An enterprising YouTube user has set out to accomplish just that, and it’s magnificent:
Playing it back on my meagre Logitech speakers was impressive enough so I can only imagine how it will go with a proper sound system. I’ve scared the cat enough today with just the first play through so I’ll probably lay off it for a little bit but suffice to say it’s an impressive recreation of what it would be like to be at a shuttle launch. I certainly got nerd chills listening to it.
I don’t pretend to be all up on American politics, I look to much more intelligent people than I for understanding of those matters, but if there’s one thing that I know inside and out its space and the industry that surrounds it in the USA. As it’s campaign time now in the USA presidential hopefuls turn to high rhetoric and sweeping promises in order to win votes for their elections and the space program is not immune to this. Indeed it seems that NASA is most often used as a rhetorical tool that ends up under-delivering on its promises, mostly because those promises aren’t backed up with the appropriate funding.
Jumping back a presidency you can see why this was so, with George Bush’s vision for space exploration that had us returning to the moon by 2020. Instead of adding additional funding to complete those goals and all of those already set out for NASA much of the vision was funded out of cancelling other projects, like the Shuttle and their involvement with the International Space Station. What this resulted in was a program that was under-funded and ultimately impinged heavily on NASA’s ability to conduct many of their other core directives. The VSE was then replaced by the Obama administration which had a larger focus on building core space exploration infrastructure whilst out-sourcing rudimentary activities to the private sector, a much better direction for NASA to head in.
Newt Gingrich, current candidate for the Republican nomination, made some sweeping statements about how he’d reform NASA and see Bush’s original vision achieved. He would see a permanent moon base by 2020, a good chunk of NASA’s budget allocated for private incentives and a culling of some of the bureaucracy. They’re ambitious goals, especially considering that Bush made similar ones almost a decade prior that are no where close to being achieved. Still there are some good ideas contained within his vision, but a whole lot more that just show a total lack of understanding.
As always Neil deGrasse Tyson does a much better job of tearing it down than I ever could:
Neil hits on a point that I’ve long held true: NASA should be charged with advancing space frontiers and the private sector should be tasked with the things that are now routine. We’re already seeing that kind of industry develop what with companies like SpaceX gearing up to resupply the ISS with several others developing along the same lines. This is where the private industry does well but it does not do well in pushing the frontier forward. That’s an inherently risky venture, one that’s very unlikely to be undertaken by any private agency. Advancing the frontier is the realm of the government and NASA is the agency to do it.
Where I do agree with Newt though is the slimming down of the NASA bureaucracy. Much of the costs incurred by the Shuttle program was the standing army of people it had, not the actual launches themselves. The original plan of launching often, up to 50 missions per year, would have drastically reduced the impact this standing army had on the cost per launch of the Shuttle. With the cancellation of the shuttle program much of that will have already been cut but NASA is still quite a large agency. How that would be achieved is left as an exercise to the reader.
Extraordinary ideas require extraordinary amounts of support and whilst I’d love to believe that Gingrich would follow through with this idea I’ve seen how ideas like this have panned out in the past. Thankfully, with or without Gingrich’s interference, the private space industry is setting itself up as being a viable replacement for the rudimentary activities that NASA needs not bother themselves with any more. What I’d like to see now is Obama’s vision for NASA has changed since he cancelled constellation and whether or not he falls victim to the same high rhetoric trap of over-promising and then not support the vision.
The retirement of the Shuttle, whilst leaving the USA without any means with which to deliver humans or cargo to the International Space Station, was necessary to bring about the next evolution in the space industry. In the lead up to its retirement many entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to crack into a market that was once only for government superpowers and the contractors that serviced them. Today the private space industry can count dozens of companies vying for a piece of the final frontier and the coming decade is looking ever more bright for those of us who have aspirations that reach past the comforts of our home world.
It seems to be a common thread amongst many entrepreneurs that whilst they may have made their fortunes here on terra firma their eyes were always gazing heavenward. Just off the top of my head I can name Elon Musk (SpaceX, made his fortunes through PayPal), Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace, chain hotel giant) and now we can also count Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) amongst their ranks as he’s founded a new space company called Stratolaunch:
Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human
missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more
flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches
will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.
Stratolaunch isn’t like your traditional private space company who’s out to develop their own launch system in order to bring costs down. No, instead they’re more of a systems integrator combining technology from (in my opinion) all the right places. Their booster will be made by SpaceX, their carrier plane will be made by Scaled Composites (of SpaceShipOne fame) and the systems integration will be done Dynetics. It’s a very Microsofty way of doing things and all of the companies they’ve selected have a good history of delivering on the capabilities they set out to achieve, so this is definitely a recipe for success.
Their launch system is intriguing as well and not just because its another iconic Rutan design. Just like SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne the Stratolaunch system is made up of a carrier craft and a rocket with the payload attached. Now long time readers will know that whilst air launched rockets are a good way to get into sub-orbital trajectories the rule of 6 (Mach 6 and 60,000 feet is 6% of the required energy to get to orbit) means that they’re not terribly effective for larger payloads. However the scale of the Stratolaunch system is quite phenomenal and is beyond anything that’s been attempted with this kind of system previously.
For starters the carrier craft will be the largest aircraft that’s ever flown. Now that’s quite a claim to fame as the largest aircraft ever built (barring the Spruce Goose, which is actually smaller despite its larger wingspan) is the Antonov An225. The An225 is a Russian craft designed to carry oversized payloads and there’s a brilliant shot in the link that shows it carrying Russia’s Buran Shuttle to give you an idea just how massive the thing is. The Stratolaunch carrier will dwarf that craft considerably weighing almost twice as much with well over double the thrust from the more modern engines. Combining this all together nets you a plane capable of carrying a staggering 490,000 pounds (~222,260 kgs) of payload. For it’s intended purpose that makes the Stratolaunch system capable of delivering some significant payloads.
Since SpaceX will be designing the booster we can assume it will be a middle of the road rocket between the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. My back of the envelope calculations using the Falcon 9 and scaling it back to the maximum payload of the Stratolaunch system puts the payload capability to LEO at 15,333lbs or about 7 tons. Considering the launch system is a reusable craft its conceivable that Stratolaunch could drive costs down considerably through economies of scale thanks to the (I assume) quick turn around times for launching from the carrier craft. I’ll also bet that the USA military will have a keen eye on this entire system as well since it’s capabilities could be quite useful to them.
I think Allen is onto a winner here with this kind of design and it has a lot of potential to change the small to medium payload game. Some of the technical feats they’re out to accomplish are truly inspiring and I’ll be waiting anxiously for them to come to fruition.
Whilst the Space Shuttle will always be one of the most iconic spacecraft that humanity has created it’s design was one of compromises and competing objectives. One of the design features, which influenced nearly every characteristic of the Shuttle, was the requirement from the Department of Defense that stipulated that the Shuttle needed to be able to launch into a polar orbit and return after a single trip around the earth. This is the primary reason for the Shuttle being so aeroplane like in its design, requiring those large wings so it has a long downrange capability so that it could return to its launch site after that single orbit. The Shuttle never flew such a mission, but now I know why the DoD required this capability.
It was speculated that that particular requirement was spawned out of a need to capture spy satellites, both their own and possibly enemy reconnaissance craft. At the time digital photography was still very much in its infancy and high resolution imagery was still film based so any satellite based spying would be carrying film on board. The Shuttle then could easily serve as the retrieval vehicle for the spy craft as well as functioning as a counter intelligence device. It never flew a mission like this for a couple reasons, mostly that a Shuttle launch was far more expensive than simply deorbiting a satellite and sending another one up there. There was also the rumour that Russia had started arming its spacecraft and sending humans up there to retrieve them would be an unnecessary risk.
The Shuttle’s payload bay was also quite massive in comparison to the spy satellites of the time which put further into question the DoD’s requirements. It seems however that a recently declassified spy satellite, called HEXAGON, was actually the perfect fit and could have influenced the Shuttle’s design:
CHANTILLY, Va. – Twenty-five years after their top-secret, Cold War-era missions ended, two clandestine American satellite programs were declassified Saturday (Sept. 17) with the unveiling of three of the United States’ most closely guarded assets: the KH-7 GAMBIT, the KH-8 GAMBIT 3 and the KH-9 HEXAGON spy satellites.
“I see a lot of Hubble heritage in this spacecraft, most notably in terms of spacecraft size,” Landis said. “Once the space shuttle design was settled upon, the design of Hubble — at the time it was called the Large Space Telescope — was set upon. I can imagine that there may have been a convergence or confluence of the designs. The Hubble’s primary mirror is 2.4 meters [7.9 feet] in diameter and the spacecraft is 14 feet in diameter. Both vehicles (KH-9 and Hubble) would fit into the shuttle’s cargo bay lengthwise, the KH-9 being longer than Hubble [60 feet]; both would also fit on a Titan-class launch vehicle.”
HEXAGON is an amazing piece of cold war era technology. It was equipped with two medium format cameras that would sweep back and forth to image an area, capturing an area 370 nautical miles wide. Each HEXAGON satellite carried with it some 60 miles worth of film in 4 separate film buckets which would detach from the craft when used and return to earth where they would be snagged by a capture craft. They were hardy little canisters too with one of them ending up on the bottom of an ocean but was retrieved by one of the navy’s Deep Submergence Vehicles. There were around 20 launches of the HEXAGON series of craft with only a single failure towards the end of the program.
What really surprised me about HEXAGON though was the resolution they were able to achieve some 30+ years ago. HEXAGON’s resolution was improved throughout its lifetime but later missions had a resolution of some 60cm, more than enough to make out people and very detailed images of say cars and other craft. For comparison GeoEye-1, which had the highest resolution camera on an earth imaging craft at the time of launch, is only just capable of a 40cm per pixel resolution (and that imagery is property of the USA government). Taking that into consideration I’m wondering what kind of imaging satellite the USA is using now, considering that the DoD appears to be a couple decades ahead of the commercial curve.
It’s always interesting when pieces of a larger puzzle like the Shuttle’s design start falling into place. Whilst it’s debatable whether or not HEXAGON (and it’s sister craft) were a direct influence on the Shuttle there’s enough coincidences to give the theory a bit of credence. I can see why the USA kept HEXAGON a secret for so long, that kind of capability would’ve been down right scary back in the 80’s and its reveal makes you wonder what they’re flying now. It’s stuff like this that keeps me obsessed about space and what we, as a species, are capable of.
10 days after Atlantis blasted off on its final trip into space for STS-135 the last ever space shuttle mission has finally returned to earth, signalling an end to the 30 year program and marking the end of an era for space. For many of us young star gazers the space shuttle is an icon, something that embodied the human spirit ever searching for new frontiers to explore. For me personally it symbolized something I felt truly passionate about, a feeling that I had not been familiar with for a very long time. Many will lament its loss but it has come time for NASA to reinvent itself, leaving the routine of low earth orbit for new frontiers that eagerly await them.
Atlantis’ final firey return back to earth, as seen from the International Space Station.
Image credit: NASA/Johnson Space Center (via @NASA_Johnson)
The shuttle was, from a technical point of view, too much of a compromise between government agencies for it to be able to achieve the goals set out for it. There’s no denying it was an extremely versatile craft but many of the design decisions made were at odds with the end goals of making a reusable craft that could cater to all of the USA’s launch needs for the next 30 years. Constellation then would look like a step in the right direction however whilst it was a far more appropriate craft for NASA’s current needs their money is better spent on pushing their capability envelope, rather than designing yet another launch system.
NASA, to their credit, appears to be in favour of offloading their launch capabilities to private industry. They already have contracts with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to provide both launch capabilities and crew/cargo capsules however attempts to fully privatize their more rudimentary activities have been routinely blocked by congress. It’s no secret that much of the shuttle’s manufacturing process is split up across states for purely political purposes (it made no sense to build the external tank so far away that it needed a barge to ship it back) and the resistance from congress for private launch systems is indicative of that. Still they have their foot in the door now and this opens up the opportunity for NASA to get back to its roots and begin exploring the final frontier.
There’s no denying that we’ve made great progress with robotic space exploration, reaching out to almost every section of our solar system and exploring their vast wonders. However not since 1972 has a human left low earth orbit, something people of the time wouldn’t believe if you told them so. Whilst it might not be the most efficient way of exploring the universe it’s by far the best for inspiring the next generation:
It’s a historic day and it will mark a turning point for NASA and space flight in the USA one way or another. It’s my fervent hope that NASA uses this as an opportunity to refocus on its core goals of pushing the envelope of what’s possible for humanity through exploring that vast black frontier of space. It won’t be an easy journey for NASA, especially considering the greater economic environment they’re working in right now, but I know the people there are more than capable of doing it and the USA needs them in order to inspire the next generation.
The time has finally arrived, 30 years after the space shuttle Columbia blasted off into space her sister ship Atlantis roared into orbit just 2 days ago. It is estimated that near 1 million people flocked to the areas surrounding the Kennedy Space Center to watch the final ever launch with millions more tuning in from around the world to witness it online. I have to be honest and say that I missed the live event myself, blame goes to the sources that cited a 70% chance for no-go weather on the day, but I quickly caught up with the events spending hours pouring over the details of the last ever space shuttle mission over my morning coffee the day after.
STS-135 is a very unique mission in many ways. It began as STS-335 a Launch on Need mission designed to be launched if STS-134 had any problems on orbit and was unable to return to earth safely. For such missions a fully stacked orbiter has to be ready to launch within a very short time frame, usually on the order of a couple months. This means the usual shuttle preparations have to already be done in order to launch that quickly and with the shuttle program retiring that meant there would be one fully loaded orbiter that would essentially go to waste. Last year saw the proposal to turn STS-335 into STS-135 approved although without any specific funding for the additional mission. NASA announced in February that the mission would go ahead with funding approval or not, setting the stage for STS-135 to be the last shuttle mission in history.
The final mission of the space shuttle also shares the record of taking up the smallest crew with one of Challenger’s early missions STS-6, bringing only 4 astronauts into space. The reason for this is simple, since there are no other shuttles available to act as rescue boats should Atlantis not be able to return from orbit those stranded astronauts will have to come back down in the regular Soyuz missions. Whilst the International Space Station is quite capable of handling the extra load for a while it will still take almost a year just to ferry those 4 astronauts back down and many of the ISS contingency plans are based around having no more than 6 astronauts on the station at any one time (without additional craft docked). STS-135 then only brings the bare minimum crew required to complete the mission and all signs are pointing to them being able to return safely so far.
The payload of this mission is focused solely on keeping the ISS functioning for the rest of its intended lifetime, another 9 years or so. Atlantis carries in its payload bay one multi-purpose logistics module (named Raffaello) load with 16 resupply racks, the maximum it can carry, with an additional lightweight multi-purpose carrier that will be used to return some failed components back to earth for analysis. The failed components in question are a pump module for the external thermal cooling system and a ammonia pump module, both of which have already been replaced in orbit. STS-135 also carriers with an additional piece of equipment for the ISS, a proof of concept device for on-orbit refueling of satellites. For the demonstration it will be attached to the Dextre robot and should it prove successful the technology could make its way into the commercial sector. There will also be 2 iPhone 4s and 2 Nexus S’s carried up to be used with the ISS’s SPHEREs, basically small satellites that reside inside the space station.
It’s a historic time as this mission marks the beginning of the end to a 30 year endeavor that NASA has undertaken. It might not be the most glamorous end to the program, being basically a supply mission to keep the ISS going, but it’s an important one none the less ensuring that the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the availability of other craft doesn’t impact on NASA’s goals in space. For youngsters like me it marks the end of the iconic craft that we grew up with and I know its going to be a long time before another one will be able to take its place. For that simple fact the shuttle will always have a special place in my heart, just like I know it does in so many others.
The time is fast approaching when one of the most iconic spacecraft in history will no longer be soaring off into the blackness of space. Long time readers of this blog will know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me emotionally and every bit of shuttle news always feels bittersweet as I know we’re not far away from never seeing these birds flying again. Still NASA has been working incredibly hard to make sure that not only do the shuttles continue to perform as expected they’ve also managed to jam a heck of a lot of cargo into what was supposed to be the final flight of the shuttle but that honor is now reserved for STS-135. That doesn’t detract from this last mission at all, however.
STS-134 is the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and it launched late last night at around midnight AEST. I managed to catch some of the action as it was happening on Twitter having forgotten that the flight had been scheduled for Monday after experiencing several delays thanks to trajectory conflicts (in essence traffic problems in space) and problems with the APU heaters which form part of the shuttles hydraulics. The launch went without a hitch however and the shuttle lifted off in its usual spectacular glory.
Amongst the giant payload list that’s currently in orbit with the space shuttle Endeavour is the main reason why this mission is being flown, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. About 13 years ago a prototype AMS was sent up with STS-91 to test a wide array of particle physics experiments like dark matter, anti-matter and cosmic rays. It also happened to be flying on the last ever shuttle mission to the Mir space station. It’s sucessor, the AMS-2, faced the axe thanks to a lack of shuttle flights in the wake of the Columbia disaster. This and the cancellation of a lot of other International Space Station components lead to quite a controversy over whether the ISS was worth the expense and eventually the AMS-2 was reinstated and is currently en-route to the ISS now.
Apart from the usual affair of spare and replacement parts for the ISS STS-134 also carriers with it parts for upgrading the docking mechanisms for the upcoming Orion space capsule. They’re not just installing it either, part of the mission objectives is to also test the new docking hardware to make sure it functions as expected. This means that the STS-134 crew will be performing a series of maneuvers including docking, undocking, fly around and a full separation. It’s quite a bit of flying around for the shuttle which usually just sits docked to the side of the ISS for the entire time and I’m sure there will be some amazing footage of its on-orbit aerobatics when the tests are completed.
Endeavour will also be leaving behind part of itself, namely the Orbital Boom Sensor System. It’s become a standard piece of equipment on every flight since the Columbia disaster and is used to inspect the shuttle whilst in orbit to look for signs of damage to the space craft. It has also been used once to aid in a repair operation back in STS-120 and proved an invaluable aid in that task. It was such a help during that operation that NASA decided that one of the arms should have a permanent home on the ISS and Endeavour’s was chosen.
There are also numerous smaller payloads that make up the rest of Endeavour’s manifest. It is carrying 4 payloads for the Department of Defence, all of which require some use of the boosters whilst in orbit. Endeavour will also be bringing up another materials experiment, MISSE 8, and will be returning the previous one back down to earth for analysis. A new Glacier unit, basically a freezer for science experiments on the ISS, is being brought up and the old one returned as well. Finally Endeavour will carry with it some Lego kits with it as part of an educational program as well as some specialized nutrition bars created by a pair of high school sisters to encourage students to get into the fields of science, technology, education and math.
The final mission of Endeavour is set to be an exciting time for all of those involved and the massive payload it is going to deliver will make sure of that. Whilst it may have been stripped of the title of the final shuttle flight ever it will still be remembered for a long time to come, especially since it will leave behind a critical piece of itself once it departs. It does hit me with a twinge of sadness however as I now know there’s only one more flight to go and then the world will be without this iconic craft soaring high above its atmosphere. Still they have given us so much that I can’t help but also feel a sense of pride which makes my heart soar like nothing else.