Last friday the shuttle Discovery launched into orbit signalling the beginning of STS-128. The launch couldn’t have gone smoother, as you can see from the video below:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwD7Xu7Mks4
There’s a couple things about this mission that I’ll note later but for the most part, this is what I’d call a stock standard mission for the shuttle. In essence this mission is about gearing up the International Space Station to cope with the larger crew it has been carrying of late, with the majority of the payload dedicated to upgrading existing facilities whilst replacing some of the more worn out pieces of gear. You’d be surprise then to learn that I consider this one of the more exciting missions as this is what space should be for everyone: routine.
The shuttle was conceived with the idea of having a fleet of 4 shuttles each capable of 10 launches per year. As we don’t see a launch like this every other month you’ll know that this didn’t happen. The story behind this is a blog post for another day but the idea behind the shuttle was to bring down the cost per launch for space travel. Speculation runs wild as to whether or not the Challenger and Columbia disasters are to blame for this but even prior to these incidents the launches per year were well below the 10 that the fleet was designed to accommodate at inception. With the fleet nearing retirement it is unfortunate that they will never reach their intended goal of significantly reducing cost to orbit and has lead us back down the path of the original Mercury and Gemini ideas (I.E. non-reusable craft).
STS-128 brings with it the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module Leonardo, named for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and not the famous artist and inventor. Inside is a few racks of life supporting equipment, crew quarters that are to be installed in the Kibo laboratory and something of a booby prize for one eager comedic news presenter, Stephen Colbert. Back at the start of the year NASA held a competition to name the new module that is now known as Tranquility. Colbert, who has a legion of fans who love to help out in situations like this, implored his viewers to send in votes to name the new module after him. Whilst he did win the vote NASA retained the right to name it with whatever name they saw fit. However, they recognised the service that Colbert had done to popularize space and offered to name their new treadmill after him. Colbert was elated and accepted the offer and the C.O.L.B.E.R.T is flying aboard the shuttle right now. It will be installed in Tranquility when the module is launched early next year on STS-130, but for now it will reside in the Harmony module.
This mission also brings with it a few science experiments, looking at fluid behaviour and heat pipe technology. As this is the main focus of the ISS it is good to see new experiments being brought up constantly as there is no end to the amount of work that could benefit from being conducted in the absence of gravity. Again this is nothing revolutionary, but it does show that we are making progress.
Whilst I may lament the fact that I can’t waffle on for pages about why this is such a significant flight due to the new hardware or some such it is still none the less exciting for me. Every launch is a beautiful tapestry of engineering, science and human engineering that NASA lays out for the world to see. Despite the bureaucratic boondoggles that have marred the shuttle program I’m still grateful for the progress it has brought humanity. I know the day will come when the shuttle launches for the last time and I hope to be there to watch it. Until then though I will shout its successes from the rooftops, even when they just routine like STS-128.