STS-130, A Night To Remember.

There are few things more spectacular than a shuttle launch. With 3 engines the size of school buses putting out the equivalent power of almost 40 hoover dams lifting the 60 ton iconic craft aloft into orbit around our beautiful blue marble. There are few things that come close to demonstrating our capability as a human race such as these. One thing however is more beautiful than your regular run-of-the-mill shuttle launch, and that’s a shuttle launch that happens at night, giving rise to beautiful images such as this:

It’s not to say that such missions are rare, far from it. Just less than a third of all Shuttle launches have been at night throughout the course of it’s lifetime, but that doesn’t make them any less special. With the countdown of the final 5 launches underway the next one scheduled marks the last ever night launch of the craft, something that is surely to be missed:

WASHINGTON – Six NASA astronauts are ready to rocket into space on the shuttle Endeavour in just over a week as questions swirl over the impact of the space agency’s upcoming budget request.

Endeavour commander George Zamka said Friday that he and his crew are completely focused on the planned Feb. 7 launch to the International Space Station. Their mission: to deliver a new room to the $100 billion orbiting lab that will leave it nearly complete.

The shuttle is scheduled to blast off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., before dawn on Feb. 7 at 4:39 a.m. EST (0939 GMT), making it the last planned night launch of Endeavour or any other orbiter. The launch will come six days after NASA rolls out its new spending goals for the next fiscal year – a plan that may depart substantially from the agency’s earlier human spaceflight goals.

STS-130 is set to be a spectacular mission in its own right with it taking up some of the last bits of the American section of the International Space Station. This includes the Tranquility module which contains highly advanced life support systems and much need space for storage, exercise equipment and so on as well as the Cupola which is in essence a giant window that will be used for operating the robotic elements of the ISS as well as observations. It will also be the final home for the C.O.L.B.E.R.T, something I’m sure Colbert will be quite happy about.

A night launch really couldn’t come at a better time for NASA. Right now with the turmoil that’s surrounding its manned programs it will serve them well to show off some iconic imagery with a night launch. With so much attention on NASA at the moment showing off the raw power and beauty of a Shuttle launch can only help to bolster their cause. The launches haven’t had more than a passing glance in most of the mainstream media (although I have been surprised by the morning news in Australia, covering the last 5 or so in detail) but with added political controversy we might see some actual movement on this.

It will definitely keep the debate going on NASA’s spending and the future programs it has been chasing. Whilst I lamented in the past how pointless the Ares I-X was I failed to mention how in awe I was of the program’s end game of Ares V which, on paper, appears to be an extremely capable rocket. There’s been some speculation of dropping the Ares I in favour of pushing forward development of Ares V, which has it merits. The slack could then be picked up by say SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is scheduled for its first test flight later this year. I doubt anyone else is going to work on something as enormous as the Ares V as a commercial endeavour as there’s really little need to build 188 ton satellites. Still this comes back to the point that NASA should be pushing the science and not the building of new launching platforms, but there’s really little need for a heavy lifter from a commercial perspective.

NASA’s future is all up in the air now and with that comes heavy speculation. There’s been so many “leaked” reports on almost every aspect of NASA that I’ve fallen to information overload and decided to wait until some verified reports come out. I’m hoping Obama and the American congress don’t get too short sighted on this matter but doing what is right by NASA (funnelling a couple extra billion their way) is hard to justify politically at this point. Sure there’s quite a lot of data to say that NASA and the space industry are creating a lot of jobs, but your average American voter doesn’t seem much to care for that (since they’re not really jobs for your average American).

So in just under a week from now we’ll bear witness to the last time a Shuttle will light up our night skies. I highly recommend catching one of the live feeds with the amazing NASA commentary if you can but rest assured, if you miss the live event I’ll be posting the highlights up here.

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  1. Correct you are! You’ll also notice this post was written about a week before the actual launch, so I didn’t have access to any imagery yet. I did write a full post (with accompanying picture) on launch day a week later.

    You’ve got a keen eye there my friend 😉

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