16 hours ago space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off on its mission STS-130. The image above was captured barely a minute after take off as Endeavour passed through the thin clouds that remained after the previous launch attempt was scrubbed yesterday. This gave rise to the picture you see above and it is truly breathtaking. As with all recent Shuttle missions the event was also heavily televised as seen below (skip to 10:48 for the good bit):
Watching this video I can’t help but feel awe at the shear magnitude of power being unleashed by our triumph of science. For what seems like an eternity Endeavour shines brighter than any light and then turns into a bright star before slowly fading from our view. There’s a kind of magestic beauty seeing something so large and powerful moving so gracefully as to almost qualify itself as art. If I hadn’t planned already to see the very last of the Shuttle launches ever this one would’ve been next on my list, as for a thing of beauty nothing can quite match a night launch in my books.
In the midst of all this awe and wonder there’s still a lot of good old fashioned space work behind this launch. STS-130 brings to a close the last of the major construction work (more on that in a minute) that will be done on the International Space Station. The Tranquility module contains the most advanced life support equipment to date with facilities to recycle waste water, generate air for the astronauts to breathe as well as removing any contanimates that might taint the environment. Whilst not as spacious as the Japanese Kibo module its no small fry and will primarily be used for storage, exercise and accessing the Cupola. The main function of the Cupola will be to facilitate robotics work that will be done on the ISS using the various arms they have installed there. Additionally it also contains the largest window ever flown into space and it will be installed facing Earth. Although its not the main reason for its existance you can bet that the astronauts on board will be chomping at the bit to get some view time through that portal. I know I would.
If you watched the video above you may have noticed a little information widget on the left hand side detailing some interesting information about the Shuttle during its launch. One of them which may look a little odd (especially if you’ve got an engineering bent) is the SSME Thrust percentage which hovers above 100% for the majority of lift off. Now this might seem strange since no system is capable at operating above 100% but there’s a good reason for this. The Space Shuttle Main Engine was initially designed with a certain amount of thrust in mind and was tested successfully to that specification. However further testing showed that the engine was quite capable of running safely beyond its design, all the way up to 109% of the required thrust. This has then become the norm for all launches with the higher power levels saved for contingency operations should they be required. It really shows how talented the NASA engineers are.
There’s still a day and half to go before they actually meet up with the ISS and the majority of that time will be spent getting the Shuttle ready to dock and ensuring that the Shuttle hasn’t suffered any damage on the way up. After that they’ll do their signature backflip and take their mission into full swing. There’s a busy 2 weeks ahead for all these astronauts.
STS-130’s launch was one of beauty and its fitting that it will bring to the ISS a portal with which the astronauts can look back at us as we look up at them. Whilst I feel a twinge of sadness knowing that there are only 4 more launches left before the magestic shuttle never flies again I can also take heart in the fact that soon a new era of space will be heralded in by a new vision for NASA. Times like these remind me how far we’ve come, and how bright our future is.