STS-132: The End Never Looked So Near.

There’s both a joy and a sadness that accompanies every shuttle launch. I still get a little thrill every time I wake up in the morning to the Australian news showing pictures and video of our iconic spacecraft’s trips into space but from this flight on I know that each of the launches will be the last for that shuttle in question. That leaves me with a bittersweet feeling, knowing that we’re less than 6 months away from never seeing them launch again, but the promise of a new breed of space pioneers never fails to make my spirits soar once again.

I’m a bit late to the party on this particular shuttle launch thanks mostly to a too-good-to-resist story I had to cover last Friday but also partly because I’m a lazy bastard when it comes to blogging on weekends ;). STS-132 launched at 4am Saturday our time, signalling the final time we would see space shuttle Atlantis lifting off from Cape Carnaveral and the 3rd last shuttle flight of all time.

As usual the space world is all a flutter with Atlantis’ last mission and rightly so. Whilst this isn’t the most spectacular mission by any stretch of the imagination it does show that NASA is planning for an upcoming lull in their ability to get people and cargo up to the International Space Station. Whilst the ATV and HTV both have flights planned towards the end of this year/early next year (fun fact: the ATV is human rated, I’ll have to do another post on that some other time) I haven’t yet heard anything further about them. It is then up to NASA to ensure that their parts of the ISS are equipped for the duration where the US won’t have the kind of access their used to, and STS-132 is just one such mission.

Probably the biggest part of this mission will be the delivery of Rassvet or the Mini Research Module 1 (MRM1). As the name would imply this is actually a module of Russian construction which would make you wonder why it’s being berthed aboard the space shuttle. This is especially strange considering that the Russian Proton rockets are considered amongst the most successful heavy lift launches in the world, having been in use for 45 years and have launched all of the previous Russian components of the ISS. Turns out the US is under contract to deliver the MRM1 and if I had to hazard a guess as to why it’s probably because the total weight of the craft is about 8 tons which, if launched on a Proton, would be a waste since they’re capable of delivering a whopping 20 tons into LEO. With many shuttles launching without their payload bays full (mostly because of the risks involved, see the launch pad damage caused by the heaviest payload ever, Kibo) it makes sense to have them deliver it.

The MRM1 is part science vessel and part docking port, as with the installation of the Tranquility module this left the ISS with only 3 docking ports. This poses a problem as the Soyuz, Progress (cargo version of Soyuz) and ATV missions overlap in their time frames. Couple that with the fact that at least 2 Soyuz craft need to be docked to serve as lifeboats back to earth (thanks to the expanded crew of 6) that would leave only 1 docking port available for any visiting resupply crafts. The MRM1 solves this problem by providing another docking port, making up for the one it uses. In fact you might remember a post from long ago about a very similar craft called Poisk. As it turns out these are both MRMs and their purpose is identical, a bit of extra space and another parking spot.

As I alluded to earlier the other half of this mission is dedicated to gearing up the ISS for the launch gap that the US is about to find themselves in. As such they’ve flown the Integrated Cargo Carrier-Vertical Light Deployable (ICC-VLD) which is basically a large cargo pallet. The payload on the ICC-VLD is mostly replacement parts and all 3 of the spacewalks planned are dedicated to getting them installed on the ISS. Additionally some of the parts that were removed will be reloaded back onto the ICC-VLD for return back to earth.

There’s also a lot of memorabilia that’s being flown on STS-132. The first is a CD that contains digital copies of all entries to NASA’s Commemorative Patch Contest, which was held to honor the end of the space shuttle era. STS-132 also flies a collection of 17 hand crafted beads from the Beads of Courage organisation, who strive to bring hope to children suffering from serious illnesses. Additionally Atlantis carries with it a piece of the the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton to formulate his theory of gravity, as well as a flag of Clarkson university of which the lead shuttle flight direction Michale Sarafin, is an alumnus of. Each of these objects represents something greater than their physical manifestations and I know those involved understand what an honor it is to have them flown on the last flight of Atlantis.

The entire mission has that air to it that signals the end of an era for human space flight and with anything ending it brings with it a touch of sadness. However we know that the human spirit will not stand idly by and the end of one era signals in the beginning of the next. So whilst we might be in the twilight year of the shuttle we can all look forward to the future which is staggeringly bring with the hope of the private space industry and NASA’s return to pushing the limits of the final frontier.

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