It was almost 4 months ago that I woke up in Orlando Florida, eagerly awaiting my trip to the fabled Kennedy Space Center and a day to be filled with all manner of space related fun. It was that same day that I had a dream torn from me, leaving my heart broken and me wanting to get as far away from that place as possible. Reading over the post today brought the whole day flooding back, along with the emotions that came with it. Still despite the pain of a dream not realized I couldn’t pull myself away from Twitter and the NASA TV stream, eagerly devouring each and every little detail of Discovery’s final launch into outer space.
And less than 30 minutes ago STS-133 launched from the Kennedy Space Center launch complex 39A.
Discovery’s final flight has been marred by a multitude of technical problems. The first 2 initial scrubs where due to leaks in the Orbital Maneuvering System which is used to control the space shuttle whilst its in orbit. The system consists of two pods at the rear of the orbiter that have a low thrust engine that uses hypergolic propellant and a leak in these would mean the shuttle would be unable to dock with the International Space Station. The leak was thought to be fixed and the launch was good to go on that faithful day, but Discovery wasn’t going without a fight.
The next launch window was scrubbed due to a problem with the backup main engine controller. Initial diagnostics showed that there was some transient contamination and that a reboot brought everything back into line. However after troubleshooting further, finding nothing wrong again, they did notice an unexpected voltage drop was observed. This lead them to delay the launch for 24 hours in order to find the issue. The next day was delayed due to weather and since I was there on the day I could see why they did. The final day for this launch window saw a hydrogen leak from the main tank that was outside acceptable mission limits, and the mission was scrubbed until today.
The external tank on Discovery had multiple issues. The first was the connector used to vent off excess hydrogen during fueling which was what caused the final delay before Discovery’s final launch. During the investigation into why there was such a substantial leak cracks were discovered in some of the external tanks insulation and upon further inspection it was found that many parts of the external tank had cracks through them. The construction of these particular parts of the external tank was different that from what was used previously and NASA has stated that this contributed to the cracking found in the external tank. Extensive repairs were carried out on the tank and it was only declared flight ready earlier this year. This meant that the turnaround time for Discovery was the longest of any shuttle bar STS-35 at 170 days.
What’s so special about STS-133 however is the sheer amount of payload it will be delivering to the ISS. The first will be the Permanent Multipurpose Module which is a modified version of one of the Multi-Purpose Logistics modules that have flown in many previous shuttle missions. Not only will this deliver almost 8 tons worth of cargo to the space station it will also add a significant amount of livable space to the ISS, rivaling that of the Kibo module. Many future crew missions are dedicated to configuring the PMM and it’s sure to prove valuable to the ISS.
Another interesting bit of cargo that’s making its way to the ISS is Robonaut2, the first humanoid robot ever to visit the station. The idea behind it is that a humanoid robot could be capable of performing many tasks that an astronaut does such as space station maintenance. Initially it will be housed inside the ISS and will undergo strict testing to see how it copes in the harsh environment of space. After a while its capabilities could be expanded and it might not be long before you see Robonaut working along side astronauts on EVAs. This could be quite a boon for the astronauts on the ISS as planning repairs can be quite time consuming and Robonaut could provide a speedy alternative in the event of an emergency.
The last, but certainly not least, bit of Discovery’s final payload is the SpaceX DragonEye sensor. This isn’t the first time that NASA has flown something for SpaceX, having taken the same sensor up on board STS-127 and STS-129, but it is likely to be the last time the sensor is flown before a real Dragon capsule attempts to use it to dock with the space station. The DragonEye sensor is an incredibly sophisticated bit of kit. It provides a 3D image based on LIDAR readings and can determine range and bearing information. The whole system went from concept to implementation in just on 10 months, showing the skill that the SpaceX guys have went it comes to getting things done.
To be honest I was going to put off doing this post for a couple days just because I didn’t want to think about STS-133 anymore than I needed to. But the second I saw that the NASA TV steam was up I couldn’t help but be glued to it for the entire time it was up. Sure I might not be there to see it in person but I’ve finally remembered why I became so enamored with space in the first place: it’s just so damned exciting and inspiring. I may have had my heart broken in the past but when a simple video stream of something I’ve seen dozens of times in the past can erase all that hurt I know that I’m a space nut at heart and I’ll keep coming back to it no matter what.