The time has finally arrived, 30 years after the space shuttle Columbia blasted off into space her sister ship Atlantis roared into orbit just 2 days ago. It is estimated that near 1 million people flocked to the areas surrounding the Kennedy Space Center to watch the final ever launch with millions more tuning in from around the world to witness it online. I have to be honest and say that I missed the live event myself, blame goes to the sources that cited a 70% chance for no-go weather on the day, but I quickly caught up with the events spending hours pouring over the details of the last ever space shuttle mission over my morning coffee the day after.
STS-135 is a very unique mission in many ways. It began as STS-335 a Launch on Need mission designed to be launched if STS-134 had any problems on orbit and was unable to return to earth safely. For such missions a fully stacked orbiter has to be ready to launch within a very short time frame, usually on the order of a couple months. This means the usual shuttle preparations have to already be done in order to launch that quickly and with the shuttle program retiring that meant there would be one fully loaded orbiter that would essentially go to waste. Last year saw the proposal to turn STS-335 into STS-135 approved although without any specific funding for the additional mission. NASA announced in February that the mission would go ahead with funding approval or not, setting the stage for STS-135 to be the last shuttle mission in history.
The final mission of the space shuttle also shares the record of taking up the smallest crew with one of Challenger’s early missions STS-6, bringing only 4 astronauts into space. The reason for this is simple, since there are no other shuttles available to act as rescue boats should Atlantis not be able to return from orbit those stranded astronauts will have to come back down in the regular Soyuz missions. Whilst the International Space Station is quite capable of handling the extra load for a while it will still take almost a year just to ferry those 4 astronauts back down and many of the ISS contingency plans are based around having no more than 6 astronauts on the station at any one time (without additional craft docked). STS-135 then only brings the bare minimum crew required to complete the mission and all signs are pointing to them being able to return safely so far.
The payload of this mission is focused solely on keeping the ISS functioning for the rest of its intended lifetime, another 9 years or so. Atlantis carries in its payload bay one multi-purpose logistics module (named Raffaello) load with 16 resupply racks, the maximum it can carry, with an additional lightweight multi-purpose carrier that will be used to return some failed components back to earth for analysis. The failed components in question are a pump module for the external thermal cooling system and a ammonia pump module, both of which have already been replaced in orbit. STS-135 also carriers with an additional piece of equipment for the ISS, a proof of concept device for on-orbit refueling of satellites. For the demonstration it will be attached to the Dextre robot and should it prove successful the technology could make its way into the commercial sector. There will also be 2 iPhone 4s and 2 Nexus S’s carried up to be used with the ISS’s SPHEREs, basically small satellites that reside inside the space station.
It’s a historic time as this mission marks the beginning of the end to a 30 year endeavor that NASA has undertaken. It might not be the most glamorous end to the program, being basically a supply mission to keep the ISS going, but it’s an important one none the less ensuring that the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the availability of other craft doesn’t impact on NASA’s goals in space. For youngsters like me it marks the end of the iconic craft that we grew up with and I know its going to be a long time before another one will be able to take its place. For that simple fact the shuttle will always have a special place in my heart, just like I know it does in so many others.
Late last night space shuttle Atlantis streaked across the night sky in a brilliant blaze of firey glory on its way back down to earth. After writing about the mission just over a week ago I’d been dreading this moment for quite some time as it meant that it would be the first shuttle to enter official retirement. Still we can’t dwell on the negatives for too long as space shuttle Atlantis has served humanity well running 32 missions, travelling over 180 million kilometers and spending a total of 282 days in space. So what else is there to say about the first of our iconic spacecraft to hit retirement? Well there is the fact that it might not be its last flight at all.
Readers of this blog will more than likely remember me detailing some of the standard operating procedures of a shuttle flight. One of those is that should the shuttle sustain enough damage to make returning to earth too risky they must have somewhere to stay whilst a rescue mission is planned. Traditionally they can take refuge as the ISS as it is more than capable of handling the extra load for a month or so whilst they roll out another shuttle. Now this doesn’t mean that NASA can just whip up an entire shuttle mission within a month, far from it. In fact all rescue missions are planned well in advance with many of the critical components ready to go, including things like the external fuel tank and SRBs. For our soon to be retired friend Atlantis this means that whilst it’s completed its final official mission, its job is far from over.
STS-134 is the last planned flight for any space shuttle and that means should Endeavour not be able to return to earth the astronauts will be trapped at the ISS. Whilst we could ferry them down in Soyuz craft it would take an extremely long time and would tax the resources of both Russia and the USA considerably. As such they’ve designated a special Launch on Need (LON) mission called STS-335 that will be launched to rescue them should Endeavour be stranded in space. This mission has Atlantis as the designated craft for the mission and this has lead to an interesting proposition:
“We need to go through the normal de-servicing steps, obviously, after the orbiter comes home…We have to prepare Atlantis and the stack as if we’re going to fly again because it is (launch-on-need) mission,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.
“We’ll be processing her as if it’s a real flight to begin with. Somewhere along the line we expect to hear whether we’re going to launch or not, and at that point in time either press on or stop that processing. But in order to support that, obviously, we have press on when she gets home.”
But with long odds that a rescue would really be required, there’s a notion to fly Atlantis crewed by just four astronauts on a regular mission and a large logistics module to service the International Space Station with supplies and more science equipment.
Designing such a mission, getting the cargo pulled together and training a crew would take many months, so the clock is ticking for a “go” or “no go” decision.
In essence we’d have a shuttle that was fully flight ready, all it would be missing is a payload. The crew would intentionally be kept small in order to ensure that in the event of an emergency they could all return aboard the attached Soyuz craft, which would also limit what kind of payload you could send up there. Still having a shuttle tricked out and ready to fly is not something you’ll have the opportunity to do again and this is what has got tongues wagging about whether or not NASA should in fact fly Atlantis one last time.
There’s no denying that any flight into space has an enormous amount of value. Whilst every precaution is taken to ensure that the ISS has everything it needs there’s no harm in bringing up extras for it. Even with the reduced crew there’s still the opportunity to fly up some additional hardware like some of cancelled ISS modules (a few of which were partially built). Still if such a mission were to go it would more than likely be a strict logistics mission as anything else would require extensive amounts of planning, something that I’m not quite sure congress would be willing to approve (flying Atlantis just for logistics would be costly enough).
So whilst the great Atlantis might have been the first to return to earth on its final official flight there’s still a chance that we’ll see this bird fly once again. I might lament the fact if it does ever fly (making my trip to the US to see the last shuttle flight moot) it would still make my heart soar to see it lifting into the sky one more time. Such is the awesome beauty that is the space shuttle.
This morning, at 4:01am Australian Eastern Standard time the Shuttle Mission STS-125 blasted off on what is to be the last visit a human will ever make to the space telescope, Hubble. I’ll admit watching the lift off today left me a little teary eyed, as have many launches before. There’s one person though who I’m sure will be far more eager to see Hubble again then anyone else, astronaut Mike Massimino:
“I do actually get a chance to touch the Hubble and I can hug it when I get up there,” Massimino told SPACE.com in a phone interview. “Yeah, the Hubble is great.”
Massimino and the other members of the shuttle Atlantis’s STS-125 crew, led by commander Scott Altman, are due to lift off May 12. The astronauts plan an 11-day mission packed with five spacewalks to repair hardware and install equipment such as a new camera, gyroscopes and batteries. The upgrades should extend the observatory’s lifespan through at least 2013.
For Massimino, revisiting the telescope will be a trip down memory lane.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing Hubble again,” he said. “I saw it seven years ago. I think it’s going to be really cool and I think it’s going to bring back a lot of memories, and remind me of emotions I had during the last flight that I forgot about or haven’t thought about in a long time.”
Reading this article last month really brought this mission home for me. Just imagining going up there once and seeing this impressive telescope back dropped by our beautiful blue marble of a planet would be enough for anyone. Going up a second time would be like going home to visit your old friends, something sure to stir the emotions and tug at the heart strings. Truly the astronauts on this mission are some of the most fortunate people, and I wish them as safe journey.
Hubble is about to receive 7 astronauts who will perform an intensive 11 day mission. This mission includes 5 intensive 6.5 hour back to back space walks as well as the routine of ensuring that the shuttle is capable of landing back on earth without incident. This is a routine procedure since the Columbia disaster back in 2003 and is the cause for one of the most amazing plans that NASA has put into place.
Current NASA policy dictates that should the shuttle suffer significant damage before it returns to earth, either by debris or otherwise, it must have a safe haven that it can go to whilst a rescue mission is prepared using another shuttle. Since the typical Shuttle mission is to the International Space Station this usually isn’t a problem, as the station can cater with the extended load for a moderate amount of time. Worst comes to worst they can always shuffle 3 of them off in the Soyuz life boat in order to reduce the load. Due to the high orbit required to get to Hubble (559KM above earth, the ISS is only 347KM) and the different orbital inclination (28.5 to 51.6 degrees) the energy required to perform such a manoeuvre, called a plane or orbtial inclination change, is extremely prohibitive. Therefore, they have a backup plan unlike anywhere else:
Should Atlantis not be able to safely return to earth Endeavour will be launched in order to rescue them. The mission itself is no small feat either, with a tricky set of manevours planned in order to get all the astronauts across safely. Whilst I don’t wish any harm on the astronauts I’d love to see this plan put into action, as it would be a testament to NASA’s prowess when it comes to operating in space.
Whilst this mission doesn’t have as much of a human element as trips to the ISS do it does hit close to home. Once this mission is over the astronauts up there will be the last to see Hubble in the flesh and I’m sure the departure will be a bitter-sweet moment for them, as it will for the rest of us.
Launch photo credit: NASA/Fletcher Hildreth, May 11, 2009
Twin shuttle photo credit: Robert Pearlman/collectSPACE.com