The time is fast approaching when one of the most iconic spacecraft in history will no longer be soaring off into the blackness of space. Long time readers of this blog will know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me emotionally and every bit of shuttle news always feels bittersweet as I know we’re not far away from never seeing these birds flying again. Still NASA has been working incredibly hard to make sure that not only do the shuttles continue to perform as expected they’ve also managed to jam a heck of a lot of cargo into what was supposed to be the final flight of the shuttle but that honor is now reserved for STS-135. That doesn’t detract from this last mission at all, however.
STS-134 is the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and it launched late last night at around midnight AEST. I managed to catch some of the action as it was happening on Twitter having forgotten that the flight had been scheduled for Monday after experiencing several delays thanks to trajectory conflicts (in essence traffic problems in space) and problems with the APU heaters which form part of the shuttles hydraulics. The launch went without a hitch however and the shuttle lifted off in its usual spectacular glory.
Amongst the giant payload list that’s currently in orbit with the space shuttle Endeavour is the main reason why this mission is being flown, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. About 13 years ago a prototype AMS was sent up with STS-91 to test a wide array of particle physics experiments like dark matter, anti-matter and cosmic rays. It also happened to be flying on the last ever shuttle mission to the Mir space station. It’s sucessor, the AMS-2, faced the axe thanks to a lack of shuttle flights in the wake of the Columbia disaster. This and the cancellation of a lot of other International Space Station components lead to quite a controversy over whether the ISS was worth the expense and eventually the AMS-2 was reinstated and is currently en-route to the ISS now.
Apart from the usual affair of spare and replacement parts for the ISS STS-134 also carriers with it parts for upgrading the docking mechanisms for the upcoming Orion space capsule. They’re not just installing it either, part of the mission objectives is to also test the new docking hardware to make sure it functions as expected. This means that the STS-134 crew will be performing a series of maneuvers including docking, undocking, fly around and a full separation. It’s quite a bit of flying around for the shuttle which usually just sits docked to the side of the ISS for the entire time and I’m sure there will be some amazing footage of its on-orbit aerobatics when the tests are completed.
Endeavour will also be leaving behind part of itself, namely the Orbital Boom Sensor System. It’s become a standard piece of equipment on every flight since the Columbia disaster and is used to inspect the shuttle whilst in orbit to look for signs of damage to the space craft. It has also been used once to aid in a repair operation back in STS-120 and proved an invaluable aid in that task. It was such a help during that operation that NASA decided that one of the arms should have a permanent home on the ISS and Endeavour’s was chosen.
There are also numerous smaller payloads that make up the rest of Endeavour’s manifest. It is carrying 4 payloads for the Department of Defence, all of which require some use of the boosters whilst in orbit. Endeavour will also be bringing up another materials experiment, MISSE 8, and will be returning the previous one back down to earth for analysis. A new Glacier unit, basically a freezer for science experiments on the ISS, is being brought up and the old one returned as well. Finally Endeavour will carry with it some Lego kits with it as part of an educational program as well as some specialized nutrition bars created by a pair of high school sisters to encourage students to get into the fields of science, technology, education and math.
The final mission of Endeavour is set to be an exciting time for all of those involved and the massive payload it is going to deliver will make sure of that. Whilst it may have been stripped of the title of the final shuttle flight ever it will still be remembered for a long time to come, especially since it will leave behind a critical piece of itself once it departs. It does hit me with a twinge of sadness however as I now know there’s only one more flight to go and then the world will be without this iconic craft soaring high above its atmosphere. Still they have given us so much that I can’t help but also feel a sense of pride which makes my heart soar like nothing else.
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