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.
The twilight years of any space program are usually filled with extremely interesting times. For the most part you’re either gearing up for the next biggest thing or getting ready to plunge your craft back down to earth in a spectacular fireworks show. STS-129, which launched at around 6:30am AEST, is the former as it brings with it a truckload of spare parts, many experiments and something that has got me all flustered about the future of the International Space Station. There’s the usual media coverage as well as a NASA tweetup giving blow by blow accounts of mission as it goes ahead. Of course there’s a lovely 10 minute video of the launch and trip into orbit.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfMbPOZMaAs
The first part of the payload is 2 ExPRESS Logistics Carriers which combined weigh a total of around 13 tons. These are primarily filled with spares and other equipment necessary to ensure that the station can function properly. As the shuttle is one of only 2 craft (the other being the Japanese HTV as I mentioned previously) that can bring up large sized cargo it makes sense that they’ve crammed 2 of these things into its payload bay. They’ll spend most of their life attached to the main truss segments, only being accessed when the parts are needed. They are in essence, giant supply crates.
Another payload they are bringing up is a Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) carrier which is an experiment designed to see how certain materials and coatings hold up in space. They’ve flown a few of these before with the ones being sent up now having the designation of MISSE 7A and 7B respectively. Back before the days of the International Space Station they did similar experiments to these on a much larger scale. The Long Duration Exposure Facility was a school bus sized version of MISSE that flew on STS-32. It was initially envisioned as a one year project being repeated multiple times but due to budget constraints and the tragic Challenger disaster its retrieval was postponed indefinitely. It was eventually retrieved however after almost 6 years in orbit after STS-41C launched a communications satellite for the navy. The launch of this expriment made for quite an impressive picture to:
There’s a couple other minor things flying as well, like a S-band Antenna Sub-Assembly which is being flown up as a spare. The mission’s experiments consist of a microbe experiment (to see how they grow in microgravity), some butterfly larvae which will hatch on the station and be studied alongside their cousins which have been raised by school kids from over 100 schools across the US and finally a plant experiment to see how microgravity affects their growth. Pretty standard stuff, but that’s not what’s got me so excited.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) UHF communication unit is being flown up with STS-129. For those of you in the know the COTS program is a NASA initiative focused on encouraging private industry to develop launch capabilities that NASA can then purchase from them. This particular piece of equipment is developed by none other than my space crush company SpaceX, and will facilitate communication between the ISS and the future manned space capsule called Dragon. It’s a tantalizingly real step towards a fully private institution providing transportation to the ISS, something which has never been done before. It also shows that all of SpaceX’s work is very real and they’re extremely serious about making sure that once the shuttle retires that NASA will have a local alternative to get their astronauts up into space. Back a few years ago it was hard to judge whether or not SpaceX would be able to provide such capability to NASA. Today it is a guarantee.
So whilst this isn’t the most sexy mission (that still belongs to the Hubble servicing mission that just oozed cool) it is definitely a big step forward for the future of space. The ISS is being geared up for the shuttle’s retirement by stocking it up with all the goods it will need for a long time whilst SpaceX continues to push the envelope in terms of its capability. Next year’s test launch of the Falcon-9 rocket really can’t come soon enough and I know it won’t be long before the Dragon meets the ISS.
Blog fodder doesn’t get much better than this 😉