16 hours ago space Shuttle Endeavour lifted off on its mission STS-130. The image above was captured barely a minute after take off as Endeavour passed through the thin clouds that remained after the previous launch attempt was scrubbed yesterday. This gave rise to the picture you see above and it is truly breathtaking. As with all recent Shuttle missions the event was also heavily televised as seen below (skip to 10:48 for the good bit):
Watching this video I can’t help but feel awe at the shear magnitude of power being unleashed by our triumph of science. For what seems like an eternity Endeavour shines brighter than any light and then turns into a bright star before slowly fading from our view. There’s a kind of magestic beauty seeing something so large and powerful moving so gracefully as to almost qualify itself as art. If I hadn’t planned already to see the very last of the Shuttle launches ever this one would’ve been next on my list, as for a thing of beauty nothing can quite match a night launch in my books.
In the midst of all this awe and wonder there’s still a lot of good old fashioned space work behind this launch. STS-130 brings to a close the last of the major construction work (more on that in a minute) that will be done on the International Space Station. The Tranquility module contains the most advanced life support equipment to date with facilities to recycle waste water, generate air for the astronauts to breathe as well as removing any contanimates that might taint the environment. Whilst not as spacious as the Japanese Kibo module its no small fry and will primarily be used for storage, exercise and accessing the Cupola. The main function of the Cupola will be to facilitate robotics work that will be done on the ISS using the various arms they have installed there. Additionally it also contains the largest window ever flown into space and it will be installed facing Earth. Although its not the main reason for its existance you can bet that the astronauts on board will be chomping at the bit to get some view time through that portal. I know I would.
If you watched the video above you may have noticed a little information widget on the left hand side detailing some interesting information about the Shuttle during its launch. One of them which may look a little odd (especially if you’ve got an engineering bent) is the SSME Thrust percentage which hovers above 100% for the majority of lift off. Now this might seem strange since no system is capable at operating above 100% but there’s a good reason for this. The Space Shuttle Main Engine was initially designed with a certain amount of thrust in mind and was tested successfully to that specification. However further testing showed that the engine was quite capable of running safely beyond its design, all the way up to 109% of the required thrust. This has then become the norm for all launches with the higher power levels saved for contingency operations should they be required. It really shows how talented the NASA engineers are.
There’s still a day and half to go before they actually meet up with the ISS and the majority of that time will be spent getting the Shuttle ready to dock and ensuring that the Shuttle hasn’t suffered any damage on the way up. After that they’ll do their signature backflip and take their mission into full swing. There’s a busy 2 weeks ahead for all these astronauts.
STS-130’s launch was one of beauty and its fitting that it will bring to the ISS a portal with which the astronauts can look back at us as we look up at them. Whilst I feel a twinge of sadness knowing that there are only 4 more launches left before the magestic shuttle never flies again I can also take heart in the fact that soon a new era of space will be heralded in by a new vision for NASA. Times like these remind me how far we’ve come, and how bright our future is.
There are few things more spectacular than a shuttle launch. With 3 engines the size of school buses putting out the equivalent power of almost 40 hoover dams lifting the 60 ton iconic craft aloft into orbit around our beautiful blue marble. There are few things that come close to demonstrating our capability as a human race such as these. One thing however is more beautiful than your regular run-of-the-mill shuttle launch, and that’s a shuttle launch that happens at night, giving rise to beautiful images such as this:
It’s not to say that such missions are rare, far from it. Just less than a third of all Shuttle launches have been at night throughout the course of it’s lifetime, but that doesn’t make them any less special. With the countdown of the final 5 launches underway the next one scheduled marks the last ever night launch of the craft, something that is surely to be missed:
WASHINGTON – Six NASA astronauts are ready to rocket into space on the shuttle Endeavour in just over a week as questions swirl over the impact of the space agency’s upcoming budget request.
Endeavour commander George Zamka said Friday that he and his crew are completely focused on the planned Feb. 7 launch to the International Space Station. Their mission: to deliver a new room to the $100 billion orbiting lab that will leave it nearly complete.
The shuttle is scheduled to blast off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., before dawn on Feb. 7 at 4:39 a.m. EST (0939 GMT), making it the last planned night launch of Endeavour or any other orbiter. The launch will come six days after NASA rolls out its new spending goals for the next fiscal year – a plan that may depart substantially from the agency’s earlier human spaceflight goals.
STS-130 is set to be a spectacular mission in its own right with it taking up some of the last bits of the American section of the International Space Station. This includes the Tranquility module which contains highly advanced life support systems and much need space for storage, exercise equipment and so on as well as the Cupola which is in essence a giant window that will be used for operating the robotic elements of the ISS as well as observations. It will also be the final home for the C.O.L.B.E.R.T, something I’m sure Colbert will be quite happy about.
A night launch really couldn’t come at a better time for NASA. Right now with the turmoil that’s surrounding its manned programs it will serve them well to show off some iconic imagery with a night launch. With so much attention on NASA at the moment showing off the raw power and beauty of a Shuttle launch can only help to bolster their cause. The launches haven’t had more than a passing glance in most of the mainstream media (although I have been surprised by the morning news in Australia, covering the last 5 or so in detail) but with added political controversy we might see some actual movement on this.
It will definitely keep the debate going on NASA’s spending and the future programs it has been chasing. Whilst I lamented in the past how pointless the Ares I-X was I failed to mention how in awe I was of the program’s end game of Ares V which, on paper, appears to be an extremely capable rocket. There’s been some speculation of dropping the Ares I in favour of pushing forward development of Ares V, which has it merits. The slack could then be picked up by say SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is scheduled for its first test flight later this year. I doubt anyone else is going to work on something as enormous as the Ares V as a commercial endeavour as there’s really little need to build 188 ton satellites. Still this comes back to the point that NASA should be pushing the science and not the building of new launching platforms, but there’s really little need for a heavy lifter from a commercial perspective.
NASA’s future is all up in the air now and with that comes heavy speculation. There’s been so many “leaked” reports on almost every aspect of NASA that I’ve fallen to information overload and decided to wait until some verified reports come out. I’m hoping Obama and the American congress don’t get too short sighted on this matter but doing what is right by NASA (funnelling a couple extra billion their way) is hard to justify politically at this point. Sure there’s quite a lot of data to say that NASA and the space industry are creating a lot of jobs, but your average American voter doesn’t seem much to care for that (since they’re not really jobs for your average American).
So in just under a week from now we’ll bear witness to the last time a Shuttle will light up our night skies. I highly recommend catching one of the live feeds with the amazing NASA commentary if you can but rest assured, if you miss the live event I’ll be posting the highlights up here.