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.
There’s both a joy and a sadness that accompanies every shuttle launch. I still get a little thrill every time I wake up in the morning to the Australian news showing pictures and video of our iconic spacecraft’s trips into space but from this flight on I know that each of the launches will be the last for that shuttle in question. That leaves me with a bittersweet feeling, knowing that we’re less than 6 months away from never seeing them launch again, but the promise of a new breed of space pioneers never fails to make my spirits soar once again.
I’m a bit late to the party on this particular shuttle launch thanks mostly to a too-good-to-resist story I had to cover last Friday but also partly because I’m a lazy bastard when it comes to blogging on weekends ;). STS-132 launched at 4am Saturday our time, signalling the final time we would see space shuttle Atlantis lifting off from Cape Carnaveral and the 3rd last shuttle flight of all time.
As usual the space world is all a flutter with Atlantis’ last mission and rightly so. Whilst this isn’t the most spectacular mission by any stretch of the imagination it does show that NASA is planning for an upcoming lull in their ability to get people and cargo up to the International Space Station. Whilst the ATV and HTV both have flights planned towards the end of this year/early next year (fun fact: the ATV is human rated, I’ll have to do another post on that some other time) I haven’t yet heard anything further about them. It is then up to NASA to ensure that their parts of the ISS are equipped for the duration where the US won’t have the kind of access their used to, and STS-132 is just one such mission.
Probably the biggest part of this mission will be the delivery of Rassvet or the Mini Research Module 1 (MRM1). As the name would imply this is actually a module of Russian construction which would make you wonder why it’s being berthed aboard the space shuttle. This is especially strange considering that the Russian Proton rockets are considered amongst the most successful heavy lift launches in the world, having been in use for 45 years and have launched all of the previous Russian components of the ISS. Turns out the US is under contract to deliver the MRM1 and if I had to hazard a guess as to why it’s probably because the total weight of the craft is about 8 tons which, if launched on a Proton, would be a waste since they’re capable of delivering a whopping 20 tons into LEO. With many shuttles launching without their payload bays full (mostly because of the risks involved, see the launch pad damage caused by the heaviest payload ever, Kibo) it makes sense to have them deliver it.
The MRM1 is part science vessel and part docking port, as with the installation of the Tranquility module this left the ISS with only 3 docking ports. This poses a problem as the Soyuz, Progress (cargo version of Soyuz) and ATV missions overlap in their time frames. Couple that with the fact that at least 2 Soyuz craft need to be docked to serve as lifeboats back to earth (thanks to the expanded crew of 6) that would leave only 1 docking port available for any visiting resupply crafts. The MRM1 solves this problem by providing another docking port, making up for the one it uses. In fact you might remember a post from long ago about a very similar craft called Poisk. As it turns out these are both MRMs and their purpose is identical, a bit of extra space and another parking spot.
As I alluded to earlier the other half of this mission is dedicated to gearing up the ISS for the launch gap that the US is about to find themselves in. As such they’ve flown the Integrated Cargo Carrier-Vertical Light Deployable (ICC-VLD) which is basically a large cargo pallet. The payload on the ICC-VLD is mostly replacement parts and all 3 of the spacewalks planned are dedicated to getting them installed on the ISS. Additionally some of the parts that were removed will be reloaded back onto the ICC-VLD for return back to earth.
There’s also a lot of memorabilia that’s being flown on STS-132. The first is a CD that contains digital copies of all entries to NASA’s Commemorative Patch Contest, which was held to honor the end of the space shuttle era. STS-132 also flies a collection of 17 hand crafted beads from the Beads of Courage organisation, who strive to bring hope to children suffering from serious illnesses. Additionally Atlantis carries with it a piece of the the apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton to formulate his theory of gravity, as well as a flag of Clarkson university of which the lead shuttle flight direction Michale Sarafin, is an alumnus of. Each of these objects represents something greater than their physical manifestations and I know those involved understand what an honor it is to have them flown on the last flight of Atlantis.
The entire mission has that air to it that signals the end of an era for human space flight and with anything ending it brings with it a touch of sadness. However we know that the human spirit will not stand idly by and the end of one era signals in the beginning of the next. So whilst we might be in the twilight year of the shuttle we can all look forward to the future which is staggeringly bring with the hope of the private space industry and NASA’s return to pushing the limits of the final frontier.