It was almost 4 months ago that I woke up in Orlando Florida, eagerly awaiting my trip to the fabled Kennedy Space Center and a day to be filled with all manner of space related fun. It was that same day that I had a dream torn from me, leaving my heart broken and me wanting to get as far away from that place as possible. Reading over the post today brought the whole day flooding back, along with the emotions that came with it. Still despite the pain of a dream not realized I couldn’t pull myself away from Twitter and the NASA TV stream, eagerly devouring each and every little detail of Discovery’s final launch into outer space.
And less than 30 minutes ago STS-133 launched from the Kennedy Space Center launch complex 39A.
Discovery’s final flight has been marred by a multitude of technical problems. The first 2 initial scrubs where due to leaks in the Orbital Maneuvering System which is used to control the space shuttle whilst its in orbit. The system consists of two pods at the rear of the orbiter that have a low thrust engine that uses hypergolic propellant and a leak in these would mean the shuttle would be unable to dock with the International Space Station. The leak was thought to be fixed and the launch was good to go on that faithful day, but Discovery wasn’t going without a fight.
The next launch window was scrubbed due to a problem with the backup main engine controller. Initial diagnostics showed that there was some transient contamination and that a reboot brought everything back into line. However after troubleshooting further, finding nothing wrong again, they did notice an unexpected voltage drop was observed. This lead them to delay the launch for 24 hours in order to find the issue. The next day was delayed due to weather and since I was there on the day I could see why they did. The final day for this launch window saw a hydrogen leak from the main tank that was outside acceptable mission limits, and the mission was scrubbed until today.
The external tank on Discovery had multiple issues. The first was the connector used to vent off excess hydrogen during fueling which was what caused the final delay before Discovery’s final launch. During the investigation into why there was such a substantial leak cracks were discovered in some of the external tanks insulation and upon further inspection it was found that many parts of the external tank had cracks through them. The construction of these particular parts of the external tank was different that from what was used previously and NASA has stated that this contributed to the cracking found in the external tank. Extensive repairs were carried out on the tank and it was only declared flight ready earlier this year. This meant that the turnaround time for Discovery was the longest of any shuttle bar STS-35 at 170 days.
What’s so special about STS-133 however is the sheer amount of payload it will be delivering to the ISS. The first will be the Permanent Multipurpose Module which is a modified version of one of the Multi-Purpose Logistics modules that have flown in many previous shuttle missions. Not only will this deliver almost 8 tons worth of cargo to the space station it will also add a significant amount of livable space to the ISS, rivaling that of the Kibo module. Many future crew missions are dedicated to configuring the PMM and it’s sure to prove valuable to the ISS.
Another interesting bit of cargo that’s making its way to the ISS is Robonaut2, the first humanoid robot ever to visit the station. The idea behind it is that a humanoid robot could be capable of performing many tasks that an astronaut does such as space station maintenance. Initially it will be housed inside the ISS and will undergo strict testing to see how it copes in the harsh environment of space. After a while its capabilities could be expanded and it might not be long before you see Robonaut working along side astronauts on EVAs. This could be quite a boon for the astronauts on the ISS as planning repairs can be quite time consuming and Robonaut could provide a speedy alternative in the event of an emergency.
The last, but certainly not least, bit of Discovery’s final payload is the SpaceX DragonEye sensor. This isn’t the first time that NASA has flown something for SpaceX, having taken the same sensor up on board STS-127 and STS-129, but it is likely to be the last time the sensor is flown before a real Dragon capsule attempts to use it to dock with the space station. The DragonEye sensor is an incredibly sophisticated bit of kit. It provides a 3D image based on LIDAR readings and can determine range and bearing information. The whole system went from concept to implementation in just on 10 months, showing the skill that the SpaceX guys have went it comes to getting things done.
To be honest I was going to put off doing this post for a couple days just because I didn’t want to think about STS-133 anymore than I needed to. But the second I saw that the NASA TV steam was up I couldn’t help but be glued to it for the entire time it was up. Sure I might not be there to see it in person but I’ve finally remembered why I became so enamored with space in the first place: it’s just so damned exciting and inspiring. I may have had my heart broken in the past but when a simple video stream of something I’ve seen dozens of times in the past can erase all that hurt I know that I’m a space nut at heart and I’ll keep coming back to it no matter what.
Forewarning: This will probably be a rather sad/emo/ranty post so if you want to save yourself 5 minutes reading it, I won’t judge you. But for those who want to hear my thoughts, I thank you.
I rolled over a looked at my alarm clock, it stared back at me with it’s dim orange display reading 7:30 indicating I had woken up 30 minutes before the alarm was set to go off. I was pretty awake already by the time I had rolled over but I continued to lay there with my eyes closed enjoying the first night where the temperature in my room was just right. I had packaged up everything the night before so I could make a swift get away in the morning, ensuring that nothing would be left to chance on this fateful day. Today I was to see a space shuttle launch its mighty self into the darkness of space and realise a dream that I had only had for a couple years.
The ground was drenched everywhere with the near constant drizzle that had been coming down since the day before. I was hopeful though since the sky was mostly clear with only a hint of clouds on the horizon. If the launch was going to be cancelled by weather it would have to be a rather sudden occurrence and in my research the night before the KSC Visitor Complex had still stated that the launch was still on for today, bolstering my hopes that everything would be ok. I set about driving out there with the instructions I had taken down off my computer before I left, the excitement started to build with every mile that I got closer to the KSC.
Something didn’t feel right however. In the documentation I had with me from NASA they stated that the entire island would be closed off to anyone who didn’t have a vehicle placard but there were many people right behind me who weren’t displaying theirs. In fact none of them were but I wrote it off, thinking that the blockades would come somewhere further down the line. Then I saw it, the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Complex with mock ups of all of the kinds of rockets that NASA used for its manned exploration missions. The site was impressive but those uneasy feelings just weren’t going away, I still hadn’t seen any form of a blockade. Then it hit me.
A sign read “Discovery is scheduled to launch Thursday, November 4 3:52PM”.
At first I simply ignored it, thinking that they had just gotten the date wrong. To prove to myself that I wasn’t seeing things I drove past it again, the same fateful message scrolling across the red LED screen. Suddenly I felt an ache spreading across my entire upper body, a pain that came from no where and took away my ability to focus on anything else. I drove back into the parking lot and idly looked at the launch pack I had received from NASA all those months ago. Throwing it aside I drove out of there not wanting to be near the place that had done me any wrong. I drove just up the road and turned around again, going back for no particular reason. After wallowing in this state for a while I resolved myself to finding out why this happened and promptly headed for Cocoa Beach.
I came across a McDonalds long before I hit my destination so I pulled in and hit up their free wifi. The articles I found on the various sites confirmed that it had been delayed due various minor reasons, but enough to have them push the flight back a day. It was no comfort but by this time I had resolved myself to at least see the visitor centre, salvaging what I could from these dim prospects. I headed back over there and put on my best game face, hiding the torment I was feeling from having so many months of planning and time away from my beloved wife to all be for nothing. I got right up to the ticket booth when I froze, I just couldn’t go in there. I was meant to be visiting this place as something special, a part of a larger experience of immersing myself in the reality that is pinnacle of human spaceflight. With that taken away from me all I saw was a tourist trap, a place that would bilk money away from people giving them little in return. I couldn’t stand being near all those people there either, I had to get away.
I found solitude in another McDonald’s back in Orlando. I sat there for a while eating my lunch, drinking the iced tea and trying to console myself with my social networks. It didn’t work, all I could think about was the experience that had been taken from me, the almost 2 weeks I spent by myself here in Florida with only a tenuous connection to those who I really wanted to share it with. Driving around for a while I eventually found a shady place where I could sit down to read and I did so for the next 4 hours, until I was able to check into my hotel for the night.
It took me a while to come to terms with the emotions I was feeling, having not been like this for the better part of a decade. You see for most of my teenage life I was depressed, although I didn’t really figure it was a problem since, as far as I knew, that’s how I always felt. Today being ripped from the heights of elation to those dark depths shocked me in ways I didn’t think were possible anymore. I had thought myself above these emotions, completely able to control myself in any situation that was thrown at me. This proved however that I am in no way capable of that, especially when ramming my rental car into the raised draw bridge seemed like a good idea, in some messed up way that I told myself was logical.
Whilst writing this post has brought some of those emotions back to the surface I simply had to write it. Sure I could’ve made a footnote in an otherwise regular post that I was somewhat disappointed with what happened and glossed over the whole emotional roller-coaster, but that’s not what happened. Today was all about having a dream ripped from you by no means you could have controlled. I weighed up the possibility of ringing my travel agent, rebooking all the shit and trying for just one more day but unfortunately the damage was done. My hail mary was done a couple days ago when I was certain that it would only be delayed one more day. To attempt to reschedule again without the certainty of the launch happening opens myself up to a world of hurt that I’m not quite ready to deal with just yet. It’s the reverse of the beaten wife’s syndrome, I’ve been hit once and I don’t have any inclination to stick around to see if he comes good or if he will just hit me again.
Tomorrow I’ll leave this forsaken place behind me and hopefully I can soon forget this black mark on what had otherwise been a good holiday thus far. I have no idea what’s in store for me in Canada but it wouldn’t have to be much to beat the shit of a day I’ve lived through. For those of you that read this far just let me say thank you once again. You’re the people I enjoy writing to since you’re more than just a pageview, you actually care about what I have to say.