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.
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.