November Sky

24 November 2008

Last Thursday, Mike and I saw the International Space Station/ Space Shuttle complex pass overhead. Earlier that day I checked NASA’s Human Spaceflight Realtime Data website to find out the next International Space Station sighting opportunity. As luck would have it the International Space Station and Space Shuttle were to pass directly overhead that evening. The crew of STS- 126 lauched a few days before aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The crew of Endeavour joined the Expedition 18 crew aboard the International Space Station. The crews of Endeavour and the International Space Station plan to carry out important repair work and prepare the station to house six crew members for long-duration missions in Earth orbit.

ISS, 16 November 2008

After confirming that the complex would indeed pass overhead on NASA TV and the Realtime Data website, Mike and I ventured outside and found a location with good visibility. We used a compass to determine the path the complex would take as it flew overhead. Fortunately it was a crisp, cool autumn evening so the sky was crystal clear. At 6:13pm, right on cue, the complex appeared in the sky. As the complex approached from the southwest, there was no question what it was. Reaching a maximum elevation of 88 degrees, the Station/ Shuttle complex was the brightest and fastest moving object in the sky. We were able to track the complex for about four minutes before it disappeared below the northeastern horizon.

Watching the Station/ Shuttle complex pass overhead at 17,500 miles per hour was a fascinating sight and one which I will not soon forget. As I peered through my binoculars at that bright light in the sky, I felt like a kid in a candy store window. I could not take my eyes off it as it flew overhead. I hope more people will take advantage of the opportunity to see the International Space Station fly overhead, attend a Space Shuttle launch, watch a lunar eclipse or take part in any of the numerous technological and scientific wonders that occur around us all the time.

Digital Apollo

3 November 2008

Last summer I received a book for my birthday entitled, Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight by Dr. David A. Mindell. As an engineer and historian, Dr. Mindell superbly articulates the human-machine relationship in spaceflight. Beginning with the first human forays off the ground in primitive flying contraptions and culminating in one of humankind’s greatest achievements, the Apollo expeditions to the Moon, Dr. Mindell details the complex relationship humans have with machinery. The book primarily focuses on the machine which human’s relied upon in order to journey to and from the Moon: the Apollo Guidance Computer.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Digital Apollo. It was a book I honestly had trouble putting down. Because it was published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and written by an MIT professor, I was concerned the book would be overly technical and read like a dry college textbook. I could not have been more wrong. Dr. Mindell’s book gives the reader an excellent balance of technical information and anecdotal stories that make the book both informative and entertaining. I also found the book to be a refreshing change from the standard high-flying, dare-devil Astronaut story we have become accustomed to. Dr. Mindell strips away the glory tales and the exaggerated yarns often dispensed by Astronauts (and pilots in general) and presents the reader with a true, unbiased story of human and machine in spaceflight.

Aside from the text of the book, I found the Bibliography and Notes section to be quite useful. These two sections provide a veritable treasure-trove of information. I have discovered literally a dozen books and articles that I want to read; material I may never have known about where it not listed in the Bibliography and Notes section. For example, Milton Thompson’s book At the Edge of Space: The X-15 Program and Thomas Kelly’s Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module are two books I had never heard of before finding them in the bibliography of Digital Apollo. Dr. Mindell also provides a glossary of terms which is quite useful.

In addition to writing an excellent book, the author also has a website which has additional information. The website contains a wealth of information about the author and the courses he teaches, reviews and comments about the book, and a voluminous amount of primary and secondary source material. I found the supplemental material compiled by the author (the bibliography, the website, et cetera) to be almost as engaging as the book itself.

What Should We Do With The Orbiters?

27 October 2008

As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close, more and more the question will be asked “what should we do with the Orbiters?” If previous human spaceflight artifacts are any guide, the Orbiters will likely be donated to museums. For instance, John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule and the Apollo 11 command module Columbia are both displayed prominently at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. It is anticipated that the Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour will likewise be put on display for average citizens to enjoy. The question of which museums the vehicles will be donated to remains an open question and is likely to for some time. A number of factors, including financial ones, will determine where the Orbiters are retired to.

Those organizations that wish to exhibit one of the Orbiters will face several challenges. One of those challenges will be allocating enough room for the vehicle. With a wing span of 78 feet and a length of 122 feet, the Orbiter will require a significant amount of display space. Providing a suitable area for displaying an Orbiter will require a significant investment of money, time, and labor. Once a site has been chosen to display the Orbiter, the decision of whether or not to enclose the vehicle will be raised. In order to preserve the historic integrity of the vehicle it should be enclosed. Although it may be cheaper to simply park the vehicle outside, if left exposed to the elements the Orbiter will slowly begin to deteriorate and thus require constant upkeep and maintenance. A simple, though potentially expensive, solution is to partially or completely enclose the Orbiter as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama have done with their Saturn V rocket exhibits.

Another challenge will be transportation. While the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules could be transported by a variety of methods, the ideal way to transport the Orbiter is the way it has always been transported: strapped to the top of a Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft. While this method of transportation will likely be a significant expense, it is the only respectful way to transport the Orbiter. While transportation costs might be reduced if the Orbiter is disassembled into large section and transported over land or water, this method would compromise the historic integrity of the vehicle. For instance, when a historic house is disassembled, moved to a new site, and then reassembled it loses a great deal of qualities that made it historic: location, craftsmanship, materials, etc. The Orbiters will suffer a similar loss of historic integrity if they are disassembled in a significant way.

Aside from the Orbiters themselves, there is also the question of what to do with the infrastructure used to support the Space Shuttles. Equipment such as the Rotating Service Structure used to service the Space Shuttle and it’s payloads at launch pads 39A and 39B, the Mate/De-mate Device used to load the Orbiter onto and off of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, or the 76 wheel, 12 cylinder Orbiter Transporter which carries the vehicle when it is on the ground are all examples of unique infrastructure that are worthy of preservation. Even equipment like the 65 foot long gaseous oxygen vent hood arm is worthy of preservation because of its unique role in the Space Shuttle program. Located on both launch towers, the vent hood is used to move gaseous oxygen vapors away from the Space Shuttle.

As NASA transitions from the Space Shuttle to Project Constellation, there may be a temptation to regard the Space Shuttle’s support equipment as so much junk. One should look no further than the recently demolished Launch Umbilical Tower. The Apollo-era structure, used to service the massive Saturn rockets in the 1960s and 1970s, sat dormant at a Kennedy Space Center storage area for many years before being demolished in 2004. The tower, or at least large sections, could have been donated to a museum such as the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Alabama which has a full scale vertical replica of a Saturn V rocket. Already elements of High Bay 3 in the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center are being removed and demolished to make way for the Ares booster and Project Constellation. Hopefully this will not be a harbinger of things to come. Once destroyed, these artifacts and the craftsmanship used to construct them will be lost forever.

The question of what to do with the Orbiters and their support infrastructure is not likely to be answered soon. In fact, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle may be flying before permanent homes are found for the Orbiters. Whatever the ultimate fate of the Orbiters and their associated equipment, this much is certain: they are deserving of preservation because of their unique design and role in human spaceflight.

How Will The Space Shuttle Be Remembered?

20 October 2008

Not long ago I spent the afternoon with one of my nephews. On my desk was a plastic Space Shuttle model my father built several years ago. NASA TV was on in the back ground providing coverage of Discovery’s STS-124 mission to the International Space Station. Like most eleven year old boys, my nephew is a curious person and, seeing the Space Shuttle on NASA TV and the model on my desk, he began asking questions about it. “What are those long white things on the side? What is that big orange thing in the middle? Can people really sit in the orbiter while they turn on the engines like they did in that “Space Camp” movie?” While he was disappointed to learn that average people are not allowed to sit in the orbiter’s cockpit during the flight readiness firing of the orbiter’s main engines as depicted in the 1986 movie “Space Camp”, he was impressed with the other aspects of the Space Shuttle. He was fascinated by the fact that the Shuttle could take off like a rocket but land like an airplane. He was shocked when I told him that the commander of the Shuttle had to land without engines and that he or she had only one opportunity to make a successful landing. After talking with my nephew for a while about the Space Shuttle, he began to realize what a technologically exceptional piece of machinery the Shuttle really is. At that moment, the Space Shuttle became for him not an old, routine flying machine but a cool space ship.

To the average American, it has probably been a long time since they viewed the Space Shuttle as “cool”. While the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft each flew for less than ten years, the Space Shuttle has been flying since April 1981. America’s early spacecraft have become history and are thus looked back on and remembered fondly with the passage of time. The Space Shuttle has not had the benefit of hindsight yet. Because it is still in operation today, we have not been able to look back on the Space Shuttle over a long span of time as we have with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.

Columbia, STS-1

As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close at the end of this decade, there will undoubtedly be countless post-mortems on the Space Shuttle program. Some will cheer as the Space Shuttles make their final voyage into museums. The Shuttle has long had critics and they will no doubt be pleased to see them go. Others (and I suspect they are in the minority) will hang their heads in sadness as the Space Shuttle program concludes. Personally I think the jury is still out on the Space Shuttle and will be for some time. The true measure of the Space Shuttle program can not accurately be taken until long after it concludes. Only then can we look back on the Space Shuttle program, as we can now with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, and judge what did and did not work about the program.

While the program never lived up to its promise of making spaceflight routine and inexpensive, what cannot be denied about the Space Shuttle is that it is one of the most complex machines ever devised by humans. The development of the Space Shuttle’s main engines, the external tank, the solid rocket boosters, the Canadian-built robotic arm, the thermal protection tiles, the ability to launch like a rocket and return as an unpowered glider, and numerous other innovations make it worthy of recognition. Without the Space Shuttle we would not have the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, Spacelab, the Teacher in Space program, the ability to place numerous commercial and scientific satellites into orbit, and various other space projects.

Perhaps one day more people will look at the Space Shuttle as my nephew does and think of it as “cool.” As the Space Shuttle fades into history, maybe people will look at the technological marvels of the vehicle and remember it fondly rather than only recalling its flaws. The United States will likely not return to a fully reusable vehicle for space travel for some time. Because of the cost and the challenge of maintaining a fully reusable fleet of space vehicles, the world will probably see the last fully reusable space vehicle in 2010 when Endeavour makes its final flight. Maybe then people will see what a unique and impressive invention the Space Shuttle truly was.

Apollo VII

13 October 2008

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of the flight of Apollo 7. The mission of Apollo 7 was to test the performance of the command and service module in Earth orbit. According to an official NASA press release before the flight, Apollo 7 was intended to “demonstrate command-service module/crew performance, demonstrate crew/space vehicle/mission support facilities performance during a manned command-service module mission and demonstrate command-service module rendezvous capability.” The flight of Apollo 7 began at 11:02:45 am EST on 11 October 1968 when it was launched atop a Saturn IB from pad 34 at Florida’s Cape Kennedy (originally known as, and later re-named, Cape Canaveral). The crew of Apollo 7 consisted of commander Walter Schirra, Jr., lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham, and command module pilot Donn Eisele. While Schirra was a veteran of Mercury and Gemini flights, Cunningham and Eisele were both rookies. According to eye witness accounts, the weather at the Cape “was hot but the heat was tempered by a pleasant breeze when Apollo 7 lifted off in a two-tongued blaze of orange-colored flame.” The Saturn IB, a multi-stage rocket carrying a crew for the first time, performed as expected leading mission commander Schirra to report, “She is riding like a dream.”

The mission of Apollo 7 was vitally important to the American space program. On 27 January 1967 while conducting a test at Cape Kennedy’s launch pad 34, the crew of Apollo 1, Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed when a flash fire erupted inside the command module. Following the tragic loss of Apollo 1 and her crew, NASA had to demonstrate that the Apollo spacecraft could function safely before a manned crew could be sent to the moon. While encountering minor problems typical of the first flight of any mechanical vehicle, the Apollo 7 spacecraft performed quite well during its mission. Like many space missions, Apollo 7 can claim an important first: the first live television downlink from space. Though crude by today’s standards, the images broadcast from Apollo 7 allowed viewers to see astronauts living and working in space for the first time.

Apollo 7 splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean southeast of Bermuda on 22 October 1968 at 9:03am. The spacecraft and her crew were carried by helicopter to the nearby recovery ship, U.S.S. Essex. The mission of Apollo 7 accomplished its goals of qualifying the command and service module and proving that it could operate safely in space. Because of the success of Apollo 7, NASA was given the confidence it needed to embark on the mission of Apollo 8 which sent three humans away from Earth and into lunar orbit for the first time.

The Apollo 7 spacecraft (numerically known as CM-101) resided for many years in Ottawa, Canada where it was on loan from the Smithsonian Institution to the National Museum of Science and Technology of Canada. In 2003, the spacecraft was returned to the Smithsonian Institution and is currently on display at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas. Command Module pilot Donn Eisele made his first and only spaceflight on Apollo 7 and died of a heart attack in Tokyo, Japan on 2 December 1987. Mission commander Walter Schirra, unique for having flown in Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, passed away on 2 May 2007. Like Donn Eisele, lunar module pilot Walter Cunningham did not fly in space again after Apollo 7. Cunningham would go on to write a best-selling book about America’s space program: The All-American Boys.

Cunningham, Schirra, and Eisele

Cunningham, Schirra, and Eisele