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Monday, July 18, 2011

STS-135 launch (and spaceflight thoughts)

The week of the 4th of July I was in Florida visiting family and looking to attempt to watch Atlantis lift off from the Cape on the final Shuttle flight.

Two things:

1) I will NEVER drive through Orlando ever again if I can help it, and
2) It's sad that we will never have this opportunity to see such awesomeness ever again.

We were staying in Daytona Beach for a couple of days (we didn't dare try Cocoa Beach or Titusville) and I took the family down as well as my mother. We went mainly because she'd never seen a launch and wanted to catch it before NASA ended the shuttle program. Ironically, the day of the launch she felt ill and didn't want to make the trip down from Daytona. We arrived from Ft. Myers the day before and were pretty exhausted from the drive after suffering through Orlando during rush hour with a monsoonal rain to add to the misery. Two hours and 3 "alternate routes" through Orlando, and we arrived in Daytona about ready to stay without making an attempt to go to the Cape area.

And to boot, it was questionable whether they'd launch because of weather. a 30% chance of a launch was not good odds, but something told me that, with close to a million people watching around the space coast, I began to wonder if they'd forego some restrictions in order to finish up the program. With the shuttle program already a year behind on its scheduled shutdown, I thought for certain that they would be under pressure to finish while maintaining an acceptable limit of safety. After all, the last two times that NASA got complacent we lost two shuttles and 14 astronauts.

I didn't decide to make the trek south until about 2 hours until liftoff. We got on the road south on I-95 and I took an exit just north of Titusville. My plan was to simply get on the outskirts of the crowds, yet stay close enough to actually see the liftoff.

We rode US 1 to the Titusville city limit and checked the GPS for any nearby parks. But on the way we started seeing cars on the side of the road, so we figured the park was jammed.

As I turned around and went north, I spotted a parking lot near the hospital that was occupied with people watching the launch, but looked to have a few spaces left. When we got parked we had 30 minutes before liftoff. We walked around the area and then got back to the car and set up the camera.

As we got closer to the T-0, we could feel the anticipation grow. Then at 31 seconds, there was a halt due to a problem with the fuel arm that loads the liquid propellants into the external tank. We thought that was going to blow the launch for the day, but they were able to quickly resume the count after confirming that the arm was fully retracted. When the count hit zero, we waited for about 8-10 seconds before we saw it rise from the treeline and head into space.

Unfortunately the low clouds made it viewable for only 10-15 seconds before we lost it to cloud cover. We were a lot closer to the launch site than I thought, as we were looking towards an area further south than we actually were. The shuttle appeared further to our east and closer than I imagined. I had my video camera pointed to the southeast, but when I grabbed it to look east, I bumped the on/off button for the recording. When I looked at it later, all you see is a still shot of the view southeast, then a cut to the smoke trail heading off into the clouds. Fortunately my brother loaned us his digital camera as well as the video camera, so I managed to get off one good shot before it got into the clouds.

Almost immediately I grabbed the tripod and equipment and got into the car, the delayed sound of the shuttles SRBs roaring to life wafting over the crowd as we quickly made our way back to Daytona Beach. We got back to our room before 1PM. After being stuck in Orlando traffic, I was glad we didn't need to suffer through space coast traffic the day after.

As we drove back to Daytona, I then had the time to really ponder what we had witnessed and the impact on our future as a space power.

I'm not wanting to drag politics into the post, but you have to wonder why, after we built the majority of the International Space Station, and we footed most of the billions needed to put it in orbit, we now have to hitchhike with our partners in Russia, and then shell out millions for the rides. I'm curious how much money Russia paid NASA in order to ferry some of their cosmonauts on the shuttle.

Still, $56 million per person is a lot cheaper than what it would cost to launch another shuttle.

The reality is that the Space Shuttle, while cool, and an amazing display of American ingenuity technology and power, is almost 40 years old. It boggles my mind how stagnant the manned spaceflight program has been. In roughly 15 years, we went from Mercury, to Gemini, Apollo, then the Shuttle. Mercury was started in 1959. The shuttle program's origins go back to around 1969 as we landed on the moon. But from there, we have not launched anything other than the shuttles since 1981.

The shuttle was designed to make spaceflight "normal", and cheaper, more efficient, and almost as commonplace as getting on an airplane and flying from New York to London. And while the shuttle has made spaceflight a more achievable plateau than it was in the 60's, we have a long way to go before it's a mode of transportation that is as commonplace as air travel.

With the manned spaceflight program in full gear in the 60's to get to the moon, it would have appeared the the Space Shuttle was going to follow the same route, with Columbia being a "Generation 1" shuttle, and later shuttles being bigger, more advanced, and in some ways cosmetically different from one another. Other than subtle technology advances that made OV-105 (Endeavour) lighter than OV-102 (Columbia), there was no real change in the orbiters as far as concept, aerodynamic shape, etc.

I was hoping by now we'd have a shuttle with something like 9 main engines, a double-wide cargo bay, launched on a stack with 6 SRBs and a huge external tank 3x the size of the one the current fleet used. We never got to that point. I am sure THAT would have been impressive...

So now where does manned spaceflight go? We have a space station we can't get to, unless we hitch a ride with the Russians, and the only sign we're going to get back to a domestic manned program is either private industries like SpaceX or Congress appropriating more money towards the ARES program, using capsules to get into orbit rather than shuttles. And capsules seems rather regressive to me.

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