Thursday, July 07, 2011

Godspeed Atlantis; Goodbye shuttle program

In honor of tomorrow's (scheduled) final launch of the space shuttle, here's a post dedicated to the space shuttle program, including links to web pages you shouldn't miss as you ready for the launch.

[Yes, I spent a half hour at work today watching this video. It made me a little misty-eyed. Video credit: NASA]

What has the space shuttle done for me?
Space exploration has given us developments that affect our everyday lives, many of which can be seen in NASA's Space City interactive graphic. Developments from shuttle program, in particular, have given us improvements that extend to many realms of everyday life on Earth.

For example, in 1983, a NASA contractor developed a safety net for astronauts working on the orbiters. The net was designed to be small, fire resistant, and have lots of tensile strength (the strength to withstand stretching without warping). The net sinks faster and fishes deeper, and thanks to its resistance to ultraviolet light, lasts longer, making it useful for fishermen.

In the same year, another NASA contractor developed a laser to strip wire that can cut through insulation without damaging the wire. The laser melts plastic insulation but is reflected by metal wiring.

In the late 1990s, an infrared camera was created to examine space shuttle and rocket plumes during liftoff. The technology was also used to find hot spots in wildfires in Malibu, Calif., in 1996 and lends itself to use in night vision cameras, flight control systems, weather monitoring and more.

These are just three examples among many that came from the space shuttle program. Without the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo or Space Shuttle programs to crank out innovations, where will our good ideas come from in the future? How will we inspire young minds to study science? The following are a few takes from the news this week on the future of NASA and innovation.

The Future of NASA
In an open letter to President Obama in the Guardian newspaper today, film-maker Christopher Riley - who created In the Shadow of the Moon and First Orbit - urged the president to re-consider the importance of funding the space program:
The US human spaceflight programme consistently inspires the world in unexpected ways and has driven unforeseen innovations in medical, material, Earth and planetary sciences, and accelerated many of the micro-electronic technologies we avidly consume today.
President Obama had this to say during a Twitter town hall today:
We’re still using the same models for space travel that we used with the Apollo program, 30, 40 years ago. And so what we've said is: Rather than keep on doing the same thing, let's invest in basic research around new technologies that can get us places faster, allow human spaceflight to last longer. And what you're seeing now is NASA, I think, redefining its mission.
Here are two astronauts' views on the future of the space program from a Guardian article:
[Piers Sellers:] You will hear that the shuttle cost a lot of money, and it's very complicated and has some embedded risks in its design and all of that is completely true. But if you take the long view, you have to look at what was achieved with the shuttle. You got a beautiful space station, an international space station, a complete 500-tonne orbiting laboratory run by 16 countries that I think is going to deliver some real home runs over the next 10 to 15 years. You got Hubble, not only launched but repaired and serviced four times, Chandra, and a whole lot of other instruments of science.

[Scott Altman:] Nasa is re-focusing, re-grouping. I think the whole country needs to decide what they want out of a space programme and where we should go. I do think that, in the future, the big things we do in space are going to take the cooperation of the whole world. So the International Space Station is a great partnership to start that effort moving forward to put people on Mars and explore the outer planets and to start extending humanity from our foothold here on Earth into the stars.
The Age of the Space Shuttle
For more on the history of the shuttle program over the last thirty plus years, here are three sites worth taking a look at:

First, a photo slide show by the Houston Chronicle. (Many of these photos were taken by Chronicle photographers so there's a chance you haven't seen them before.)

Second, an interactive time line of the space shuttle program from The New York Times. (Be sure to hover over the color bars on the time line for an image from each mission. The image from the first shuttle mission - the first flight of Columbia/STS-1 - is particularly beautiful.)

Third, a Space.com photo gallery of Discovery being built.

STS-135 Launch
Tomorrow's launch is planned for 11:26 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. You can watch it live online on NASA-TV.

Will the final shuttle launch really be tomorrow? We'll have to wait and see. Right now, the forecast is calling for thunderstorms most of the day, including launch time. Note that lightning observed within 10 miles of the launch pad and any amount of precipitation are enough to put a launch on hold.

Just in case the shuttle doesn't launch and you have an hour and twenty minutes to spare, check out this NASA documentary on the space shuttle. It's narrated by William Shatner, so you know it has to be good.

Godspeed, Atlantis!

2 comments:

  1. It is true so much technology we take for granted has been afforded by space exploration. Everything from Google maps to G.P.S. to weather predictions to defense satellites. Space exploration has more than paid for itself in terms of what it has given humanity. Atlantis's landing is a sad moment for humanity and it's achievements I hope one day the people in power see things true worth not just there intimidate dollar value.

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  2. I don't think there is any doubt that what was achieved by the shuttle program could have been done more safely and less expensively by using capsules. While this article celebrates the contribution of shuttles to the international space station, the bulk of the support came from Soviet/Russian proton rockets and Soyuz capsules. The US program so far has cost 17 lives, and been shut down for years at a time because of shuttle failures. And half a century of effort seems to be yielding absurd outcomes - privatization of space flight in order to sell joy rides to millionaires, or to double down on the folly and send people to Mars. The manned space program is technology for technologies sake, fed by Hollywood fiction and, at its worst, is a total waste of resources. If anyone is listening, think of the millions of people on this planet who cannot breathe because of tuberculosis before you think of blowing a fortune out the rear end of a space rocket to send a few to a place without air.

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