Discovery: On the Anniversary of Retirement April 17, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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One year ago, on April 17, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery left Kennedy Space Center for the last time. The orbiter was mated to the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft and installed at the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Ait and Space Museum.
Our series following Discovery on its last mission is “Countdown to the Cape.”
At Udvar-Hazy on installation day, we spoke with Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, about the new acquisition:
Lofty Ambitions maintains a Flickr photostream, so we share here some photos of Discovery‘s retirement, which are among our most popular photos there.
Discovery Departure (Part 2: PHOTOS) April 17, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Discovery Departure, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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Lofty Ambitions flew to the Space Coast to follow space shuttle Discovery on its final departure from Kennedy Space Center. Doug arrived early Saturday morning, and Anna arrived on Sunday evening. We’ll have several posts in our series “Discovery Departure” as we relay our adventures in Florida and then in the Washington, DC, area, where the orbiter will reside in the Udvar-Hazy Facility of the National Air & Space Museum. Today, we offer a photo essay of the final mating of Discovery to NASA’s 747 and the last-ever takeoff of the workhorse of the space shuttle fleet. More tomorrow!
Discovery Departure (Part 1) April 15, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Discovery Departure, Museums & Archives, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
Doug arrived in Florida in the wee hours of Saturday morning after a red-eye flight from John Wayne airport by way of Phoenix. Anna is making her way to the Space Coast separately on Sunday evening. Sleep-deprived, but anxious to get started, Doug went on muscle memory established from our previous trips: rental car, tollway, badging station, and finally the NASA press site.
Saturday’s only schedule press event was watching the process of Discovery being attached to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), a heavily modified Boeing 747, in preparation for Discovery’s voyage to the Udvar-Hazy center. Attaching the shuttle orbiter to the SCA takes place at the Shuttle Landing Facility—or in traditional three-letter-acronym (TLA) NASAese—the SLF.
One of the things that always strikes us about shuttle operations is their likeness to manufacturing, to industrial processes. This particular operation takes place in a machine, the Mate-Demate Device (MDD). The KSC MDD (there are two more in California) is a gigantic hoisting device consisting of three fifty-five ton cranes, one for the orbiter’s nose and two at the rear. For all of our hi-tech notions of space travel, hoisting the shuttle so that it can be mounted on the back of the SCA is a low-tech, hands on process: there are bolts, gobs of dark steel in the supporting structure, and dozens of people involved. The wind was gusting, and some of the chains–workers wrestling with them for a tiny piece of the larger operation–clanked endlessly against the steel supporting structure.
Former Lofty Ambitions guest blogger and current KSC employee, Omar Izquierdo, was there and related to Doug that, as far as he knew, the process often took twelve to fifteen hours. Despite the obvious motion of the workers and their serious demeanor as they passed by, to the inexperienced eye, progress was measured in inches. While Doug was there, Discovery’s nose wheel was lifted three feet off of the ground. The veteran photographers and journalists that Doug shared the SLF media viewing area indicated that this was as a sign of progress being made.
NASA made various people associated with preparing the shuttles for the futures as museums pieces available for interviews. Stephanie Stilson, NASA Flow Director for Orbiter Transition and Retirement and a former subject of a Lofty Ambitions interview, was one of the people speaking with the press.
As the assembled media folks began to pack up and prepare to head back to the buses, a tiny, dart-like T-38 trainer zoomed over our heads. Astronauts train to maintaining flying proficiency in the T-38. A NASA employee leaving the SLF building, casually mentioned that two astronauts, Jack Fischer and Dr. Serena Auñón, would be landing the T-38 in just a few moments. They were flying in to appear at the KSC All-American Picnic.
One aspect of KSC that has consistently amazed us is the abundant wildlife that coexists with the NASA facility. It’s the dry season on the Space Coast, and the waterways that track and follow the KSC road system are much drier than in our previous visits. Perhaps because of the low water levels, the KSC animal life is moving about, seeking water. For whatever reason, there have been more roadkill on this trip than any other. In this part of Florida, roadkill brings vultures.
Doug spent the second half of the day taking a special public tour: the Apollo 16 Anniversary tour. Apollo 16 launched from KSC on April 16, 1972, forty years ago tomorrow. The crew consisted of John Young, Charlie Duke (another Lofty Ambitions video interview), and Thomas “Ken” Mattingly II. As a part of the events honoring this mission, KSC offered a special astronaut-led tour on Saturday. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell was the tour guide for Doug’s bus.
Capt. Lovell, hale and hearty at eighty-four years of age, provided the tour group with engaging recollections of his time at NASA, and even brought up the reason that he was the only person dropped from the final group of thirty candidates (for the seven available Mercury project slots) for a failed medical exam: a high bilirubin count. This physical failure apparently wasn’t an issue for the medical board selecting for the Gemini program, both Lovell and his Gemini 12 crewmate Buzz Aldrin shared this medical issue. The caricature of fighter pilots is that they talk with their hands. Capt. Lovell must have been some kind of fighter pilot because his hands never stop moving and become particularly animated when he talks about something that he feels passionate about, like NASA’s responsibility to excite the imagination of the next generation of scientists and engineers. We recently wrote about having a writerly dinner at Lovell’s of Lake Forest.
The Apollo 16 Anniversary tour concluded with a panel discussion involving Charlie Duke, Apollo 14 moonwalker Edgar Mitchell, and Lovell’s Apollo 13 crewmate Fred “Fredo” Haise. Haises’s participation in the event was one of those moments of serendipity that we love so much here at Lofty Ambitions. Haise was a test pilot on Enterprise, the shuttle test vehicle that is being moved out of Udvar-Hazy so that Discovery can take its place later this week.
Interview: Andrew Allen November 14, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Space Shuttle
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Today’s video interview is with three-time space shuttle astronaut Andrew Allen. We met Andy Allen last November when we were at Kennedy Space Center for Discovery‘s not-launch.
Allen became an astronaut in 1988 and flew his first mission, STS-46, in 1992 on Atlantis. He calls that shuttle Hotlantis. Less than two years later, he was aboard Columbia flying STS-62, a science mission. Roughly two years after that, Allen found himself again aboard Columbia on STS-75, which carried the Tethered Satellite System Reflight into space, a system he’d help test on his first flight. The mission also carried the United State Microgravity Payload 3, a follow on to USMP-2 that had been part of Allen’s second mission. Allen commanded and landed that third flight.
Andy Allen retired from NASA in 1997 and remains in Florida. Click HERE for a local Florida news story about him, and, of course, watch our video below.
Interview: Kathryn Thornton October 24, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Space Shuttle
Today, we continue our video interview series with four-time space shuttle astronaut Kathy Thornton. Thornton became an astronaut in 1985, a pretty good time to get into the lineup. Her first mission was STS-33 in 1989 on Discovery. She flew on Endeavour twice, on STS-49 in 1992 and STS-61 in 1993. Her last flight was on Columbia, for STS-73 in 1995. She was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame last year. She’s on the engineering faculty at the University of Virginia.
When we interviewed Thornton last year, Anna had already talked with Mike Coats (see video HERE), a shuttle astronaut and the Director of Johnson Space Center, but the Lofty duo hadn’t conducted any interviews together. After Discovery’s launch had been scrubbed, we happened upon a bunch of astronauts at the Visitor Complex, but we hadn’t planned ahead. We took a few minutes to prep questions, then dove right in, beginning with Kathy Thornton. You’ll notice our lack of practice in this video: we introduce ourselves but not the astronaut, and it’s a pretty short conversation. Since then, we’ve developed our interviewing skills, and we jumped at opportunities in the News Center. In fact, during subsequent visits to Kennedy Space Center, we could have talked with Michael Barratt (see video HERE) or Mike Massimino (see video HERE) for hours, though that may have as much to do with astronauts’ range of skills as our progress with this Lofty Ambitions project.
Interview: Michael Barratt June 13, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
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Lofty Ambitions interviewed Astronaut Michael Barratt when we visited Kennedy Space Center for the not-launch of Endeavour this year. Barratt had recently retured from space himself, as he was part of the crew on STS-133, Discovery‘s last mission. The News Center was so crowded and noisy that Barratt suggested we slip into the closet off the the employee break room for a cozy conversation.
Michael Barratt is an especially engaging person; we would have been happy to hang out with him all afternoon, and he seemed happy to keep chatting with us. Here, he talks about his varied interests, how he followed his sweetheart to medical school, and issues of radioactivity and his own book on the subject. The radioactivity conversation is about seven minutes in and is very much related to our recent posts.
Endeavour Launch Photos May 20, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Countdown to the Cape, Space Shuttle
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A Launch To Remember (Part 1) April 22, 2011Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Countdown to the Cape, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
In a stroke of luck emerging out of hard work, we have been granted press credentials to attend next week’s scheduled launch of space shuttle Endeavour. Both of us! In the press stands! As close as the public can get!
Doug got the approval from NASA earlier this week. Elation, from the Latin meaning to bring out of, as in Doug was brought out of a funk. Elation, meaning joyfulness or exaltation of spirit as a result of success or relief. As much as he had looked forward to walking the four miles from the motel to the coast, then holding his viewing spot for hours among throngs of people, Doug is now looking forward to being right there with the rest of the press corps.
Shortly after the news that Doug was approved for media credentials for the impending mission, the White House announced that the Obama family plans to join Lofty Ambitions to view the launch. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the wife of STS-134 commander Mark Kelly, plans to be there too. (We’ve written before about Kelly and Giffords, who is recovering from a gunshot wound, and about astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. Click HERE to read Obama’s write-up of Giffords as one of Time’s 100 most influential people.) Okay, the press viewing area is separated from the bleachers designated for officials and astronauts’ families—a move made after the Challenger accident—but not by very much. It’s easy waving distance. Kennedy Space Center employees get a little closer to launch pad 39A.
Doug will be covering the event for Knox Magazine, the publication of our alma mater and of Barack Obama’s, if you count honorary degrees. Anna will be covering, once again, the end of the space shuttle program for Chapman Magazine. Our article on November’s not-launch of Discovery is in press right now with that publication. Of course, our series about that trip—“Countdown to the Cape” (October 27 through November 7)—is available right here at Lofty Ambitions, too.
We wish we could go a couple of days before launch for all the press events, but Anna teaches on Wednesday night, so we’ll swoop in the night before the launch. (Don’t worry, we already arranged to have someone watch our humble abode while we’re away.) We’ll miss the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure, but we have close-ups of that from Discovery. If the launch doesn’t face delay, tanking will begin at 6:22a.m. Friday, April 29, just after the crew wakes up. We’ll already be awake and heading toward the press site.
The launch is scheduled for 3:47p.m. that day, and we should have several posts to share! In the coming few weeks, we’ll also continue our series on Fukushima Daiichi and how we talk about radioactivity (March 16 through April 20 thus far). But check back on Monday for Part 2 in this new series that starts today: “A Launch to Remember.”
Countdown to the Cape: Home Again, Home Again November 7, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Countdown to the Cape, Serendipity, Space Shuttle
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On Saturday afternoon, we mingled with 35-some astronauts at Kennedy Space Center. By happenstance, we’d decided to make one last run through the Visitor Complex before we left Florida. Suddenly, we saw Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Serendipity! We followed Buzz Aldrin into a small conference room, filled with astronauts signing autographs for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. In Steven Johnson’s terms, the adjacent possible!
Twelve men walked on the Moon. Yesterday, we saw six of them in person: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Ed Mitchell, and David Scott. We interviewed Charlie Duke (the youngest of the six at 75 years of age), several multi-mission Shuttle astronauts, and the first nurse to the astronauts. Each astronaut with whom we spoke was gracious and interested both in the past and in the future.
Just twenty-four hours earlier, we were lamenting—albeit half-heartedly because we’d had a fruitful week—the scrub of Discovery’s launch. The Space Shuttle is an incredibly complex machine. In fact, the hydrogen leak that scrubbed the launch was just one of two problems launch preparation teams noticed. A crack occurred in the foam insulation on the side of the external fuel tank to which the orbiter is bolted.
The tank is 154 feet tall as it stands on the pad—as tall as a fifteen-story building—and has a diameter of 27.6 feet. The slim split in the foam was just seven inches in length. It wasn’t even a crack in the tank itself. But this type of crack with misalignment can allow ice to form near the skin of the super-cool tank. One thing could lead to another. Accidents often have multiple causes, any of which on their own might not be a big deal. Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers, writes, “Plane crashes are much more likely to be the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties and seemingly trivial malfunctions.” On the shuttle orbiter, the ice could pop pieces of foam off during launch.
This leak and this crack are among the small problems of a host of things that could go wrong, because this machine has a lot of parts. Several online sources claim that the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program had six million parts (others say five million, or three million), so with a 99.9% reliability rate, 6000 things would go wrong. Really, it’s unreasonable to expect everything to go right all at the same time in these complex—and explosive—apparatuses. In the early days of the space program, the Atlas rocket used in the Mercury project had a 50% failure rate. That’s right, sometimes it exploded catastrophically on the launch pad. But we put John Glenn in a little capsule at the top of an Atlas, and he orbited the Earth three times. Risk can’t be eliminated completely, so we work to understand which risks we’re taking.
Sometimes, things don’t go as expected, but that’s okay. Steven Johnson talks about the role of error, too, in Where Good Ideas Come From. Sometimes, we know, what could be a disappointment creates the opportunity for something unexpectedly good, when you shift accordingly.
Had Discovery begun her last mission on Monday, as originally planned, or even on Tuesday or Wednesday, we would have tried to go home early. Had the launch occurred on Friday, as we expected when we rose before dawn that morning, we might have spent Saturday working in the hotel room, our goal achieved. We had come to the Cape to see a Space Shuttle launch, and we have other—primary—responsibilities to which we needed to return. But as the week unfolded, serendipity dribbled in, and the adjacent possible became visible to us. (See earlier posts related to serendipity here and here.)
That’s how we ended up spending a few hours with real astronauts in the flesh the day before we departed for home. That’s how we formed the basis for a new Lofty Ambitions feature to begin in December: Guest Interviews.
Countdown to the Cape: Meaning in the No-Go November 6, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration.
Tags: Countdown to the Cape, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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Yesterday, Anna was at Kennedy Space Center by 7:30am, scheduled to wave to the astronauts a few hours later as they departed for the launch pad. By 8:30am, word trickled out that the launch had been scrubbed at 8:11am for at least three more days. Doug headed out for a saunter to the Space Walk of Fame, where he would have watched the launch in the afternoon. Instead, he watched birds, a small shark, and a manatee, then walked back to the motel.
By 1:00pm, the Post Launch Scrub News Conference began. Discovery won’t go up until at least November 30 (and we’re plenty busy elsewhere then). A ground umbilical carrier panel (GUCP) leaked as the tank was fast-filling, violating both ground safety and launch criteria. Right after the Mission Management Team had made the decision to scrub and take their time understanding and fixing the GUCP—a piece of hardware they thought they had fixed after leaks later in tanking on STS-119 and STS-127—somebody said they noticed a crack in the foam on the external fuel tank. If it hadn’t been one thing, it would have been another.
It’s as if Discovery is in no mood to leave. She’s not in a hurry to get to the National Air & Space Museum. No, she’s just sitting there on Launch Pad 39A, holding her breath, until she’s reassured that, if her service must end, something new will follow in her flight path.
During Tuesday’s Countdown Status Briefing, Chair of the Pre-launch Mission Management Team Mike Moses and Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach expressed mixed feelings. They wanted Discovery to launch, of course, and to accomplish her mission. But they knew they were going through this pre-launch process with this Space Shuttle for the last time. They didn’t come out and say, she doesn’t want to go. But the words they chose and their intonations made it clear that Discovery’s delays this week were part of the story of the beginning of the end for the Space Transportation System (STS) program.
Mike Leinbach said on Tuesday, “You fly when you’re ready, and if you’re not, you don’t go.” In a sense, everyone who’s worked on, flown in, or watched Discovery here at Kennedy Space Center wasn’t quite ready to see her go, even though they want her to succeed. On Friday, Leinbach said, “We want to do the right thing for this vehicle.” The delays give her a little more time in service.
In a one-on-one interview, three-time Discovery astronaut and current Director of Johnson Space Center Mike Coats told us that she is “the work horse” of the fleet and admitted he’s more fond of her than of the others. Discovery has flown more missions than any other Space Shuttle. STS-133 will be her 39th mission. Discovery was the Return To Flight orbiter after both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. She was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, she took the Hubble Telescope into space, and she added the Japanese Kibo science laboratory to the International Space Station.
On Tuesday, Mike Moses quipped, “It’s another day in paradise.” Certainly, part of his meaning was sarcastic. They’d already missed three launch days—and would miss another because of weather, then Friday’s—and the weekend’s—because of the leaky GUCP. On Friday, Moses said, “It’s the way the space business works.”
We think what he also meant was that, even when things don’t go as planned, even when there’s a blip and a glitch—or even an accident—putting human beings into space is an undertaking in which he’s fortunate to participate. We think he meant, too, that NASA knows that every launch is a new scenario, a challenge, a risk, and that’s why they do it. As he put it, the launch schedule is their work schedule.
Mike Leinbach said on Friday afternoon, “It’s a machine, and every now and then, machines break. […] We’re not jinxed at all.” We feel the same way about our trip to the Cape. We thought seeing the launch was the story we were seeking, but we’re not disappointed that it was a no-go. On the contrary, we feel lucky. In fact, we spent several hours today talking in person with astronauts—we’ll have more on that in future posts!
The end eventually will begin, and then Discovery will have eleven days left in space.