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.
Lofty Ambitions at YouTube March 4, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Video Interviews.
Tags: A Launch to Remember, Apollo, Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Radioactivity, Space Shuttle
We have a Lofty Ambitions YouTube channel where you can find an an array of videos we’ve posted over more than two years. Those videos include space shuttle launches and chats with astronauts. Here are five among our favorites:
The Last Launch of a Space Shuttle (July 2011)
Dee O’Hara: First Nurse to the Astronauts
Michael Barratt: STS-133 Astronaut & Physician Studying Radiation
Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Last Takeoff from Kennedy Space Center
Fireworks Over Space Shuttle Atlantis: The End of the Shuttle Program
On This Date January 9, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Art & Science, Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives, Wright Brothers, WWII
Today is the birthday—first flight day—of two aircraft that share some background but also differ significantly. A good portion of the world was at war in the 1940s, and that gave rise to these two aircraft in different places. The AVRO Lancaster first took to the war-torn skies of England seventy-two years ago, in 1941, when test pilot Bill Thorn coaxed prototype BT308 to off of the tarmac and into the air at Manchester’s Ringway Airport. Two years later, in 1943, the prototype L-049 Constellation made its first flight, a short hop really, from Burbank, CA, to Muroc Air Force Base (later to become Edwards Air Force Base and also current home to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center).
Large, four-engined, and born during World War II are among the very limited set of characteristics that the Lancaster and the Constellation had in common. That said, both aircraft followed architect’s Louis Sullivan’s “form ever follows function” dictum to a tee and turned out very differently.
The Lancaster was designed as a bomber. Utilitarian, slab sided, and broad winged, the Lancaster is not easily mistaken for anything but a military aircraft. The Lancaster began military service in February 1942, and more than 7,000 would be built before the last “Lanc” was retired in 1963. During WWII, Lancaster’s flew nearly 160,000 missions. The Lancaster gained particular fame during the war for its use of bouncing bombs in mission against dams.
While the Lanc was decidedly of its time, the Lockheed Constellation—affectionately known as the “Connie”—had an art deco design, a blend of organic shapes and machine grace, that was ahead of its time. Much larger than the Lanc—early Connies had a takeoff weight of 137,500 lb versus the Lanc’s 68,000 lb—the Lockheed design was curved and sinous. Many mid-twentieth-century trains, planes, and automobiles were shaped to cheat the wind, and a designer’s eyeball of that era served as a wind-tunnel test. The Connie looks like it’s going fast even when it is sitting still.
Much is often made of Howard Hughes’s involvement in the design of the Connie. In reality, Hughes’ TWA simply issued the specification for the Connie, and Lockheed engineered an aircraft to satisfy that spec. Once the Connie was flying though, Hughes, ever the promoter and master showman, made headlines with the aircraft. Because of his close relationship to Lockheed, Hughes managed to finagle the use of an early Constellation. Once he had it, he repainted it in TWA colors and promptly set a speed record while flying it across the country. Passengers on that trip included Hughes’s gal-pal Ava Gardner and Lockheed engineer (and Upper Peninsula native) Kelly Johnson. On his return trip, Hughes garnered more press by giving Orville Wright what would be the aviation pioneer’s last flight.
Despite its obvious style and speed—the Connie was faster than a number of WWII fighter aircraft—the Connie had a short and somewhat difficult career. Its Wright 3350 engines had a reputation for inflight fires, leading to uncomfortable jokes about the Connie, which had four engines, being the world’s faster trimotor. On top of that, the first generation of jet airliners arrived just as the Connie began to hit its stride. Although Connies survived for a number of years in the military and in passenger service outside of the United States, this aircraft made its final domestic revenue flight in 1967.
As we’ve written elsewhere, we have a fondness for visiting small airports just to see what’s sitting on the ramp. We developed this ritual while we were both professors at our alma mater, Knox College, in the late-1990s. Years later, on a return trip to Galesburg, we visited the local airport—call sign KGBG—for old-time’s sake. Sitting there in all of its shapely, aluminum glory was a Constellation.
The first Constellation that we saw in the metal was the so-called MATS Connie, one of the handful still flying and once owned by John Travolta. We’ve also seen the military variant at Chanute-Rantoul, just outside of Champaign, IL, where our colleague Richard Bausch once served. President Eisenhower flew on a Constellation; he had two in service at the time.
Only two Lancasters remain airworthy, one in the United Kingdom and one at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. There’s a Lanc near us, though, in Chico, CA, that folks are planning to restore to flying condition. A reminder that we haven’t yet thoroughly investigated the aviation history that’s right in our own back yard here in Southern California.
Supersonic Flight: The Shape of Things to Come (Part 2) December 12, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Museums & Archives
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In last week’s blog post, we discussed one of the great impediments to commercially successful supersonic aircraft: the sonic boom. A theory based on shaping of supersonic booms in order to reduce the pressure wave—the noise—began to emerge in the late 1960s.
The theoretical models—first developed by two Cornell University aerospace engineers, Richard Seebass and Albert George—focused on techniques for the reduction of the first or front part of the supersonic N-wave. Despite the development of Seebass-George theory in the late 1960s, it wasn’t until the early 1990s that the computational resources—in the form of more capable Computational Fluid Dynamics software enabled by faster hardware—necessary to design the shape of the test aircraft in accordance with the dictates of Seebass-George theory became available. Nearly thirty-five years passed before this theory was subjected to flight-testing in August 2003 and January 2004 as a part of the DARPA Quiet Supersonic Platform (QSP) program.
During the QSP program, Seebass-George theory eventually met practice in the guise of the SSBD aircraft, a heavily modified F-5E. The F-5E was chosen after flight test program proposals based on modifying a Firebee II drone or an SR-71 were rejected for technical risks and costs. The F-5E worked because of the wide range of nose shapes already flown as a part of the F-5 family (the nose of the reconnaissance version RF-5 differs from the F-5E, and the two-seat F-5F is different still) and because of the familiarity of one of the QSP contractors, Northrop Grumman, with the F-5. Prior to its merger with Grumman, Northrop manufactured more than 900 of the F-5E/F series of aircraft and more than 2000 of the closely related T-38 and first-generation F-5 airframes.
SSBD design work began in late 2001. Construction of the Seebass-George glove to replace the F-5E’s nose took place at Northrop Grumman’s El Segundo operation in California, and the glove was installed on the F-5E airframe in January 2003 at Northrop Grumman’s St. Augustine facility in Florida. Prior to testing, the SSBD’s fuselage was emblazoned with a paintjob that graphically depicted two N-waves superimposed upon each other, one, in red, an unmodified waveform and the other, in blue, with the “flat-top” signature that indicates a reduced sonic boom.
Most of the SSBD flight test program consisted of identical runs through Edwards Air Force Base airspace by the SSBD and an unmodified Navy F-5E. The two aircraft, flying at Mach 1.36 and 32,000 feet, were separated by 45 seconds, a timeframe deemed long enough to allow the shockwave from the SSBD to dissipate, but short enough so that the unmodified F-5E passed through an atmosphere that hadn’t evolved enough to invalidate comparisons between the two runs. Other test runs involved collecting pressure measurements from a NASA F-15B flying in the SSBD’s shockwave. A glider flying beneath the test flight path also collected test data. By the end of the two test sequences, more than 1300 sound and pressure measurements were taken on the ground and in the air.
The flight test sequence confirmed the nearly one-third reduction in the leading portion of the pressure wave by the reshaped nose (the glove), as predicted by Seebass-George theory. The test team exhibited a high degree of confidence in the theory from the beginning of the program. The results indicated that the shape of the new nose prevented the bunched pressure waves from forming into one large shock wave.
After completion of the flight tests, the SSBD aircraft was given over to the Valiant Air Command (VAC) Warbird Museum located just a stone’s throw from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the grounds of the TICO airport in Titusville, Florida. The VAC’s mission dictates that its collection only include warbirds. VAC Public Affairs Officer Terry Yon, a retired Army colonel and helicopter pilot who flew in Vietnam, says that the museum happily made a “squishy argument” based on the SSBD’s origins as a Navy aggressor aircraft to include it in the museum’s collection. After all, few truly unique aircraft exist, and this modified F-5E is indeed one of a kind.
If supersonic transports and business jets are ever to reach the air, let alone their potential, it must be demonstrated that they can fly over land at supersonic speeds without causing a ruckus. By confirming the potential for shaping supersonic shockwaves in a manner that diminishes their impact, the SSBD program took the first step toward accomplishing sonic boom-lite flight. As such, the SSBD program is destined to have long-lasting effects.
Bernard Roussett, COO of HyperMach, one of the companies announcing an super-sonic business jet at Le Bourget 2011, told us in an email about the SonicStar: “Yes, our solution for reducing significantly the sonic boom at high mach number (still supersonic!) is partly inspired from the DARPA program.” Only months before Concorde flew its final commercial flights, the SSBD aircraft made a supersonic future seem possible again.
Supersonic Flight: The Shape of Things to Come (Part 1) December 6, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation.
Tags: Airshows, Concorde, Dryden Flight Research Center, Museums & Archives
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Concorde, known for its supersonic, trans-Atlantic flights of yesteryear, was in the news just past week, as a French court overturned manslaughter convictions and upheld civil damages in relation to the Air France 4590 crash in 2000. To some, this story might seem an afterthought to the dashed hopes for supersonic flight.
The dream of commercial, supersonic transports capable of safely and cheaply whisking business passengers through a geographically dispersed day, breakfast in London, lunch in New York City, and back to London for dinner, is nearly as old as supersonic flight itself. By the mid-1950s, mainstream publications like the Saturday Evening Post were breathlessly predicting, “No doubt we’ll be flying faster than sound by the thousands in a few years.”
The closest that commercial aviation ever came to realizing that prediction was Concorde. But Concorde, never able to fly profitably even in the best of times, was done in by steadily increasing fuel costs, decreased travel after 9/11, and a deadly accident. It’s been nearly a decade since Concorde’s last revenue flight in 2003.
Less than a decade ago, test flights by the Shaped Sonic Boom Demonstration (SSBD) aircraft renewed hope for commercially viable supersonic flight. New designs for commercial supersonic aircraft turn up at the major international air shows regularly and increasingly target the lucrative business-jet market, the so-called supersonic business jets (SSBJ). These designs owe much to the ground-breaking technology established by the SSBD.
In the days prior to this year’s Farnbourough International Airshow, media outlets were rife with rumours of an announcement that had NASA joining forces with some combination of Gulfstream, Boeing, or Lockheed-Martin to bring a version of the X-54 SSBJ to market by 2030. Despite the frenzied anticipation, no such announcement was made.
At Le Bourget 2011, the Euro-conglomerate European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), the parent company of Airbus, announced the Zero-Emission High Speed Transport (ZEHST), a technology demonstrator featuring three separate propulsion systems—turbofan, ramjet, and cryogenic rocket engines—that will take to the skies in 2050. A second design, the SonicStar, a supersonic business jet with a more immediate timetable of first flight in 2021, was also announced at Le Bourget 2011, presented by British aerospace startup HyperMach. Both designs claimed to incorporate engineering solutions for addressing an aspect of the fundamental physics of supersonic flight that has accompanied every breaking through the sound barrier since Chuck Yeager’s 1947 flight, the sonic boom.
The passage of an aircraft through our planet’s ocean of air is often likened to a boat moving across the water. The boat’s passage is marked by waves of reflected energy as its hull pushes through the water. Visualizing a boat’s wake is misleading to a degree because we only see the two-dimensional “V” spreading out from the boat on the water’s surface. In reality, the mechanical wave and its associated pressure increase are also spreading out underneath the boat. In physics, a mechanical wave is one that requires a medium—water for the boat, air for the airplane—in which to travel, as opposed to an electromagnetic wave, which can propagate in a vacuum.
The mechanical waves generated by an aircraft are sound waves, miniscule increases in pressure generated by the aircraft’s body pushing and compressing air molecules as it passes. Below the speed of sound, these pressure waves radiate outward from the aircraft in three dimensions. As an aircraft approaches the speed of sound (761 mph at sea level and 59 F), the pressure waves are only moving slightly faster than the aircraft, so they bunch up together just in front of the aircraft’s surfaces (cf. “Supersonic Revolution” by Richard Hallion, Aviation History, July 2011): the nose, the wing leading edges, and the empennage. As an aircraft reaches the speed of sound, the bunched pressure waves actually combine into a big single shock wave. That shock wave is heard as a sonic boom.
The sonic boom is characterized by the dramatic increase in pressure at the aircraft’s nose and by a steady decrease in pressure to below atmospheric levels at the aircraft’s tail. After the supersonic aircraft passes, the pressure sharply increases to return to atmospheric levels. The two pressure increases—one at the aircraft’s nose and the other after it passes—produce the sonic boom’s double-bang sound. This sequence of increase–linear decrease–increase in pressure gives the wave its characteristic shape (up, down, up) and name: the N-wave.
In an interview for the NOVA program Supersonic Dream on Concorde, James Hamilton, at one-time the Director-General of Concorde, compared the sound of an aircraft approaching at subsonic speeds with the surprise arrival of sound associated with a supersonic aircraft: “You hear nothing until you get all the noise collected together, as it were, and when that happens, instead of a getting a continuous rumble of noise, you get a very sharp boom.”
Federal Aviation Regulation 91.817 prohibits flying over land at supersonic speeds for civil aircraft in the United States. The regulation specifies that aircraft “will not cause a sonic boom to reach the surface within the United States.” In the mid-1960s, the FAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force conducted a six-month experiment into the effects of sonic booms on a human population by performing supersonic overflights of Oklahoma City. Using a mixture of F-101s, F-104s, F-106s, and B-58s, the experiment, initially designed to provide favorable support for continuing the development of an American version of Concorde, the supersonic transport (SST), subjected the residents of Oklahoma City to 1,253 sonic booms. In the end, public outcry led to the early cessation of the experiment and, ultimately, a class action suit that the government lost.
After it was prohibited by law, the inability to conduct overland supersonic flight restricted the usefulness and profitability of Concorde by limiting it to a handful of transatlantic routes.
The X-54, ZEST, and SonicStar are being designed to make use of sonic boom mitigation techniques, techniques that will attempt to reduce the pressure wave that reaches the ground by shaping the shock wave that emanates from an aircraft traveling faster than sound, techniques that were pioneered by the SSBD.
Next Wednesday, we’ll take a closer look at this aircraft with looks that only an engineer could love.
Las Vegas, the National Atomic Testing Museum, and the Last Sixty Years November 28, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Nuclear Weapons
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This past weekend found us making our annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Las Vegas. The combination of bright lights, driving distance, and no mid-semester house cleaning/no post-dinner dishwashing is irresistible. It also helps that, over the years, members of our families have happily made the trip to join us. A weekend in Vegas may mean slot machines and poker to some folks, but here at Lofty Ambitions, it means at least one trip to the National Atomic Testing Museum (click HERE for a sense of our visit two years ago).
At Lofty Ambitions, we like museums. If the accumulated word count of our writing about museums hasn’t made that fact absolutely clear, we’ll say it again just so that it sinks in: We really like museums. We’ve written professionally about museums for conferences, journals, and books. Where others might plan a vacation based on a specific beach, we’ve been known to plan getaways around how many different museums we can pack into a voyage.
An affiliate museum of the Smithsonian Institution, the layout, exhibit design, and quality of the materials at the National Atomic Testing Museum meets the highest standards of the profession. For those whom are curious about this specific corner of America’s nuclear history, the exhibits are intellectually stimulating and information rich. After just a few minutes of gazing inside the museum, Doug and his father were struck by the fact that this year’s visit nearly coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the two controversial nuclear tests of the early Cold War.
The Operation Ivy series of weapons tests took place on the Enewetak atoll in November 1952. The seventh series of nuclear weapons tests conducted by the United States, Operation Ivy consisted of two separate tests: Mike, conducted on November 1, 1952, and King, which was detonated on November 16. Both tests were designed to push the envelope of what was then known about the design of nuclear weapons.
The Ivy Mike test introduced a couple of new words into the nation’s burgeoning Cold War lexicon: thermonuclear and megaton. Although a previous test, George, had made use of fusion principles (as opposed to the fission that occurs in an atomic weapon), the Mike test is considered to be the first thermonuclear weapons test. In fact, Mike took its name from its anticipated explosive yield, itself a curious word suggesting some sort of harvest. Mike began with an “m”—m for megaton—because its scientists predicted an explosion in the megaton range. Less than a decade after the world had been forced to begin thinking about bombs that exploded with the force of 1,000 tons of TNT—a kiloton—humanity was forced to again expand its definition of destruction when explosions of 1,000,000 tons of TNT were introduced into the world. Aside from its destructive potential, Ivy Mike’s other distinguishing feature was that it was an impractical weapon. Designed by physicist Richard Garmin, Ivy Mike was more than twenty feet tall and weighed more than sixty tons. When Mike was detonated, it provided a staggering example of the kind of destruction that might await humanity’s future. At a yield of over ten megatons, Mike obliterated the patch of land that it occupied. In an instant, Eugelab—an island in the Enewetak atoll chain—was transformed into a mile-wide, 150-foot deep crater. Because of Mike’s design, the radioactive release was enormous, with highly radioactive debris falling into the ocean up to forty miles from ground zero.
King also took its name from its anticipated yield—“k” for kiloton—but it might as well have taken it from its destructive power vis-à-vis the 33 atomic bomb tests that preceded it. At a yield of 500 kilotons, King was the largest atom—fission—bomb designed and tested to that point.
These two tests conducted during Operation Ivy were the largest of their time. In fact, when measured in kilotons and megatons—the verbiage of nuclear weapons that is meant to connect the destructive power of nuclear weapons with the more comprehensible world of TNT and chemical explosives—the 10.4 megaton Ivy Mike was more than ten times more powerful than all of the atomic weapons that had preceded it. The previous thirty-three atomic weapons, twenty-nine American bombs, three Russian, and one British, represented an aggregate destructive release of almost 950 kilotons.
In part because the fear and uncertainty of the Cold War and nuclear annihilation was something with which the Lofty duo grew up, we both are drawn to attempt to understand what transpired. That’s why we are drawn back to the National Atomic Testing Museum.
The End of the End (Part 7) November 21, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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This week, our “Celebrate the Journey” DVDs arrived from Kennedy Space Center. We are such space nerds that we requested NASA’s video documentation of the journey of the orbiter Atlantis from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the Visitor Complex. As of this week, Atlantis is enshrouded in thick, white plastic to protect it as construction workers finish the building around the orbiter.
We wrote about the first half of that November 2 journey in Part 4 of this series, and we’ve posted photos in Part 3 and Part 6. It’s time that we revealed the rest of the story of Atlantis’s transfer.
After the bigwigs signed the paperwork, with Atlantis parked behind them and a high school marching band and color guard joining in the pomp, the media—that’s us—boarded buses to the orbiter’s next stop: a community barbeque.
Exploration Park was brimming with families. The food stands—the ones with caffeine—were a welcome sight for us. The Kennedy Space Center public affairs representatives handed us off to the Visitor Complex public affairs representatives, and we were free to wander around as everyone waited for Atlantis.
With novelist and Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean, we circled the silver Astrovan on display. NASA no longer had a need for the Astrovan, which used to transport astronauts to the launch pad, so here it was for us to see up close. We each meandered to check out the booths. The corporate newcomers to spaceflight were there. SpaceX displayed a mock-up of their Dragon capsule, Sierra Nevada showed a little Dream Chaser that’s more reminiscent of the shuttle, and XCOR was there with its own winged spacecraft, the Lynx.
All the while, speakers regaled the crowd with pep talks and stories. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and KSC Director Bob Cabana joined each other on stage, repeating some of what they’d said earlier in the day during the sign-over ceremony. They also shared something we didn’t know: they had both served in the Marines, their sons served in the Marines, and their sons had actually served together at some point. We’d never seen these two men more relaxed than during their friendly banter with a crowd of shuttle workers and their families.
Before long, the orbiter’s tail was in sight, rising above the tree line like a shark’s fin breaking the surface of the ocean. People gathered on the sides of the road, as security walked up and down to wave people back behind the sidewalk. Slowly, Atlantis rounded a bend and emerged. At a turn, right in the middle of this community barbeque, the orbiter, mounted on its transporter, stopped. The crowd swarmed the vehicle.
We stood under a wing. We walked around to stand under the orbiter’s nose. A Visitor Complex media representative indicated that this was the closest that the public had ever been allowed to get to a space shuttle. Adults pointed to different parts. Kids wriggled with excitement. And NASA let us all hang out with Atlantis for a good, long time.
When we were relatively sated, we headed to our next bus. We hadn’t eaten much, it was getting warm, and we could spend a few hours wandering around the Visitor Complex before the next official press event. The café was busier than we’d ever seen it, and the French fries were hot, salty, and delicious. The rocket garden had a nice breeze. And there were special exhibits set up for the day. That’s where we tried on spacesuit gloves and met a man who trained shuttle astronauts for Extra Vehicular Activity, or spacewalks. On the Space Coast, we’re used to staying busy even during what might look to be downtime.
The day was proceeding according to schedule, and next up was Atlantis traversing the last leg. We gathered by the ditch between the Visitor Complex and the road we’d driven to KSC many times. This was our hurry-up-and-wait stage, something by now familiar to our journalist selves. Finally, Atlantis rounded the last corner and headed our way.
Thirty astronauts—Apollo veterans as well as shuttle astronauts—led the space shuttle. Each was acknowledged by name as the group made the long pass in front of the large crowd of cheering onlookers. From Apollo, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke—though not necessarily in that order. From Shuttle, Fred Gregory, Kathy Thornton—astronauts we had interviewed before. Mary Cleave, Eileen Collins, Mark Lee, Norm Thagard—astronauts we would meet the next day. This group of former space-travelers led Atlantis all the way around the corner to the door of the orbiter’s new home.
The media scurried over to greet the orbiter and the astronauts there in the construction zone. The group gathered loosely in front of the orbiter for a photo op. Then, we all mingled for a few minutes. Some journalists pressed for interviews, and some of the astronauts headed into the gaping building and out of view. Anna introduced herself to Eileen Collins before all the astronauts made their way to their lodgings.
We waited for dusk. A few bright lights illuminated the orbiter. Finally, it was dark. The fireworks began bursting in air behind Atlantis. Pops and bangs. Green sparkles and silver steaks. Red, white, and blue, of course. A late burst in the dark, after we turned to leave. We were spent.
We caught a bus back to the News Center to retrieve our car. Margaret had already contacted Omar Izquierdo, her KSC insider friend and one of our Lofty Ambitions guest bloggers. We all met at El Leoncito in Titusville. We ate our fill of good Mexican food. We toasted to the events of the day.
Omar told us that folks at KSC had taken to say, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” That’s what a shuttle worker had said over the microphone at the beginning of the day, when Atlantis was emerging from the Vehicle Assembly Building in the pre-dawn darkness and chill. Omar and Margaret agreed that folks shouldn’t be smiling about the end of U.S. manned spaceflight. It’s okay to be sad, to be bitter. The space shuttle program had a two-year end, an end that ended when Atlantis arrived at its museum home. Though we remain happy to have seen as many moments of that story as we possibly could, on November 2, 2012, we were sad. What are we to do now?
The California Story (Part 3) November 14, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: I Remember California, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle
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A little more than a week after our quadrennial national election, we wonder about our future in space. As space and aviation bloggers, we yearn for the clarity of a “We choose to go to the moon” moment. Time and time again, we have seen the power of space exploration to inspire, to inculcate aspirations to learn, to imagine, to engage. At our own institution, Chapman University, we once saw a young woman get up during an event in Memorial Hall and ask astronaut Mike Massimino, “How can I become an astronaut?” As we mentioned in the second part of this series, named after California Science Center’s newest exhibit, “The California Story,” Doug was surrounded by a class of fifth-graders pointing at the displays related to the space shuttle and challenging each other on their knowledge. Space inspires.
“The California Story” exhibit of space shuttle Endeavour nurtures that inspiration at the museum. In the first part of this series, we interviewed Ken Philips, who’s curating that exhibit. In part two of this series, we gave a general overview of the exhibit: space potty, Endeavour’s tires, scads of photos and videos, a couple of shuttle simulators, and a wide range of other displays. This week, we look at the part of the exhibit that captured and held Doug’s attention: the ROSC, or the Rocketdyne Operations Support Center. The ROSC is a launch control center dedicated to a single component in a shuttle launch: the space shuttle main engine (SSME).
The SSMEs are the three rocket engines attached to the tail of the shuttle orbiter. They are liquid propellant engines—as opposed to the solid fuel boosters—that burn a chemically potent mixture of cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, which are fed from the large, orange external fuel tank. After the hydrogen and oxygen combine in the burning process, the exhaust that escapes from an SSME is essentially super-heated water vapor. In other words, it’s thrust. These SSMEs provide power.
Doug had stopped and gawked at the ROSC exhibit shortly after arriving at the Media Day event, but it wasn’t until he was chatting with Ken Phillips that Doug found out that the person responsible for bringing the ROSC to the California Science Center, Rocketdyne’s Dean Patmor, was at the day’s event. Phillips motioned towards Patmor, blue-shirted and standing nearby. After a quick introduction, Patmor related the story of how he arranged for the ROSC to wind up as a permanent part of “The California Story.”
Patmor’s efforts began eighteen months ago when he realized that Rocketdyne might be forced to scrap the ROSC. For thirty years, every single launch of the shuttle program, Rocketdyne engineers sat watch in the ROSC. But when the shuttle program ended, ROSC became a man-rated system without any launches to support. The ROSC would be “too expensive to maintain,” as Patmor put it, until NASA’s next human-rated launch system comes online. Fearing the loss of the historic control room, Patmor first contacted the California Science Center to see if they would be interested in giving the ROSC a part to play in the exhibit that they were creating for Endeavour. Once he had that part in motion, he broached the subject with his own management. Patmor’s approach is familiar to us at Lofty Ambitions: ask for forgiveness rather than permission.
During its working life, the ROSC was responsible for monitoring the SSMEs’ mind-boggling performance numbers in real-time. Here are just a few of those numbers. The SSMEs’ operating regime encompasses a temperature range 6500º F (-423º Fahrenheit to +6000º Fahrenheit). The engines’ high-pressure fuel turbopump delivers the hydrogen fuel to the combustion chamber under such great pressure (6,515 psia) that it could pump its contents thirty-six miles high into the atmosphere. During the shuttle’s eight-and-a-half minute ascent into orbit, the people in the ROSC kept a watchful eye on those numbers and more. For visitors to the exhibit, the monitors and screens of the ROSC display meaningful, but simulated, launch data. Using real launch data would be an ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) violation.
Doug asked Patmor to tell him one thing about the ROSC that no one else knew. Patmor demurred and explained that he couldn’t imagine that there was an aspect of the ROSC that wasn’t known in his community. But prompted by a colleague from Rocketdyne, Communications Specialist Erin Dick, Patmor led Doug into the consoles to show him the pizza button. This tiny, square, red button controlled one of the voice communication loops that engineers used to communicate. Patmor explained that, once a launch sequence begins (starting with tanking the shuttle about nine hours prior to launch), the engineers are stuck there for the duration. It was customary to provide meals for the ROSC team, hence the need for a pizza communication button.
As befits their name, Rocketdyne is still in the business of designing, building, testing, and launching rocket engines. Currently, they are focused on upgrading the eighteen remaining SSMEs—sixteen flight engines and two for development purposes—for their next role: flying on the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS, NASA’s next heavy launch vehicle, will make use of four (or perhaps five) of the refitted engines on its core stage. As an aside, Patmor added that once the proposed SLS got going, he fully well expected to be called back from retirement to help to design the SLS control center. A new kind of ROSC will emerge.
And so the story goes. When kids see Endeavour at the museum, they will wonder what it’s like to go to space. When they see the space potty, they’ll start to realize the complexities of traveling beyond our world. When they see the ROSC, they’ll begin to think like engineers and come up with new, unexpected reasons to have an extra button on a console. “The California Story,” as much as it evokes nostalgia, is designed to inspire a future of space exploration.
The End of the End (Part 4) November 4, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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Just because the space shuttle program has been winding down toward the end of its end doesn’t mean that our work has become easier. In fact, this past week’s cross-country trip to the Space Coast proved to be one of the most demanding stints in our two-year adventure. Of course, the demands have huge rewards.
We flew to Florida on Wednesday. On Thursday, we headed to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) badging office and repeated the now-familiar routine of filling out simple paperwork and being handed what might be out last KSC media badges. We drove from there to the News Center to get the schedule for Friday’s retirement process for the space shuttle Atlantis. Two press briefings were scheduled Thursday afternoon; because they focused on the future, not the past, of human spaceflight, they deserve a separate post. For now, suffice it to say that, yes, we each asked a question. And yes, the briefings were broadcast on NASA-TV.
For the tasks at hand—following Atlantis—we discovered that Friday required a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call. Friday’s alarm clock (cell phones) wasn’t set quite as early as some other of our Space Coast ventures, but with the coast-to-coast time change, we got up near to when we usually go to bed.
We arrived at the KSC News Center by 5:15 a.m., the whole area still cloaked in darkness. Southern California doesn’t boast this deep, quiet darkness. The television news vans were already heading across the street to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), and the press room was bustling with journalists working on adrenaline and caffeine, us among them. Just before 6:00 a.m., our writer-friend and Lofty Ambitions guest blogger Margaret Lazarus Dean, who was officially at KSC for The Huffington Post, arrived and met us at the buses. We boarded and headed to the VAB.
As soon as the press group disembarked, we all spread out along the media line. Photographers set up their tripods, and print journalists milled about. The VAB’s door was already raised, Atlantis inside. This first stop of the day was our opportunity to see, for the last time, the orbiter with those individuals who worked on it, as a group of shuttle workers gathered behind a banner celebrating their accomplishment. A commemorative song, complete with actual launch and landing commentary, played loudly—and then played again. The commentary on the recording was the voice of George Diller, a public affairs officer who did the launch commentary for STS-27 through STS-135; he was now standing just a few feet from us. Atlantis was backed out of the VAB for the last time ahead of schedule, turned, and moved slowly away into the darkness.
The press reboarded the buses. Next Stop: the corner of Kennedy Parkway and Schwartz Road for an in-transit photo op. With the VAB now looming behind the orbiter, Atlantis made its way past us. For an orbiter on the ground, it was moving at a good clip. Usually, the orbiter on a transporter travels at between two and four miles an hour. Later in the day, this orbiter would set a land speed record of ten miles per hour. The press re-boarded the buses.
On to the official handover of Atlantis from KSC to the Delaware North Corporation, which runs the Visitor Complex. We used the port-o-potties right away—better sooner than later when it comes to this particular decision. Then, we milled about because shuttle days are defined by hurry-up and wait.
VIPs and the STS-135 showed up. Anna eyed Sandy Magnus, a fellow Illinoisan and STS-135 mission specialist, standing with her crewmates Doug Hurley and Rex Walheim. Donned in her shuttle skirt, Anna approached and boldly asked whether the crew would sign her skirt. We had purchased metallic-ink Sharpies at Target the day before, and Anna had worked for years against shyness for just this sort of opportunity. The astronauts seemed a little confused yet willing, but their handler immediately said, “No autographs today.” The fear is that one autograph could lead to hundreds of requests. Anna was disappointed. There weren’t really that many people in the media and VIP area, and two male media got the male crew members to sign t-shirts they were wearing.
Sandy Magnus, though, struck up a conversation, impressed by the most unusual request to autograph a skirt. She thought her artsy sister might like the shuttle skirt. So she snapped a photo of Anna with her phone. It was the first and best of several requests that day to photograph the skirt or ask where it came from: Go Chase Rabbits.
When excitement about the skirt died down, NASA felt ready to start the retirement ceremony. A high school student named Sierra sang the National Anthem, and the Merritt Island High School color guard and Titusville High School marching band led Atlantis down the road to stop behind the ceremony stage.
The ceremony was short and to the point. Atlantis’s first and last commanders, Karol Bobko and Chris Ferguson, respectively, spoke about their relationships with the orbiter. Bill Moore from Delaware North spoke too. KSC Director Bob Cabana and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had their commemorative and uplifting say about the shuttle program’s end and the orbiter’s new role to educate and inspire. Bolden noted about NASA, “We are not in the history business. […] We are in the business of making science fiction into science fact.”
All the VIPs on stage then signed the care of Atlantis over to the Visitor Complex, as buzzards circled closer and closer overhead. This orbiter officially remains the property of NASA, the only orbiter indefinitely on loan to its museum home.
We re-boarded the buses. Friday had miles and hours yet to go before we could sleep. Stay tuned at Lofty Ambitions for the rest of the story. The party only got bigger.
The End of the End (Part 3: PHOTOS) November 3, 2012Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration.
Tags: Last Chance to See, Museums & Archives, Space Shuttle, The End of the End
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We are off to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex before we head home. To see a set of photos from yesterday’s long, fascinating day, go to “Atlantis Retirement, 2012″ at our Flicker Photostream. We include just one sample photo here as a teaser. Of course, we’ll have more to say about this end to the end of the space shuttle program in the days to come.