Countdown to the Cape…3!

STS-79 Rollout (NASA)

Next up in our countdown viewing is a set of DVDs called the Physics of Space Flight Series, from educational resource provider Physics Curriculum & Instruction. It’s accessible nerd stuff through and through. The three DVDs in the series include: Part I. Acceleration Machines: Launching a Space Vehicle (31:18 min), Part II. Physics in Space: Orbital Motion & Re-entry (28:05 min), and Part III. Gravity: A Broadened View (25:52 min). A print Teacher’s Guide is included with the three volumes.

The physics covered in the films is standard fare for a first-semester undergraduate mechanics course. In fact, the mathematics demonstrated in the films and the supporting Teacher’s Guide is basic plug-and-chug algebra (no calculus required!) and could easily be used in a high school course or by a motivated self-paced learner who remembers high school algebra.

The hook for the physics is that each of the illustrated physical principles (force, acceleration, gravity, etc.) and physical laws (Newton’s and Kepler’s) is motivated by describing the principle or law in the context of a NASA spacecraft. Most of the examples come from the Space Shuttle—such as how to calculate the thrust, or upward force, produced by the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) and Solid Rocket Booster (SRB)—but machines from the Apollo program and some satellites also appear.

Wiki Public Domain FEDThese videos are fascinating even if your interest is only in the spacecraft themselves and not learning any new physics. The facts and figures used in the calculations keep our eyes glued. One of our favorite examples, which comes up several times, is the temperature extremes inherent in operating the Space Shuttle. The propellant for the SSME is liquid hydrogen. At -253 degrees Celsius, it is the second coldest liquid on earth! When liquid hydrogen is combined with liquid oxygen in the SSME, the temperature in the combustion chamber reaches 3300 degrees Celsius. Hot-hot-hot! At points in the Space Shuttle’s flight profile, the skin of the external fuel tank reaches 1000 degrees Celsius. This gives a temperature differential of more than 1200 degrees Celsius between the tank’s skin and the liquid hydrogen stored inside.

The Teacher’s Guide also contains a hidden gem for numbers nerds: a table of Space Shuttle Launch/Ascent Data. This table gives values for Event (such as Launch Tower Cleared), Total Engine Thrust, Total Shuttle Mass, Altitude, Acceleration, and Velocity against shuttle mission timestamps. The timestamps begin at T-6.5 seconds, Ignition of Main Engines, and run through 45 minutes, Final Circular Orbit Attained.

All in all, this DVD set has been an unexpectedly valuable tool as we’ve prepared for our visit to Cape Canaveral and the final launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. If you’re interested in any of the books and films that we’ve mentioned these last few days, don’t be shy—ask your local librarian to add them to your library’s collection, or borrow them through interlibrary loan. Also, check out an 8th-grader’s take on the physics of flight and Newton’s laws here.

Wiki NASAOkay, we’re off to Cape Canaveral now! We’ll get acclimated tomorrow and give you an update right here at Lofty Ambitions. In the meantime, take a minute to read the piece in our local newspaper here.

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