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Last Chance to See (Appendix/TOC) July 29, 2011

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Lofty Ambitions with Atlantis before Last Launch

On Wednesday, we concluded our series “Last Chance to See.” Here is a Table of Contents of sorts, with links and brief descriptions, for this series. Most posts include several of our own photographs; we have noted posts that include video and/or more than the usual number of photos. We’ve also listed our July guest bloggers at the bottom because they, too, fit the topic and themes of “Last Chance to See.”

Part 1: Introduction: Last Chance to See the shuttle and Atlantis in particular (lots of photos)

Part 2: Atlantis rolls over to VAB (video)

Part 3: Arrival at Kennedy Space Center

Part 4: Visit to the launch pad (photos of Atlantis)

Part 5: Pre-launch activities (photos of astronaut walkout)



Part 8: Tidbits from Kennedy Space Center

Part 9: Journey of the last shuttle solid rocket booster (lots of photos)

Part 10: Decommissioning Endeavour (inside look & video interview)

Part 11: Space shuttle poetry

Part 12: Mission time & music

Part 13: STS-135 media coverage (lots of links to Lofty elsewhere)

Part 14: The future & SpaceX

Part 15: STS-135 crew (lots of photos)

Part 16: Landings past (Apollo 11) and future (STS-135)

Part 17: End of STS-135 mission & answering critiques

Part 18: Shuttle as concept

Part 19: Conclusion: nature & technology meet

Guest Blogger: Margaret Lazarus Dean: How To Be a Fiction-Writer Space-Geek in 20 Steps

Guest Blogger: Omar Izquierdo: End of Shuttle




Last Chance to See (Part 19) July 27, 2011

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There is one reason for caring, and I believe no other is necessary. […] And it is simply this: the world would be a poorer, darker, lonelier place without them. ~ Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See

Okay, you’re wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end. And you know this because Lofty Ambitions can’t pass up the chance to end this series on a prime number, something divisible by only itself and one.

We named this series “Last Chance to See” after the book by the same name by Douglas Adams (also author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy et al.) and zoologist Mark Carwardine. That book “is about a series of journeys [that team took] to look for some of the world’s rarest and endangered animals.”

Of course, the space shuttle has always been among the rarest of machines. Only six shuttles were built, and one of those was never intended to reach space. Instead, Enterprise was destined to spend its useful life as a test article, repeatedly dropping through the clear, blue California desert sky. While shuttle missions might have seemed, at times over the last three decades, mundane, 135 missions, two of which were not completed successfully, really isn’t that many journeys. By comparison, O’Hare airport can land 112 aircraft in a single hour.  If the shuttle had been merely a workhorse, that number of journeys would be the equivalent of commuting to work every day for less than four months. Unless, obviously, you measure the shuttle’s commute in miles instead of roundtrips. Then, it’s a very long way.

 Only three orbiters—Discovery, Endeavour, and Atlantis—remain. They are, in fact, all but extinct, no longer fit for their intended purpose and soon to be placed on display at museums. Even as we write this, Endeavour is having its Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, those bulbous protrusions near the shuttle’s empennage, removed. We saw Endeavour already undergoing such refitting (or unfitting).

Each chapter of the book Last Chance to See, though, is as much about the travels and travails as it is about the animal itself. Likewise, our series about the end of the space shuttle program is as much about the ideas and people (including us) as it is about the machine.

Of course, the book Last Chance to See is about endangered species. We do not want to create a false equivalence between a host of endangered animals and the thirty-year shuttle program. Rather, we wanted that work and Adams’s other tomes to serve as touchstones for ideas and the way we talk about things. We started each post in our series with a quote from Adams as a trigger for some of the things we wanted to say about a different subject than they had tackled.

Adams and Carwardine point out, “Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate.” Our most recent guest blogger, Omar Izquierdo, says something similar: “Good things start and good things end, and the shuttle isn’t an exception.” But what has changed for him and for others on the Space Coast is that the now-indefinite waiting is a new state of affairs; the time between shuttle launches can no longer be “simply prep time.”

Alligator at KSC, just swimming around with the tourists

But endangered species are not completely beside the point on the Space Coast. Across the river from Titusville, where we stayed during our trips to Florida, lies both Kennedy Space Center and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. From the pristine stretch of beach, where languorous cranes and pelicans and the occasional eagle drift overhead, and children bend and peer at the wire grids that protect recently lain sea turtle eggs, you can see launch pad 39A, the spot that launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions. At the launch pad, two alligators, their snouts poking through brackish marsh water and leading to vigilant eyes, live in the very small roadside pond.

One day, we drove across Titusville’s sweeping new bridge to catch a peek at the manatees from the observation deck. Manatees are difficult to see, huge dark blobs rolling occasionally to the water’s surface. The skin on our arms and legs, a blood-dappled, welted welter of mosquito success evinced that the suddenly obvious eighty species of mosquitoes, with genus names like Aedes, Anopheles, Culex, Deinocerities, and many more, are perhaps the least endangered species in Florida. (One wide-spread Florida mosquito has the apt genus species name of Aedes vexans—vexed us indeed!). Another day, we drove over to the beach, pausing for turtle after turtle crossing the road.

Bird in nest outside the KSC Press Center

Some people might argue that space exploration is important enough to overrun the natural landscape in the name of progress. Others might argue that technology should get out of that natural habitat entirely. Neither seems plausible or, at this point, necessary. In fact, after observing the beach town development sprawl of Cocoa Beach, it strikes us that the presence of NASA and the federal government likely had a direct influence on preserving the flora and fauna of Merritt Island. The Space Coast is a place where nature and technology abut each other and have discovered how to coexist.

Interview: Mike Massimino July 25, 2011

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Lofty Ambitions interviewed Astronaut Mike Massimino at Kennedy Space Center on July 8, 2011, shortly before the last-ever launch of a space shuttle. We had seen him via Skype after the showing of An Article Hope at Chapman University last year, when he joined our first-ever guest blogger Chris Cowen for a Q & A session. We knew he’d be a jovial interview, but we had no idea how amiable this guy really is. And popular—everybody says hello to this guy, so his handler really had to watch the clock.

Mike Massimino flew twice on the space shuttle, on the fourth and fifth (final) Hubble Telescope servicing missions. Others in his astronaut class, nicknamed “The Sardines,” include some astronauts about whom we’ve written at Lofty Ambitions, namely Mike Fincke (STS-134) and Sandy Magnus (STS-135). We do like the quirky characters!

He’s a native New Yorker and an MIT Ph.D. “Mass” is the first person to send a tweet from space and the first astronaut to have a million Twitter followers. You can follow him @Astro_Mike.


Last Chance to See (Part 18) July 22, 2011

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I’m a scientist and I know what constitutes proof. But the reason I call myself by my childhood name is to remind myself that a scientist must also absolutely be like a child. If he sees a thing, he must say that he sees it, whether it was what he thought he was going to see or not. See first, think later, then test. But always see first. Otherwise you will only see what you are expecting. ~ Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

Yesterday, we made the claim that the day was about shuttle not about the shuttle. By that we mean that, as the critiques of the space shuttle program itself fly back and forth in the media, it’s important to remember that shuttle represents a concept and also a lot of actual people. We’ve written before that science writing interests us because it’s about the people and their ideas and quirks as well as about the scientific findings, processes, or technology.

Atlantis (NASA)

Yesterday, workers at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) said goodbye to the shuttle program and to the orbiters, including Atlantis, which was towed to the Orbiter Processing Facility where it will be prepared for its museum home down the road. All the mechanical pieces of the shuttle program are now, in effect, artifacts.

Today, 1500 KSC employees say goodbye to shuttle as a way of life, as a way of seeing the world, and as a paycheck. Other workers, less necessary to complete the missions safely, were let go already. Still others are able to continue working at KSC, perhaps transitioning to jobs that support commercial space launches there. KSC is now the center overseeing the Commercial Crew Development Program, the very direct descendent of the shuttle program, and KSC is also hopeful for heavy-lift vehicles and programs that will ultimately take us beyond low-earth orbit.

This week, as we noted, also marked the anniversary of the first human step onto the lunar surface. On the evening of July 20, 1969, (at least for the United States) as Michael Collins orbited the Moon alone, Neil Armstrong, then Buzz Aldrin, climbed down the ladder of the Eagle and took those small steps that seemed a giant leap.

Astronaut Michael Collins

Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were all born in 1930 and flew for the armed services (Armstrong the Navy, Aldrin and Collins the Air Force). That was the best year to be born if you were going to be an Apollo astronaut. In fact, if you were born before 1923 or after 1936 or if you are a woman or a person of color, you were not on the crew of an Apollo mission. Only one of the Apollo astronauts, Harrison Schmidt, the last man to set foot on the Moon (though Gene Cernan was the last to leave the Moon), was a civilian, a geologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

When the media recounts the many space shuttle firsts, often the technological advances get attention: first space shuttle mission (STS-1), first man-rated, reusable solid rocket boosters, first mission of a reusable science laboratory in space (Spacelab), first untethered spacewalk, first satellite retrieval, and so on. But many of the firsts we know best and that NASA lists under each mission’s contributions involve the astronauts. The space shuttle program opened space travel to more kinds of people, women as well as men and those with varied racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds as well as varied experiential backgrounds.

That didn’t start right away. After all, the STS-1 crew consisted of a veteran of Apollo born, of course, in 1930 and a Navy captain born in 1937.  By STS-5 in November 1982, though, the crew included a mission specialist, and the program was overtly thinking more broadly about who was best suited to do what in this long-term endeavor. The number of crew expanded from two in the earlier flights to four, which would later often become seven.

Astronaut Sally Ride

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She was born in California (a pretty good place for astronauts to grow up) in 1951 and earned her Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. She joined NASA in 1978, after responding to their ad for astronauts in a new program. Though two Soviet women beat her to space, she will always be the first American woman astronaut in space, paving the way for many more in the shuttle program.

On the very next mission, STS-8, Guion Bluford became the first African-American to fly in space. He earned his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology and flew on four shuttle missions.

In August 1984, on STS-41D (when NASA was using an unnecessarily complicated mission-numbering system), the first payload specialist flew on the shuttle. The program opened its flights to non-government personnel, people tied to the mission’s payload, in this case a McDonnell Douglas employee who accompanied into space the company’s continuous flow eletrophoresis equipment (he and the company share the patent). Ultimately, Charles Walker was a payload specialist on three missions. A Canadian payload specialist followed on his heels.

And there’s much more.

Astronaut Wubbo Ockles

First Oceanographer in space (1984)

First Congressional observer in space (1985)

First Dutch in space (1985)

First Mexican in space (1985)

First Hispanic in space (1986)

First African-American to command a mission (1989)

First Belgian in space (1992)

First Italian in space (1992)

First African-American woman in space (1992); also on STS-47, the first Japanese astronaut flown by the United States and the first married couple to fly in space

And so on.

Astronaut John Glenn

Some may quibble with this widening of what it means to be an astronaut. Why send a Utah senator to space? Did Bill Nelson get a seat on the shuttle merely because the Space Coast was in his district and perhaps he knew he’d run for Senate at the next opportunity? Wasn’t sending John Glenn back to space at an age when most of us hope to be sitting in the Barcalounger in the living room, tussling the hair of a grandchild and yelling at the dog to stop barking, a carnivalesque publicity stunt? Specific choices may be worth critiquing. But looking at the whole of these firsts—the kinds of people these firsts represent—makes some important statements about larger concepts, about shuttle.

While all sorts of constraints are put on individual lives and we are each born into different circumstances, we are no longer as constrained by gender, race, or nationality as we once were, not all that long ago.

The most important qualifier for astronauts is education, as you have the best shot at the job if you have a Ph.D. in science or engineering. If manned spaceflight is to continue, maybe that means NASA has yet to broaden its qualifications enough so that more educational backgrounds are valued, or maybe the United States needs to make graduate education, especially in fields of science and technology, more accessible and feasible for individuals. In the meantime, as the joke goes, learn Russian because the shuttle program and the International Space Station have redefined space travel as a global undertaking.

Astronaut Mae Jemison on final launch day (photo by Lofty Ambitions)

The space shuttle program, though technically a government operation, became in practice a joint venture with the private sector. An argument can be made that this collaboration diluted the goals of space exploration and forced compromises. But, like it or not, this mutual effort set the stage for the commercial space ventures that are underway now and for whatever future awaits us. In fact, a recent CNN poll reported that half of respondents think ending the shuttle program was a bad decision, and three-quarters want another manned space program to be developed, but more than half want the private sector to handle such a manned spaceflight effort.

Space exploration is no longer about beating someone else to it. We may be nostalgic for that 1960s bravado, and we may fear that we have become risk averse to such an extent that we may already have limited our possibilities for the future as a nation and as a world. Yet, with this shift comes the possibility that space exploration is about the world in a larger sense, a shared global effort, a story about who we are and who we want to be on this planet as well as beyond it. Commander Chris Ferguson, sitting in the shuttle’s crew compartment upon landing yesterday, said, “The space shuttle has changed the way we view the world, and it’s changed the way we view the universe.”

Ferguson thanked each orbiter by name, acknowledging the thirty-year history of the shuttle program. He also noted that, out of the day’s mixed emotions, should come the certainty that America will not stop exploring. Today, NASA named as Mars Day, announcing the destination for its new Mars rover, Curiosity (see our posts on curiosity HERE and HERE and a guest blog Anna wrote for someone else HERE). Next time, perhaps to Mars, why not send a poet? Or two lofty bloggers (who happen to have those handy Ph.D.s)?

Last Chance to See (Part 17) July 21, 2011

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They even have a different vocabulary. When you spend much time on islands with naturalists, you will tend to hear two words in particular an awful lot: endemic and exotic. Three, if you count disaster.

An endemic species of plant or animal is one that is native to an island or region and is found nowhere else at all. An exotic species is one that has been introduced from abroad, and a disaster is usually what results when this occurs.

~Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See

Earlier today, Atlantis landed, thereby ending the last-ever space shuttle mission. What are we thinking? And by that, we mean both “what is America thinking?” and also “what are our thoughts on this historic event?”

One of the things we’ve noticed about the way those closest to the space shuttle program refer to this moment, or this accumulation of moments that mark the program’s end, is that they use shuttle as a conceptual noun. For the media, or when the media discusses the situation, people use phrasing like “the end of the space shuttle program” or “the end of an era.” That’s what you’d expect. But if you go back and read our most recent guest blogger’s post, you’ll notice that Omar Izquierdo uses the phrase “end of shuttle.” No article. Instead, shuttle is used like liberty, an idea more than a physical object. That’s typical idiom among those who’ve worked on shuttle. Shuttle is the way they live and think about life, as well as the orbiter-become-artifact.

During the past few weeks, the seemingly sudden realization that the space shuttle program is in its denouement has engendered an explosion of interest around the world, as represented by our calls from the BBC for content, the foreign nationals in the post-launch and post-landing news conferences, and the thousands of tweets on the subject over several hours last night. The last two weeks has seen an array of reporting on the shuttle program by journalists and bloggers well beyond the space-geek crowd. Indeed, public conversations have bubbled up about all things related to the entirety of the American space program. The Lofty duo follows a wide range of space-related media resources, and in addition to their own work on the shuttle program, we have provided several links to stories in those media channels that don’t make covering the shuttle program part of their regular fare. If you Googled “shuttle Atlantis landing” this morning and limited your search to “News,” up popped thousands of pieces just from the last couple of days.

A number of these stories, both those in the space-oriented venues and in the mainstream, have taken on the task of critiquing the shuttle program, and by extension human space travel, in order to arrive at some authoritative statement: either A or B. One assertion is that the shuttle program, though flawed and failing to line up to its mid-1970’s marketing claims of safety, reliability, frequency, and cheapness, was an amazing machine that did an exemplary job under the circumstances, which included constantly shifting priorities during development and lack of adequate funding. The other assertion is that the shuttle program was a disastrous boondoggle. Worse than that, people died, it consumed ridiculous amounts of resources, and it fell demonstrably short on wide swaths of its performance goals. Comment threads are especially likely to include back-and-forth between these two types of critiques.

Oddly, reports from both sides of this  argument’s coin often contain the same list of facts and accomplishments. Both sides often point to Hubble Telescope repairs and building the International Space Station (ISS). When the critiques use the ISS as a supporting example, the ISS is described either as a shining example of collaboration between former enemies and an important contribution to science or as a low-earth-orbiting white elephant, a showpiece forever draining away funds from earthbound science.

Cost, of course, is part of these critiques as well. The total cost of the space shuttle program over the decades comes in somewhere around $200B in 2010 dollars. Supporters and detractors each wield that very same number with relative ease in a coup de grace for their argument. It’s even more shocking that both sides are absolutely correct. Either that’s pretty darn cheap, given the accomplishments of the program, including spin-off technologies now improving the lives of Americans here on Earth, or that’s an exorbitant amount of money that could be better spent elsewhere, especially given the current economy.

Today, these critiques seem off the mark. Today—the day after the anniversary of humankind’s first step onto the lunar surface (July 20 on the East Coast, July 21 UTC) and the day the last shuttle mission ended—strikes us as about the people, not about the machine. Margaret Lazarus Dean, another recent guest blogger and space-geek, bought a last-minute airline ticket for a 24-hour visit to Kennedy Space Center for this morning’s landing. She, with the media and VIPs, was at KSC Runway 15 for the touchdown. She saw the chutes deploy and the wheels come to a stop. But she didn’t get choked up then. Neither did Anna, as she watched those moments on NASA-TV. Sure, Anna felt some pain in her chest, something already trying to form itself into nostalgia. But the unfolding process of de-orbit burn, roll reversals, and the final turn to the runway is dramatic, even on a computer screen. Seeing a landing is exciting.

Margaret stuck around for several hours after the landing, and KSC had events planned well into the afternoon. After a long nap, Anna watched the replays on NASA-TV, especially captivated by the news briefings, first with the STS-135 crew (see our post on the crew HERE) and then with the NASA administrators and managers, including Mike Moses and Mike Leinbach with whom we’ve seen several news briefings in person this past year. The thrill of the landing itself, with the night-goggled approach, had become a memory quickly, but seeing the people, imagining the hubbub of the day, made us sad to not be there.

Margaret wrote in her email message, “The surrounding events were more awesome than the landing.” Those surrounding events, of course, were about the people and about celebrating their hard work, perhaps even their belief in what they were doing over the years, even those whose jobs end tomorrow. No matter what a person thinks about the program and the machines, the critiques should pause to take into account that thousands of real people are involved too. The Lofty duo saw hordes of these people, both the STS-135 crew and regular employees there every day, when Atlantis was towed—rollover—from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the way to its last mission.

Margaret Lazarus Dean, along with some others there for today’s events, wrote that she did get choked up, but it was hours after landing. As the last fully functioning orbiter was towed from the landing strip to the OPF 2, which Discovery had only recently vacated, KSC employees—those most intimately connected with the program and with the orbiters—walked with Atlantis, in Margaret’s words, “as slow as a funeral procession.”

Today is about shuttle, not about the shuttle.

Photo by Bill Ingalls, NASA

Last Chance to See (Part 16) July 20, 2011

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As we write this post, we remember that on this date in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Today is the anniversary of humankind’s first steps on the lunar surface, when Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar module at 2:56 UTC (July 21), or 10:56 p.m. EDT today (for our recent post on time, click HERE).

As we post this, we are likely hours away from the symbolic end of the space shuttle program. Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center at 5:56 a.m. EDT, with another shot about ninety minutes later. By tomorrow evening, the precise anniversary of Armstrong’s small step and humankind’s giant leap, the last functioning space shuttle will be a historical artifact. (For our related post on shuttles as artifacts, click HERE.)

On Monday, we finalized media credentials with Dryden Flight Research Center, in case the space shuttle lands at Edwards Air Force Base here in Southern California. After we moved here three years ago, one of our first trips out of the neighborhood was to see Discovery land. Seeing the last mission conclude here would suit the story we’d like to tell.

Yesterday, the email to the credentialed press made it clear that Kennedy Space Center wants to host the final shuttle party. Edwards AFB isn’t even a back-up landing site tomorrow. If the weather isn’t good in Florida on Thursday, Atlantis will orbit for another day and try again for KSC, though Edwards will be the back-up site for Friday and, if necessary, Saturday.

STS-135 Crew: Chris Ferguson, Rex Walheim, Doug Hurley, Sandy Magnus

The weather on the Space Coast looks good—improving, the email said—for tomorrow’s landing. (for our most recent discussion of weather, click HERE.) NASA has a slew of events scheduled after the landing, with Charlie Bolden, NASA’s Administrator, and STS-135 Commander Chris Ferguson scheduled to give remarks at the runway at 7:45 a.m. Following that, there’s a full day of press briefings, comments from administrators and crew, photo opportunities with Atlantis outside the Orbiter Processing Facility, and employee appreciation all around. Emotions will be reeling, adrenaline will keep journalists on the story for hours, and everyone will draw this landing out as long as they can before leaving KSC.

Meanwhile, we’ll be in California, three hours behind and thousands of miles away. We may spend a good portion of our usual sleep time watching NASA-TV. That’s okay. We’ve been part of the media fanfare before. Now, it may well be time for us to contemplate the end of the space shuttle program from some distance. As with the frenzy at KSC tomorrow, we’ll draw out our “Last Chance to See” series a bit longer, too, unable to stop before we’ve seen the landing and articulated some larger meaning. Stick with us as we work our way through just a little more.

Last Chance to See (Part 15) July 19, 2011

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From here, though, it was just open ground between us and it. We stayed here for a few minutes to watch and photograph it. If any closer approach did in fact scare it off, then this was our last opportunity. ~ Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine, Last Chance to See

Christpoher Ferguson

Space shuttle Atlantis has undocked from the International Space Station, which means the end of the very last shuttle mission draws nigh. In this post, we turn our attention to the STS-135 crew, to the four individuals who are the last shuttle astronauts ever. Below, we have two sets of photographs representing the last chances we had to see this crew together before the mission, first during the rollover of Atlantis from the Orbiter Processing Facility to the Vehicle Assembly Building and then during the walkout to the Astrovan on the morning that the mission began.

COMMANDER CHRIS FERGUSEN hails from Philadelphia and is the drummer for the band Max Q. STS-135 is his third space shuttle mission.

Doug Hurley

PILOT DOUG HURLEY flew on one previous shuttle mission and has been training with the rest of the STS-135 crew since September.

MISSION SPECIALIST SANDY MAGNUS originally hails from Belleville, Illinois. Since we, too, are native Illinoisans, we’ll give Sandy Magnus a few column inches here. Of Belleville, she says, “It was really quite a nice place to grow up, very solid, well-grounded community, lots of very nice people, and I enjoyed it.” She goes further, talking about the importance of her upbringing: “We’re very well-grounded in the Midwest. People are friendly; they value hard work and discipline and help each other. It’s just a really nice community. I really value the fact that I got to grow up in such a great place.”

Sandra Magnus

After working as a stealth engineer, she was selected for astronaut training in 1996. After two years of training, she qualified for a mission assignment. She’s travelled to the International Space Station on two trips prior to STS-135, one of which involve a 4-1/2 month stay. Another astronaut on the ISS at the time was Mike Fincke, the American record-holder for time-in-space after STS-134. Among her assigned tasks, what else did she do in orbit for that long? “I took some pictures of the [Belleville] area and showed them to my family, found the street my mom lives on, sent her that.”

One of her main goals on STS-135 was to make sure that she brought back as much trash from the ISS as possible. The shuttle’s payload bay is far larger than what a Soyuz capsule can hold, so taking away as much unneeded stuff as possible is important. “Yes, we are very enthusiastic in our use of packing material here at NASA and the goal is to not leave a lot of that excess up on station because it’s just trash that has to be gotten rid of later, and one of my personal goals for this mission is to minimize the amount of [packing] foam that we leave on the station.” A unique mission goal, which was accomplished today, was photographing the ISS from as many different angles as possible, for the engineers to assess, of course, but also perhaps for posterity.

Rex Walheim

MISSION SPECIALIST REX WALHEIM is a Californian aloft on the shuttle for the third time, all three of which have been aboard Atlantis.


STS-135 Crew with Atlantis

Photo Ops with KSC Employees

Pretend Astronaut

Rex Walheim admires his ship


Suited Up! Cameras Everywhere!

Thumbs up from journalists




Almost gone...

Gone (to the launch pad)

Guest Blog: Omar Izquierdo July 18, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Guest Blogs, Space Exploration.

We met today’s guest blogger, Omar Izquierdo, only recently. A while back, he had contacted our most recent guest blogger, Margaret Lazarus Dean, because he’d read her (space shuttle) novel. Over time and a few launches, they’ve become friends. We met up with Margaret at the KSC News Center to witness the last shuttle launch. The next evening, the three of us met Omar at Roberto’s Little Havana, an amazing Cuban restaurant in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He was working on his guest post, grappling with how to capture the historical and personal moment in a few hundred words.

These July guest posts, then, are a part of our “Last Chance to See” series. Omar’s post captures particularly well the mixture of pride and frustration that those intimately connected with the space shuttle program feel now, as Atlantis, the last functioning orbiter, circles the earth for a few more days.


Photo by Omar Izquierdo

I freely admit. After six years working at Kennedy Space Center, there have been many times when I forgot I was coming to work at a spaceport and simply thought of it as coming to work. I’ve walked out to my car in the VAB (that’s the Vehicle Assembly Building) parking lot and looked nonchalantly at a space shuttle sitting on the launch pad barely three miles away, as if it were a normal occurrence. Having a mosaic of black tiles above my head as I walked underneath a spaceplane to get to the copy machine didn’t even raise my pulse. I used to be afraid that if this sort of complacency ever happened, it would mean that I was dead inside.

But I now believe that adopting this casual attitude was the only way my mind could ever protect me from the complete physical exhaustion that would result from geeking out every single day I came to do my job. You see, if you talked to most people who knew me growing up, they would probably tell you that I’m taking the idea of a last space shuttle launch pretty rough. They would be justified in believing that, judging by what they saw and heard of me as a youngster. I was known as the shuttle geek, or whatever word you choose for describing a ridiculously entrenched fixation with something.

So yeah, I’ll admit. There’s a little kid inside of me throwing a temper tantrum about this. And why shouldn’t there be? It’ll be quite an adjustment for people in my generation who have never known the idea of no future shuttle launches, and idea that became a reality ten days ago. For me, there’s always been a sense that the definition of life in this community is simply prep time between shuttle launches. Now that there’s no more launches. Umm. What do we do now? I’m not much of a beach person, and I’ve been to Disney so many times I could throw up thinking about that.

I think this is why our perspective as Space Coast residents is different than any other industry-centered area in the world. I’ll try to put it into words. Our area code is 3-2-1. When you hear the words scrub, tile, and pad, you naturally think of different things than I do. I have at least one elementary school in my area named for every space shuttle orbiter. I hear certain unfamiliar acronyms and immediately wonder if that’s also a part of the shuttle program. The McDonalds in my town has a giant shuttle on top of its playground. No joke, come visit.

July Guest Bloggers: Margaret and Omar

No matter whom you meet in town, there’s never more than three degrees of separation in terms of their association with NASA. And it’s an unspoken law that your entire town simply comes to a stop to when the clock winds down to T-minus-9-minutes and counting.

So it’s pretty frustrating how senselessly the end of shuttle has turned out. Jokes about lack of federal sense-making aside (I really want to tell one now), the idea of retiring one spacecraft without having another to replace it is pretty infuriating. On the Space Coast, the idea of relying on Russia to haul our astronauts into space is the centrally aggravating issue. When you combine that with our idea of community identity here locally, then the concept of a manned-spaceflight gap takes on a whole new dimension. It hits home. With the exception of the recent launches from China, our Florida Space Coast has been one of only two places on the whole planet from which men and women have been launched from this Earth. So when the prospect of the end of the shuttle, and of the end of manned spaceflight, even temporarily, are tossed around, these frustrations are not the things that commonly pop into mind outside of my geographic area.

I’ll never complain for myself about the end of the program, minor internal temper tantrum notwithstanding. The number of good times I’ve had working closely around the shuttles is simply ridiculous. I mean, I’ve sat in the commander’s seat of Discovery, on the launch pad, lying on my back pointing up! It’d be criminal for me to complain. Good things start and good things end, and the shuttle isn’t an exception.

I admit, though, I wasn’t capable of completely processing that thought the very last time I walked down the launch pad slope, away from Atlantis last a few days ago.

Alright…so when’s the next shuttle? Oops.

Damn these old habits.

Maybe a few more little tantrums before I adjust.

Last Chance to See (Part 14) July 17, 2011

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When a thirty-year program like the Space Transportation System, the space shuttle, comes to an end, it’s difficult not to focus on the past. Looking back into history, reflecting on accomplishments, failures, and missed opportunities is only natural. It’s part of what we do as human beings. But it’s also deeply embedded in human nature to look to the future.

SpaceX Dragon Capsule

For NASA and human space exploration, a big part of the immediate future is the handoff of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) missions to the commercial sector. To paraphrase the point that Launch manager Mike Moses made during the STS-135 post-launch news conference, humans have been going into LEO for more than fifty years. We understand it well, and it’s a straightforward exercise to write the design specifications for LEO missions. It’s time for NASA to let others take up this aspect of spaceflight. And so NASA is overseeing Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS).

Last weekend on the Space Coast, we had the opportunity to see a part of that future in the form of the SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) Dragon capsule. This particular spacecraft was launched empty (all right, almost empty), or unmanned in NASA vernacular, on December 8, 2010. Dragon successfully orbited the earth twice. This event marked the first time that anyone other than a nation had launched and recovered from space a space capsule designed to hold human beings. (Dragon is designed to hold as many as seven crew, but that looks like a very cozy ride to us.)

hot, hot, hot

When we saw it on display at SpaceX headquarters just outside Patrick Air Force Base at Cape Canaveral, Dragon certainly seemed used, with some hatches and covers (particularly those covers that shield the parachutes and their lines) missing from its surface. Its bottom heat shield showed signs of the intense fires that greet spacecraft as they return to earth. And yet, it didn’t seem particularly worse for the wear.

Having seen a number of returned Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules at museums around the country, it’s easy to come away with the impression that they were one-time use spacecraft. It’s hard to imagine the work that would have to go into them to send them back into space. But the Dragon capsule is designed to be reusable, and it looks it. Touch up the paint, reload the parachutes and the pyrotechnics, slather high-tech foam goo into the cracks, and Voilà! It’ll soon be time to head back into space. Okay, it’s probably not that straightforward, but you can look at the Dragon capsule and at least get the sense that it’s possible to return it to space.


And that’s just what SpaceX wants to do. The next planned mission is a fly-by of the International Space Station (ISS) that will, if all goes well, keep Dragon up for five days. After that, the idea is to mate with ISS and take over the role NASA has played in resupply of that global project.

Last Chance to See (Part 13) July 16, 2011

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And this computer, which was called the Earth, was so large that it was frequently mistaken for a planet—especially by the strange apelike beings who roamed its surface, totally unaware that they were simply part of a gigantic computer program.

And this is very odd, because without that fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge, nothing that ever happened on the Earth could possibly make the slightest bit of sense.

~Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Sleep deprivation in the news room

As we try to sort through our Space Coast adventures, one thing that has surprised us and only now started making the slightest bit of sense is that we have become part of the story. The story about the end of the space shuttle program and about the last launch last week is about technology. It’s also about science and economics. As we’ve written in other posts, what interests us in our topics is often the people and the ideas that people have. The (perhaps temporary) end of U.S. manned spaceflight is about the astronauts and engineers, but it’s also about those of us strange apelike creatures who were born into the space age and grew into adulthood with the space shuttle.

In November, we contacted the “science dude” at the O.C. Register to let him know two locals were going to see Discovery launch. It wasn’t pressing news, but he spent some time talking with us and wrote up a good story. See that HERE. Of course, Discovery didn’t actually launch in November while we were there, and we couldn’t get back to the Space Coast for its eventual launch because we were at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference having a great time with thousands of other writers.

Anna catches a rocket

So we were a little surprised when he gave us another call a week before Atlantis was scheduled to launch. See that article HERE. Lofty Ambitions gets the last word. We also got a brief mention in the post-launch piece HERE.

Last Tuesday, as we were gathering some belongings for our trip to the Space Coast, someone from the newsroom at the BBC Online contacted us. They were looking for bloggers who were going to be at the space shuttle launch, and they’d run across Lofty Ambitions. Were we interested in providing content for their coverage? Sure!

They sent us a list of questions, asking for 300-400 words of response. We answered their questions and pointed them to our Lofty Ambitions channel on YouTube. You can see our write-up and video HERE.

Tweeting from KSC

On launch day, BBC Online followed Doug’s tweets (and revised them using British spelling), along with those of other tweeps watching the launch. BBC Online also included one of our photos. You can see all that HERE. Citizen journalists? Well, not exactly, because we were actual journalists with media credentials. Content providers? Maybe, but that sounds drab. What exactly are we doing?

In a photo slideshow of the last launches of each remaining orbiter, BBC Online included our photo of the STS-135 crew during the walkout just hours before Atlantis launched. That’s a press event we almost missed, but we ended up getting some amazing shots. Sandy Magnus seemed the most enthusiastic, almost bursting with excitement. See that HERE.

The post-launch ponderings of the bloggers that BBC Online followed are HERE. Lofty Ambitions writes, “Then came the sound, the increasingly bright blaze of light, and the brief flash of heat as the shuttle struggled to clear the launch tower, all reinforced the fact that you were seeing something spectacular. Very quickly, people were gasping and shaking from the external force and the internal emotion.” Indeed, the humidity in Florida on July 8 made the launch an especially visceral experience.

Holding hands

“Your Week in Pictures,” a BBC weekly retrospective, featured a photo of the Lofty Ambitions duo in front of Atlantis on the launch pad the afternoon before blast off. We were soaking wet from a torrential downpour while we were waiting for the press buses to start loading, and the mosquitoes had started biting. But we were happy as all get out to be only yards away from the space shuttle just before the last-ever mission. See that one HERE.

We found ourselves in a new role this past week, with coverage locally and across the Atlantic. This responsibility or opportunity extended, of course, naturally from our work on this blog. We have more to say about aviation and spaceflight, science of the twentieth century and beyond, and writing as a couple. It’s heartening to know there’s an audience of other strange apelike beings roaming the surface out there.

To top all of this off, as we were polishing up this post today, the August issue of Air & Space Magazine arrived. Our article about the Roger and Roberta Boisjoly Collection in Chapman University’s archives is on page 12. It’s not available online, but you remember bookstores, don’t you?


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