Tag Archives: shuttle


11 Oct

I know I shouldn’t play favorites. And I also know I shouldn’t anthropomorphize spacecraft to the extent that I probably do. But despite all of that, before I got a chance to see Atlantis up close this summer, Endeavour was always my favorite of the orbiters.

I’m not sure why. It could be because it was the baby orbiter — only a little younger than me. It could be the fact that it uses the British spelling of the word. It could be the name itself — along with Discovery and Voyager, it’s one of the best purely descriptive names (that is, not named for a scientist or a character in mythology).

According to NASA’s lovely summary of Endeavour’s history,

Endeavour was named after a ship chartered to traverse the South Pacific in 1768 and captained by 18th century British explorer James Cook, an experienced seaman, navigator and amateur astronomer. He commanded a crew of 93 men, including 11 scientists and artists.
Cook’s main objective, tasked by the British Admiralty and the Royal Society, was to observe the Transit of Venus at Tahiti. This reading enabled astronomers to find the distance of the Sun from the Earth, which then could be used as a unit of measurement in calculating the parameters of the universe.
Cook’s achievements on Endeavour were numerous, including the accurate charting of New Zealand and Australia and successfully navigating the Great Barrier Reef. Thousands of new plant specimens and animal species were observed and illustrated on this maiden voyage. Cook also established the usefulness of including scientists on voyages of exploration.”

A painting of the HMS Endeavour -- which reminds me that there were painters at the STS-135 launch. I wonder how their work turned out? Would love to see the final products.

I think all of that’s kind of fantastic. Because of course scientists are useful. I am always a fan of stories dealing with the gradual discovery of things that seem painfully obvious now (like how doctors should wash their hands between patients?).

My recent habit of rooftop stargazing has also made me wonder about the earliest astronomers. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the changes in the Moon from night to night? About the fact that planets don’t flicker? I mean, no wonder people in the past thought any crazy thing they thought about the stars. I am pretty consistently glad that modern society has figured this all out for me, so that I can focus on things like the brain.

(Feel free to picture, here, someone 300 years in the future thinking to herself, “I’ve been wondering about the earliest neuroscientists. What would I have concluded, without any of my modern knowledge, about the problem of consciousness? No wonder people in the past thought….”)

Every little bit helps, and it sounds like the earlier Endeavour did more than a little bit to shape our earliest true understanding of the universe. Here, though, is the Endeavour we’re gathering to commemorate today, in what is, for my money, one of the most beautiful images in all of history.

Just, wow. (Image from NASA)

Speak Out With Your Geek Out, Part I: Space

12 Sep

Sometime last week, I came across this call to action against negative nerd stereotypes. My first thought was, “Oh, I’m going to have to do this.”  My second thought was “Oh, I’m going to have to do this for a lot of things.”

So this is the first part of (tentatively) a five-part trilogy. Today: NASA. I know you’ve heard it all, here and elsewhere. I know it’s easy to be positive about space exploration, although a lot of people can get pretty tetchy over manned vs. unmanned spaceflight, and the necessity of one or the other.

I’ve already written (once or twice) about the ideological aspects of space travel that made me fall in love in the first place, so today I’m going to try to do something different. On top of seeing the shuttle launch this summer, I just watched Apollo 13 and viewed last Saturday’s GRAIL launch, both of which got me thinking about the different propulsion systems NASA has used over the years. Limiting myself to just the shuttle program, Apollo, and GRAIL, we have:

The Saturn V

Might well be my favorite to see launch — it’s so slow, Atlas-like, as if it’s somehow aware of the weight on its shoulders. The Wikipedia article confirms that it’s still “the tallest, heaviest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status,” and that it “holds the record for the heaviest launch vehicle payload,” with over 7.5 million pounds of thrust. All together, there were 13 Saturn V launches, with zero loss of crew or payload.

That is one snazzy machine, and the one I’ve been physically closest to.

Like apes to an obelisk. Astounding.

Of course, reading the Wikipedia entry gives a pretty interesting picture of the history of the program. (I know that some things are just plain complicated, and this may be one of them — nonetheless, I cannot read the name of Wernher von Braun without hearing this Tom Lehrer song.)

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Life After the Shuttle

13 Aug

The Atlantic once again has a great photo essay, this time on the future of NASA. It doesn’t really contain anything new, but it’s a very convenient collection of things that have been going on in the recent past and will be going on in the immediate future. Here’s the link.

Picture #24

Pictures like #24, of the surface of Mars, sometimes strike me as incredibly strange:  this is a real planet, with an actual surface, that one (I) could theoretically walk on. For a long time, my desktop background was a NASA image of a sunset on Mars. I have a poor sense of distance, along with a terrible sense of direction, so, on a purely intuitive, illogical level, it seems no more unreasonable to my brain to imagine walking on Mars than it does to imagine walking in the Rocket Garden at Kennedy Space Center after a two-hour flight.

Sunset on mars, via NASA.

There are also a few Cassini images, an awesome picture of the James Webb Space Telescope, and many more. Definitely worth a look, especially if you still need convincing that a) NASA is not “over” with the end of the Shuttle program, or b) the JWST deserves saving.

Commiserating Orbiters

11 Aug

Let me start by saying that I fully understand that the orbiters are not sentient, but it is very difficult not to anthropomorphize them in this picture.

Discovery and Endeavour.

ThinkGeek tweeted that the two were commiserating, and I can’t help but agree. I understand that they get pretty beat-up during launch and landing, but they look sort of old and abandoned and almost small without their fuel tanks and SRBs. And Endeavour’s “nose” especially looks sad. Again: I know the orbiters are not sentient, and I am absolutely falling victim to a combination of too much science fiction and an unfortunate evolved tendency to attribute agency to inanimate objects. But still, there they are, nodding slowly at each other as they pass, well aware that their time has passed, and cognizant of the losses of their sister-ships and the state of their makers.

Okay. Let’s try that again.

I understand that they get pretty beat-up during landing, and that they will be shined and polished before they go to their respective museums. These two ships have served us well for years, and they will continue to serve humanity in the future–in retiring from orbital duty, they are taking up new careers as permanent teachers of the next generation. It’s even good they look like this now before they’re shined up for display–it means they’ve been well-used and well-loved, like an old book that’s been read a few dozen times, or a teddy bear that’s lost some stuffing over the years.

Well, that got a little sad again near the end, but it’s still an improvement.

One Month

8 Aug

If I’ve set things up correctly, this should post exactly one month after the launch. I will probably be distracted at work and miss the moment, so I thought I should mark the occasion while it was on my mind.

Other than that, there’s not much to say. Would you believe that I still can’t quite believe it happened? Or that I have not expressed sufficient thanks to everyone involved? Both are true.

All I know is that I would get up at 1 a.m. any day to see this view again:

Honestly, any day.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

20 Jul

Today is the 42nd anniversary of the first Moon landing, and Thursday is the final landing of the shuttle program.  Thursday morning at 4:56 a.m. Central (my) time, to be specific.  I think I am obligated to say “I could never get the hang of Thursdays” in honor of it being the 42nd Moonversary, and therefore slightly better and geekier than the 41st.

Just a side note:  I have been trying for approximately 2 years to get “Moonversary” to catch on.  Google currently yields 67 results for the word.  Not sure why the rest of humanity hasn’t latched onto this most perfect of made-up words, to be honest.  (I think it’s perfectly cromulent.)

Anyway, where was I?

Here? Was I here? The last surface the three Apollo 11 astronauts walked on before walking into their capsule and then on the Moon?

No, although I was there nearly 2 weeks ago.  But now we’re talking about waking up at 4 a.m. on a non-work day.  It’s a silly sacrifice, really, not even as bad as my 3 hours of sleep before the final launch of Atlantis.  I can roll out of bed and watch NASA TV and livetweet while half asleep.  I imagine it will be kind of fun. But it made me think:  how much sleep would I sacrifice to see a Moon landing?

The answer being, of course, “as much sleep as I could sacrifice while remaining sane enough to view and appreciate said Moon landing.”  I believe that would amount to two or three days.  Not that the question’s likely to come up.

And unless unexpected strides are made in the area of space tourism, my career in neuroscience is unlikely to lead me anywhere near outer space.  Although, there is one thing about biology:  it doesn’t tend to wake you up at 4 in the morning.  Of course, it’s also (currently) firmly rooted in Earth, so it’s win some/lose some.

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And It Doesn’t End

12 Jul

A very poor screenshot of about a 3-inch screen on slow Starbucks wifi. But still a picture from SPACE.

I finally made it back from Florida (weird, weird, wonderful Florida) at about 10:00 on Sunday night.  I tried to go to sleep immediately, since I had work on Monday morning.  That almost worked well.

Until I realized:  I actually spoke to three people who had been in space.  Just talked to them like this was a normal thing that actually happened to people.  (With no more than my usual starstruck awkwardness.)

Then, Monday morning, still averaging about 4 hours of sleep per night over the past week, I drove downtown and sang along to Marian Call on my iPod.  And grinned wide enough that people on the Kennedy who happened to see the girl in the blue Element with the FSM sticker and the venti caramel macchiato probably feared for their safety.  Probably.

The thing is, I don’t think I will ever fully get over what I’ve experienced in the past week.  And that’s the best part about it.

Because I was going into space withdrawals by about Friday night, I knew I would have to watch the live stream of today’s spacewalk (EVA, extra-vehicular activity).  Of course, our power went out yesterday after about an hour of rain.

This is real rain, Chicago and/or Comcast.

(Damn it, Chicago, we had storms worse than that for half a day, and then launched a shuttle like it was no big deal.  You have an hour of storms and we lose power for going on 27 hours.  I guess everyone can’t be as efficient as NASA….)

So, as you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I’m watching the EVA on my laptop at Starbucks.  Where I walked this morning, due to my lack of car.  It took about half an hour.  Uphill both ways.

It’s amazing to me that I couldn’t dry my hair this morning, but am still currently watching a live feed of a spacewalk happening over 200 miles above the surface of my planet.  Beautiful.

This still isn’t my final wrap-up post, because I know I’ll probably tear up and laugh while writing that one, and, well, I’m in a Starbucks.  More to come when our power comes back on.

For now, I’m just glad to report that the feeling of the launch doesn’t end.

Hello up there!