I always loved the space shuttle, ever since I was 8 years old and watched on TV as Columbia roared off into space for the first time. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life – perhaps even more so when she came back 2 days later and just flew in and landed like a plane! Nothing and nobody had ever flown like that before and I knew there and then that my world would never be the same. Now, 30 years later, no other spacecraft in existence can do what the space shuttle has done - and is still doing - nor will any that have been planned to this day be able to. That's how great the shuttle is at what it does - and a tribute to everyone who has worked on it over the years. The space shuttle program is being closed down though and although it’s bittersweet to see it come to an end, I know that nothing can last forever and there will always be something new to get excited about.
Space shuttle Discovery – the one that is launching on her final planned mission later today - is shown here beginning her very first mission in August 1984.
Image credit: NASA
Aug. 30, 1984
3 more planned shuttle missions remain – one for each shuttle still in service – Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis. Now, two of these missions have already been added after the original decision to end the program – today’s launch was originally supposed to be the last one, so I suppose we may still see another launch or two beyond these 3, but this is what we know today. 3 more missions and the space shuttle is history.
Be that as it may, there are still 3 more missions. One of them is currently scheduled to begin today – and I’m still getting excited about it much like I did when I was a little kid.
Image credit: NASA
April 29, 1990
Space shuttle Discovery is set to launch today on its final planned mission at 4:50 PM EST or 22:50 my time (CET or GMT/UTC + 1) This launch was originally planned for August last year, then postponed until November, then delayed by technical issues, then by weather and then by technical issues again. These things do happen at times and the space shuttle crews have a saying that “You never know for sure until the solid rockets go off.”
The solid rockets – or Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) are the two long, slim rockets that are attached to the big External Tank (ET) as the shuttle launches. Ignition of the solid rockets is actually pretty much the very last thing that happens while the shuttle is still on the pad, hence the saying. It has to be this way because there is actually no way to stop the solid rockets – once ignited, they will burn until they’re out of fuel. That’s why they’re never ignited until and unless everything else has been checked out “Go for launch” and is in fact already launching the shuttle.
That’s why you never know for sure until the solid rockets go off. Which in turn is also pretty much the reason why I have never actually gone to see a shuttle launch myself and don’t plan to – even though I know for a fact that I would have absolutely loved every moment of it. Since you never know for sure when it will actually happen, it’s really not the kind of thing you take time off from work, put your family through a lot of stress and travel half-way around the world to see. Or at least I won’t, because the people who did that in November ended up going home very disappointed when the shuttle did not launch at all, which is always a very real possibility.
So, what is my solution?
The NASA website at www.nasa.gov provides quite excellent coverage of space shuttle missions. Last time – as Atlantis launched on what was then supposed to be her final mission – I watched the whole thing live on NASA TV through the NASA web site: http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html
I know that it can never be the same as actually being there, but to me it was a truly awesome experience. NASA TV takes you straight into the middle of the action and almost makes you feel like you’re part of the team launching the shuttle! I mean, you’re right there at the launch pad watching the last minute check-outs and preparations. You see the shuttle go up, you follow it into space and every once in a while, you’re standing right there with the flight directors in the mission control center in Houston as they give their instructions to the astronauts. You’re watching all the action, you’re listening in on the dialogue as the next steps are being laid out. Like I said, NASA has managed to make this so that you almost feel like you’re part of the team yourself.
Of course, it helps to know a lot in advance like I do myself, so you can understand much of what’s going on without needing to be told. But they also do a really good job explaining even the most complex technical issues in a way that makes it understandable to newcomers. I loved it, and I’d say if you’re even remotely interested, I’d say it’s definitely worth a look.
It was the closest I have ever been to a space shuttle launch and I’m hoping to do it again tonight. Perhaps I’ll see you in orbit? ;-)
Space shuttle Discovery roars between the clouds into the blue Florida sky toward space on mission STS-120 to the International Space Station.
Below the three main engines are the blue cones of light, known as shock or mach diamonds. They are a formation of shock waves in the exhaust plume of an aerospace propulsion system. The space shuttle’s main engines burn a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, which burns at about 6 000 degrees F / 3 316 C, but the outside of the nozzle remains cool to the touch. Prior to launch, sometimes it even frosts over.
Image credit: NASA/Tom Farrar, Scott Haun, Raphael Hernandez
Oct. 23, 2007