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Hello and welcome – and happy Yuri’s night – hard to believe it has now been 49 years since the first human being left the planet – and 29 years since the first shuttle flew – we’ll check in with one of the founders of the global Yuri’s night celebration – in a little while – see what is in store this year –
But first – let’s talk about the 131st space shuttle mission – currently “in work” as they say in the space business. I must admit – I am pretty lucky to have witnessed a lot of shuttle launches – and each of them is beautiful in their own special way – like a snowflake I suppose…but this one stands out – for one thing – we got a great view of Discovery’s destination – the international space station – as it flew overhead in the predawn darkness shortly before launch…then came the launch itself,
Those of us at the cape were able to see Discovery with eyes only – for a full seven and a half minutes – no one can remember anything like that – and then after Discovery was out of view and safely in space – were were left with this spectacular scene as the sun rose…remnants of the shuttle plume lit up like a pastel painting…
Discovery commander Alan Poindexter had to dock his craft at the station without the benefit of a radar system that failed. It is the same device that allows the orbiter to send out streaming video (or what we used to call TV)…and so that meant they had to record the heat shield inspection – and then send it down to earth using the station’s system.
The joint crews successfully attached the space equivalent of a PODS moving crate to the station – the Leonardo Multipurpose Logistics Module – in it – about 17 thousand pounds of gear and supplies – including some new crew sleep quarters…a fancy exercise machine that will give researchers a better idea about how physically fit the station-keepers are…and a device that ads cameras, spectrometers and other sensors to better observe the earth as it passes below the station.
They do see some cool things up there – look at this shot from crew member Soichi Noguchi of the Aurora Boraealis – or Northern Lights – he tweeted that one down.
Three spacewalks are planned for the 13 day mission.
Late as this is in the shuttle program – there is still room for some firsts as well as lasts – there are four women on the combined shuttle station crews – a space record. And no – none of them stopped and asked for directions.
OK – Here’s a piece of trivia for you – what crew of space shuttle astronauts can claim they flew the same mission twice? – well sorta – that would be the the STS-83/STS-94 team. They launched on April 4th 1997 – on what should have been a 16 day microgravity science lab mission – but the a fuel cell failed and they had to come home after only four days in space.
They got a second bite at the space apple on July first of that year – and that time the mission went full term…the commander of the deja vu shuttle mission Jim Halsell – joining our friend leroy chiao in the the astronaut class of 1991 – know affectionately as the hairballs…you whacky astronauts you…in any case lucky Jim Halsell joined us at the Cape on launch morning representing our loyal sponsor – solid rocket builder ATK.
That space station sighting just before the launch of the shuttle was something to savor..get a load of this shot captured by Fernando Echeverria. that white dot mid right – on the dark side of the moon – is the station. The time for a great viewing opportunity like that is either pre dawn – or post dusk – when we earthlings are in the dark – but the sun is still shining on the stations big solar arrays. And that makes it look brighter than venus – moving much faster than a speeding bullet. A station bound shuttle always launches not long after ISS passes overhead – in fact there is only about a ten minute window of opportunity to light the candle in order to catch up. Given the risk and complexity – It is amazing it ever gets off the pad – whatever the size of the window. And I must confess I will miss seeing the shuttle fly – Supposedly there are only three launches left – but there are a lot of rumors that the shuttle program may pull a Jackson Browne – and stay just a little bit longer – that is what many people at shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance are pushing for at the moment. At the launch we hear from four time shuttle astronaut Dan Brandenstein – now with USA.
Just before launch, we checked in with Lockheed Martin’s Ron Wetmore. He’s one of the managers overseeing external tank production at the Michoud Assembly Plant. We asked him about all the rumors floating around about a possible shuttle program extension.
President Obama is days away from seeing fire and flames in Florida …not from a space shuttle – but from angry workers – upset that the White House wants to cut the moonshot program known as Constellation. Lots of rumors floating around that Obama might stretch out the shuttle program a little bit – flying less frequently – or maybe adding a flight or two…but we won’t know until the big summit – which the space nation will be watching as closely as a shuttle ascent. The effort to derail Obama-space lost a little thrust the other day – rocket engine builder Pratt and Whitney told the Orlando Sentinel it will no longer lobby to keep Constellation alive. The Sentinel says company would like a contract to develop new engine technology.
SpaceX says the earliest its new Falcon 9 rocket is set to soar from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 8th. The rocket will be carrying a mockup of the Dragon capsule. The real McCoy is designed to carry cargo to the space station after the shuttle is retired. Engineers fired up Falcon 9’s – nine Merlin engines briefly on March 13th – and we are told all went well…but it is rocket science.
While we wait for the SpaceX to prove it has the right stuff – the Russians are teaching us Amerikanskis a few lessons in capitalism – hardball style..NASA just signed a new deal to buy six more seats on Russian Soyuz rockets that will fly in 2013 and 2014. The new price per seat: just shy of 56 million bucks. NASA has already agreed to pay 51 million a seat for flights in 2011 and 2012. That’s what happens when you are dealing with a monopoly I guess…somewhere up there Yuri Gagarin is smiling broadly…
And speaking of Yuri – 49 years ago, April 12, 1961 – Gagarin became a hero of the Soviet Union – and an international celebrity after flying one orbit around the globe – in a globe – a spherical spacecraft called Vostok…the first human had flown to space – with courage – and cool under pressure. 20 years to the day after Gagarin flew – John Young and Bob Crippen would also fly a gutsy mission – the first flight of space shuttle – April 12th 1981. It also happens top be the birthday of Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides – who was working for NASA ten years ago when she came up with the idea of Yuri’s Night – an all night rave of sorts for space geeks. She thought it would be a one off event…but the party has just kept growing. I spoke with her a little while ago.
Let’s take a 90 second spin around the cosmos – see what is cooking…Saturn as it turns out – is a pretty magnetic place in our solar system – in a bi-polar kinda way.
Check out these Hubble images – captured when the rings were edge on – as they say – in 2009 – look at the aurorae in the north and south poles – the northern lights appear to be slightly less intense. This happens when magnetic energy excite atmospheric gases (remember that shot from Soichi Noguchi we saw earlier? same thing – different planet).
And check out this cool spiral galaxy – captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. This stunner is officially known IC 342 and sometimes the “hidden galaxy.” Normally it is hard to see as it is blocked by the Milky Way. But like Superman – Wise can see through all that – using infrared vision to see the sprial in all its glory.
And another member of NASA’s infrared team – the Spitzer space telescope offers up this image of the Orion nebula, situated in the hunter’s sword of the famous constellation.
Scientists are pointing Spitzer this way repeatedly – to try and figure out why the brightness of younger stars – about a million years old – changes so much more than their older neighbors.
NASA is trying one more time to raise the Phoenix…The lander which arrived on the Martian arctic in May of 2008 – and hasn’t been heard from since winter arrived in November of 08. Well now that it is getting a little warmer near the Martian north pole – the team at the Jet Propulsion Lab has been listening for signs Phoenix may not be dead yet…using the Mars Odyssey orbiter. This is their third listening campaign – Phoenix had a great run on Mars – and found water ice just below the surface – but was not designed to take this kind of licking and keep on ticking…
The Eurpoean Space Agency is focused on ice a little closer to home…ESA launched a satellite called Cryosat 2 on a three year mission that will look focus on both of our poles: to measure changes in the thickness of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets – as well as the thickness of ice floating in the polar oceans. The first Cryosat never made it to space after a launch mishap.
There’s no more SPACE for Buzz Aldrin on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. His mission there ended after he and his partner scored 13 points – out of 30 – for their waltz. But he got a standing ovation from the audience. Aldrin said “I did this show for the fighter pilots out there, the military people and the elder geezers like me, who would just like to see an elder come back week after week”. Buzz – there is no doubt you are young at heart.