STS121: Thirteen days in space

FTLComm - Tisdale - Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Both Russia and China have punctuated national holidays with a space flight but this is the first time the United States launched a mission on the country's national day. Mid afternoon with the showers out of sight, the wind at a safe level and all the foam safely stuck to where it was suppose to be stuck NASA launched STS121 in a spectacular successful launch. The shuttle Discovery has been a non-flying bird for the past twelve months and even yesterday there were more worries about bits and pieces that might damage the vehicle on launch and terminate the flight upon re-entry.

The space shuttle is on old machine as flying vehicles go and it has had a good deal of wear and tear in its ups and downs. Only fifteen more shuttle flights are scheduled and the system will be replaced with a simpler and lower tech method of moving things and people into and back from space.

The shuttle in its concept was a great idea but without follow-up vehicles using the same recycled system to replace it and improve on the concept the United States space programme has been on a serious decline.

The return to space by the shuttle yesterday is a historical event and one that you can for the first time be a part of minute by minute. NASA has been a long time technological innovator on the web as well as in space and I have watched this flight live and moment by moment sharing the communications, images and briefings of the mission. The flight is being broadcast using QuickTime and using high speed Internet access I have been watching things like the world cruise by below full screen.

This a new form of communications full of detail and running at real time. Because of the tragic events of the past NASA has loaded up the Shuttle and the space station with cameras so these windows into the space world are being shared with the public on the Internet to the extent that you can leisurely watch the progress of the flight with the maps and read outs that keep you informed as to position while a communications specialist feeds information in audio to you explaining what you are seeing.

The first image below the map is from the shuttle Discovery and shows the space craft looking down across the Indian Ocean toward Indonesia. The most obvious features are of course the dramatic clouds which are as much a part of the earth's sky from the surface as they appear from space looking down.

The second image I have shown here is of the turbulent weather over the north Pacific and this image comes not from the shuttle Discovery but from the International space station as it lumbers around the earth every ninety minutes.

At the time this picture was taken Discovery was about 250 nautical miles behind the space station closing in on it at about 80 nautical miles an hour. The plan is for the shuttle to catch up to the space station and have the crew aboard it look over Discovery's belly for possible flight damage that might threaten the crew's safety upon reentry.

Once that chore is completed Discovery will dock with the space station and put a passenger, Peter Sellers, aboard the station where he will become a member of the space station crew.

This is an ambitious thirteen day mission with a lot of work for the seven person crew as they conduct some scientific experiments and work in assisting the space station crew. They are even carrying a Russian reentry vehicle aboard to drop of at the station for some of the crew members to use to return to earth.

Unfortunately, for all of mankind, the quest for space exploration is not one of the top priorities and were it not for political and bragging rights what little has been achieved was rarely carried out solely for the widening of mankind's knowledge and development. Talk of further missions to the moon, and ultimately a series of manned missions to Mars have occupied politicians and scientists but the reality is that most people on the planet do not recognise these endeavours as something that is essential to the development of our race.

The race to put manned space craft in orbit around our planet was largely an outcome of the one-up-man ship of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. That race was won not by the United States but by the Soviet Union who launched the first satellite and the first orbital cosmonaut. The Americans recognised the public relations problem and put an all out effort into catching up and reaching the moon with manned missions first. But when the Cold War ended the motivation to keep the pursuit going pretty much cooled off and budgets declined and failures mounted.

The entertainment industry was far out in front on the space side of things as Star Trek carried the imagination of millions where no one had gone before. For all of us who savoured the concept there remains hope and with STS121 there is a chance for us to watch first hand one really small step for mankind unfolding.



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Editor : Timothy W. Shire
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