Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Atlantis Delivers Columbus to ISS

In February the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched the STS-122 mission. One of its tasks was to deliver a laboratory to the International Space Station (ISS). The laboratory, a 23-foot-long cylinder called Columbus required a space walk to install. The European Space Agency built Columbus and NASA delivered it to join NASA’s own laboratory, called Destiny.

After a perfect take off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, described by NASA as “stunning… Atlantis leapt off Launch Pad… and rode a brilliant plume of golden fire and gray smoke into space.”

No sooner had the space station’s Commander and Flight Engineers had the ISS cleaned up after playing host to a Russian capsule crew when the Americans came knocking. Isn’t that just the way?

At least the Americans came bearing a gift, one that will hold experiments inside and outside. The laboratory has a life support system of it’s own to accommodate the scientists.

After Columbus was deployed and attached one of the ISS crew announced, "The European Columbus module is now a part of the ISS.”

NASA reports that, “The addition gives Europe a permanent footing in space, and the mission was seen as a starting point for more European contributions to the station, including cargo flights by a new spacecraft known as an Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV. Bigger than the Russian Progress supply capsules, the ATV was designed to carry whole experiment racks to the station.”

What we forget in these times of semi-regular space missions by the Space Shuttles is how amazing an accomplishment it is to fly humans into space and actually operate experiments and projects in outer space.

These images, from NASA’s website feature the crew working on attaching Columbus to the ISS. It’s an amazing site to see and know that this is no movie, that’s no green screen effect and that below their feet (heads?) is the longest drop-off known to mankind. I sometimes get a little vertigo looking out a tall building or off the side of a short cliff. Imagine the experience of floating with the entire planet filling your vision. It must be awe inspiring and frightening at the same time.

When the ISS or Space Shuttle (or the moon for that matter) are in orbit around the earth, they are basically in a constant free fall, just nicking the edge of the inner limit of earth’s gravity well, sending them constantly around and around. While they’re falling, they’re orbiting, which is exactly what an orbit is: Sustained freefall.

So while orbiting at breakneck speeds, relative to the earth, ESA astronauts Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts walked in space.

The NASA website reports: “After serving on the STS-55 mission in 1992, Schlegel waited almost 16 years for his second flight. He said the experience was worth it, particularly the chance to don a spacesuit and venture outside the station on a spacewalk, also known as an Extravehicular Activity or EVA. He joined Walheim for the second EVA of STS-122.

“The pair spent most of the spacewalk hooking up a new nitrogen tank assembly on the central truss of the station. Atlantis brought back the old one at the end of the flight. The tanks are a key component of the cooling system that pumps ammonia through fluid lines on the station to radiate heat into space.”

When Atlantis left the ISS, it had done more that deliver the Columbus. Dan Tani, Flight Engineer on the ISS swapped places with Eyharts, who stayed behind to maintain systems on the new laboratory.

“With the orbiter's main gear touching down at 9:07 a.m. EST,” NASA reported, “the STS-122 flight ended after 12 days, 18 hours, 21 minutes and 50 seconds. The shuttle traveled about 5.3 million miles during the mission. For Tani, the return to Earth stopped the clock on 120 days in the weightlessness of space.”

With the death of Arthur C. Clarke, there is a tinge of sadness in the air. But with the continuation of exploration, there is hope for the future. While I am all for sending humans to Mars, I do not agree that it should come at the expense of the very important and much cheaper (and already in planning stages) unmanned science missions to study the universe. The amount of resources needed to send a man into space versus sending an unmanned probe is enormous and wasteful. It seems to me that with less than 1% of the United States budget going to NASA (still a large number to be sure) there is some money to be found somewhere to add to the Mars mission.

There are too many unanswered questions in the field of Physics and Astronomy that can be answered with the funds that are redirected toward the Mars mission.

When reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff recently I was struck by the years of failures that we had to endure before actually sending a man into space. While a very noble effort for America at the time, we already have an aging Shuttle to replace.

Of course NASA can use some of the funds it earmarked for the Mars mission to further private space exploration ala the X-Prize. Privatization of the space race also seems inevitable. There are Billionaires just itching to be the first to get into space and set up shop. From orbiting hotels to joy rides, private space exploration is very much a reality.

The future of space exploration promises to become very exciting and very interesting. While all of the data and findings that come out of NASA remains always in the public domain, I hope the spirit of sharing never leaves even when it goes into the hands of privateers. I have faith. If Google can come up with a model to sell words on the internet and provide the world with a suite of free applications and virtually unlimited storage space, then someone will come up with a way to monetize private exploration of space and still make the data and findings an open and free.

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