All posts by HSF-NextGen

Loss of Signal….? July 11, 2011

July 11, 2011
Less than 8 hours from now, when Shuttle Atlantis touches down on the landing facility at Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. human spaceflight program, very much unwanted, will enter an indeterminate period of suspended animation. Whether you think the Shuttle Program was worth or wasn’t or you don’t care, our retreat from human spaceflight presents significant challenges for the long-term well-being of publicly-funded science and technology programs.

Put aside the 7,000 layoffs at NASA, the negative multiplier effect as employees at shuttle program contractors lose their jobs, and the disappearance of a well-known symbol of national engineering prowess and technological achievement. No wait. Strike that last clause. The shuttle, for its successes, its painful flaws and its costs was a potent attractor of support for publicly-funded science — and not just space science.

Like Mercury, Gemini and Apollo before it, the shuttle program was a rallying point (yes, much diminished in recent years) for citizens who appreciate bold and audacious national investments in next-generation science and technology. Human spaceflight is a portal that helps lead students and adults to a greater appreciation of the promise of science and engineering. It is a concept and a real adventure that educators can readily wield in their increasingly underfunded efforts to keep the coming generations of Americans science literate. (Human spaceflight is emotionally moving. Artists and writers compose poetry, music, and visual art inspired by space exploration. Think Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, David Bowie, Rush, Edwin Morgan, Big Head Todd and the Monsters.)

The future does not look bright for big science and engineering in the U.S. — or at least as bright as it once was. Two concurrent wars, massive deficits, economic dislocation and bloated debt are all to blame. The absence of human spaceflight achievements — the absence of regular, repeated reminders of visibly exciting science — will only add dim the lights further. Consider the recent history of big, nationally-funded science and engineering programs. The superconducting super-collider was cancelled. Europe forged ahead with the Large Hadron Collider. The Fermilab Tevatron: gone out of business. The Webb space telescope is sitting on the edge of oblivion instead of a LaGrange point somewhere beyond the moon’s orbit. Proteomics and stem cell research have come to fore in biological science, following the human genome project, but without the same level of coordinated effort and funding across funding centers and research facilities. Fusion energy research and the promise of a practically unlimited renewable source of energy remains stuck somewhere below commerical breakeven. High-speed rail initiatives: barely moving.

If your position is that the Shuttle was a massive siphon drawing funding from other science endeavours during its existence, consider this limited and slanted list of major science and engineering achievements that occurred alongside the shuttle program and often with its help: the Galileo, Magellan, Cassini and Messenger missions to Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and Mercury; Mars Pathfinder, Mars Rovers, Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter, Phoenix Mars Lander; Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous; the Deep Impact comet mission; the Gravity Probe B (to test the General Theory of Relativity); the ATMOS and CRISTA Earth Atmosphere studies; the Ulysses solar wind observer; the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory; the Chandra X-ray Observatory; the Spitzer Space Telescope; the Hubble; and the International Space Station.

Looking down the road, the U.S. right now has nothing on the books approaching the frequency and breadth of the above-listed space science missions.

Loss of signal……..?

Bidding Atlantis Farewell — July 8, 2011

July 8, 2011, 6PM, Orlando.

Per usual, but for the last time, I hatched a last minute plan to see the shuttle launch: Atlantis STS-135. Flew to Orlando last night, drove to the Cape arriving at 2A, and settled into a very long stretch without sleep. The whole thing could not have gone better. I had a great time.

Last night, or rather early this morning, NASA was running buses to the Saturn V complex, 3-miles away from the shuttle launch complex. As soon as I got to Kennedy Space Center, I ran for the bus, got a ride to the 3-mile vantage point and started going nuts with my camera. Because of atmospheric conditions (near 100% humidity with light precip and very low cloud deck) and the brilliance of the xenon lights that shine on the shuttle during fueling operations, photos and video of the launch complex were incredibly beautiful. Rays of light cut the night sky, venting oxygen puffed from the beast, the flare stack burning off excess hydrogen blew wildly in the wind, and ghostly halos surrounded the area.

[The image above was snapped on July 8, 2011, @ 3:17A EDT, from the Saturn V complex at Kennedy Space Center looking east 3 miles to Launch Complex 39A.  Lost in the xenon lights is shuttle Atlantis, receiving a full tank of cryo-fuels for the last time.  Given that LC39A will be dismantled after this flight, the lighting has an especially sad quality to it.  6 second exposure, F5.6, 252mm.]  July 8, 6PM, Orlando. Per usual, but for the last time, I hatched a last minute plan to see the shuttle launch:  Atlantis STS-135.  Flew to Orlando last night, drove to the Cape arriving at 2A, and settled into a very long stretch without sleep.   The whole thing could not have gone better.  I had a great time. Last night, or rather early this morning, NASA was running buses to the Saturn V complex, 3-miles away from the shuttle launch complex.   As soon as I got to Kennedy Space Center, I ran for the bus, got a ride to the 3-mile vantage point and started going nuts with my camera.  Because of atmospheric conditions (near 100% humidity with light precip and very low cloud deck) and the brilliance of the xenon lights that shine on the shuttle during fueling operations, photos and video of the launch complex were incredibly beautiful.  Rays of light cut the night sky, venting oxygen puffed from the beast, the flare stack burning off excess hydrogen blew wildly in the wind, and ghostly halos surrounded the area. After the visit to the 3-mile site, it was back to the main visitor center for 3 hours of sitting on the ground, in line, waiting for the Causeway (6-mile launch viewing site) buses to board.  In the meantime, I addressed and posted envelopes with the STS-133 cachet, completing my collection of cachets for all of the final shuttle flights.  The buses started to role to the Causeway a bit before 8A.  Once situated at the Causeway, I set up my still and video cameras.  Despite the distance and haze, images of the shuttle on the pad were surprisingly clear, the best I've ever taken.  Despite predictions of thunderstorms that would force a scrub of the launch, the weather held and actually improved significantly in the last 45 minutes of the countdown.  The weather variable added an element of uncertainty that was greatly amplified in the last seconds of the countdown.  At T-31 seconds, an engineer in shuttle launch control halted the count because of indications that the liquid oxygen vent cap (the beenie) had not fully retracted from the shuttle as necessary prior to ignition.  Troubleshooting of the problem consumed more than 2 minutes of the closing 5 minute launch window.  Finally, based on visual confirmation, the countdown resumed at the T-31 mark.  This was so reminiscent of Discovery's last launch, which experienced technical problems leaving that shuttle with less than 3 seconds of window as it left the pad.  It was reminiscent, too, in that all of us spectators were thrown for a loop.  At T-31, you're ready to start yelling out cheers and good wishes and prayers.  Instead, suddenly, the count stops, everything goes quiet and the crowd gets squirrely tense. I kept my cool this time and got some very nice ignition and roll program images.  Also, because the cloud deck was relatively low, Atlantis launched, rolled, and marched straight into the clouds very swiftly (about 40 seconds), offering only the slightest additional glimpse as it transited a hole in the deck.  The rocket plume was so impressive, seemed so close, and the intensity of the flame from the solid rocket boosters was bright sunset yellow.  Like no other launch I'd witnessed prior, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause (a standing O') as Atlantis ducked behind the clouds.  It was the end of the show and the audience was very pleased even if we were all in denial of one sort or another. There were a number of special encounters that made this day extra memorable.  First, about 2 hours prior to launch, dolphins began plying the waters of the Banana River, right in front of the Causeway.  Their dorsal fins would breech the water in graceful curving motions as they patrolled parallel to the Causeway.  Then, on the bus ride back to the visitor center after the launch, I ended up sitting next to 3 women who were high-school friends of one of the mission specialists, Rex Walheim.  They all grew up together in Oregon, and it was clear from their stories that they all had dated Rex in turns when they were much younger.  Walheim had invited all three as his guests to witness the flight. Through various twists and turns a bit too boring to explain here, I encountered the most extraordinary group of 3 college students from the University of Buffalo.  Two of them had been chosen at random to participate in the national shuttle launch tweet-up, gaining them access to the launch pad a few hours before fueling, plus face-time with the astronauts.  Two of these students are engineering majors who basically are brilliant.  They have a $125K grant from the Air Force to design a satellite:  one of 14 such grants awarded to college students nationally.  Their project involves the use of "glint radar" techniques to detect the characteristics of objects in space:  mass, constituent materials, fuel composition orbital phase.  Glint radar in this application is significantly more powerful than conventional radar techniques.  Over a unit of distance, glint radar signals degrade 1/r-cubed compared to 1/r-squared for conventional radar (so I was told!).  At the Sunoco on Columbia Boulevard, some 9 miles from KSC, we talked for a full hour about science and engineering and future careers which was a lot of fun.  We talked about changes in technology overtime.  The students complained that University of Buffalo was charging them $250 per use of a scanning electronic microscope for their project.   I explained that back in the day, that would be 1982, my college would probably have been incapable of pricing the use of its SEM, which took up an entire room.  These students at UBuffalo claimed to have access to 15 tabletop SEMs.   Also, catch this.  These two students have 35 U of Buffalo student volunteers providing computer programming support for the Air Force project.  When I mentioned that I worked at Sarah Lawrence, one of the students asked in any of our computer science interested students would be willing to contribute time and programming brain-power to the project.  He also offered to come make a presentation to our students and faculty saying, "we're really trying to improve our PR efforts with this project."  I promised to look into this Also memorable, as was true for all prior launches, was the breadth of geographic, socioeconomic and international diversity in the crowd of spectators.  A couple who drove from Bethel, CT.  The students who drove from University of Buffalo.  A family I met from Louisiana -- they had packed their car with food and pillows and made the drive in a straight shot.  There were New Zeleanders, Brits, Germans, Indians, and people from exotic places like California and New Jersey.  While I suspect that the crowd ultimately was not the 500,000 to 750,000 expected, the turnout was huge.  (The drive back to Orlando took 4 hours, all 40 miles of it.)  All these people clearly are entralled by human space flight and the extraordinary space technology and engineering this nation has produced over time;  all these people, too, were witnessing the end to another element of American exceptionalism. It was interesting to hear more than a few spectators bemoan the end of the shuttle program, placing blame squarely on President Obama for either killing a viable shuttle program (debatable) or leaving us without a way forward for human space flight (not open for debate).   The last of the 17,000 layoffs at NASA and its contractors will occur over the remainder of this year.  Coincidentally, the weak June jobs creation report was released by the Commerce Department the same day that the shuttle program disappeared above the clouds for good, taking with it thousands of livelihoods. Tom

After the visit to the 3-mile site, it was back to the main visitor center for 3 hours of sitting on the ground, in line, waiting for the Causeway (6-mile launch viewing site) buses to board. In the meantime, I addressed and posted envelopes with the STS-133 cachet, completing my collection of cachets for all of the final shuttle flights. The buses started to role to the Causeway a bit before 8A. Once situated at the Causeway, I set up my still and video cameras. Despite the distance and haze, images of the shuttle on the pad were surprisingly clear, the best I’ve ever taken. Despite predictions of thunderstorms that would force a scrub of the launch, the weather held and actually improved significantly in the last 45 minutes of the countdown. The weather variable added an element of uncertainty that was greatly amplified in the last seconds of the countdown. At T-31 seconds, an engineer in shuttle launch control halted the count because of indications that the liquid oxygen vent cap (the beenie) had not fully retracted from the shuttle as necessary prior to ignition. Troubleshooting of the problem consumed more than 2 minutes of the closing 5 minute launch window. Finally, based on visual confirmation, the countdown resumed at the T-31 mark. This was so reminiscent of Discovery’s last launch, which experienced technical problems leaving that shuttle with less than 3 seconds of window as it left the pad. It was reminiscent, too, in that all of us spectators were thrown for a loop. At T-31, you’re ready to start yelling out cheers and good wishes and prayers. Instead, suddenly, the count stops, everything goes quiet and the crowd gets squirrely tense.

I kept my cool this time and got some very nice ignition and roll program images. Also, because the cloud deck was relatively low, Atlantis launched, rolled, and marched straight into the clouds very swiftly (about 40 seconds), offering only the slightest additional glimpse as it transited a hole in the deck. The rocket plume was so impressive, seemed so close, and the intensity of the flame from the solid rocket boosters was bright sunset yellow. Like no other launch I’d witnessed prior, the crowd broke into spontaneous applause (a standing O’) as Atlantis ducked behind the clouds. It was the end of the show and the audience was very pleased even if we were all in denial of one sort or another.

There were a number of special encounters that made this day extra memorable. First, about 2 hours prior to launch, dolphins began plying the waters of the Banana River, right in front of the Causeway. Their dorsal fins would breech the water in graceful curving motions as they patrolled parallel to the Causeway. Then, on the bus ride back to the visitor center after the launch, I ended up sitting next to 3 women who were high-school friends of one of the mission specialists, Rex Walheim. They all grew up together in Oregon, and it was clear from their stories that they all had dated Rex in turns when they were much younger. Walheim had invited all three as his guests to witness the flight.

Through various twists and turns a bit too boring to explain here, I encountered the most extraordinary group of 3 college students from the University of Buffalo. Two of them had been chosen at random to participate in the national shuttle launch tweet-up, gaining them access to the launch pad a few hours before fueling, plus face-time with the astronauts. Two of these students are engineering majors who basically are brilliant. They have a $125K grant from the Air Force to design a satellite: one of 14 such grants awarded to college students nationally. Their project involves the use of “glint radar” techniques to detect the characteristics of objects in space: mass, constituent materials, fuel composition orbital phase. Glint radar in this application is significantly more powerful than conventional radar techniques. Over a unit of distance, glint radar signals degrade 1/r-cubed compared to 1/r-squared for conventional radar (so I was told!). At the Sunoco on Columbia Boulevard, some 9 miles from KSC, we talked for a full hour about science and engineering and future careers which was a lot of fun. We talked about changes in technology overtime. The students complained that University of Buffalo was charging them $250 per use of a scanning electronic microscope for their project. I explained that back in the day, that would be 1982, my college would probably have been incapable of pricing the use of its SEM, which took up an entire room. These students at UBuffalo claimed to have access to 15 tabletop SEMs.

Also, catch this. These two students have 35 U of Buffalo student volunteers providing computer programming support for the Air Force project. When I mentioned that I worked at Sarah Lawrence, one of the students asked in any of our computer science interested students would be willing to contribute time and programming brain-power to the project. He also offered to come make a presentation to our students and faculty saying, “we’re really trying to improve our PR efforts with this project.” I promised to look into this

Also memorable, as was true for all prior launches, was the breadth of geographic, socioeconomic and international diversity in the crowd of spectators. A couple who drove from Bethel, CT. The students who drove from University of Buffalo. A family I met from Louisiana — they had packed their car with food and pillows and made the drive in a straight shot. There were New Zeleanders, Brits, Germans, Indians, and people from exotic places like California and New Jersey. While I suspect that the crowd ultimately was not the 500,000 to 750,000 expected, the turnout was huge. (The drive back to Orlando took 4 hours, all 40 miles of it.) All these people clearly are entralled by human space flight and the extraordinary space technology and engineering this nation has produced over time; all these people, too, were witnessing the end to another element of American exceptionalism.

It was interesting to hear more than a few spectators bemoan the end of the shuttle program, placing blame squarely on President Obama for either killing a viable shuttle program (debatable) or leaving us without a way forward for human space flight (not open for debate). The last of the 17,000 layoffs at NASA and its contractors will occur over the remainder of this year. Coincidentally, the weak June jobs creation report was released by the Commerce Department the same day that the shuttle program disappeared above the clouds for good, taking with it thousands of livelihoods.

On the Wings of Discovery….

Thursday, February 24, 2011
So, today’s journey to witness the final liftoff of shuttle Discovery was an adventure, full of thrills, epic crowds and perhaps the worst case of roadway gridlock in Florida’s history.

It all started with a trip to Orlando in early November for a first launch attempt that scrubbed when microscopic bits of glass and epoxy caused a fuse to send erratic voltages to one of the shuttles six, redundant main engine controllers during preparation for fueling. A launch attempt two days later would shed light on a serious problem with the main cryogenic fuel tanks: the tank was constructed with deficient stringers (metal alloy vertical support brackets that connect the lower liquid hydrogen tank section to the upper liquid oxygen tank section). During fueling of the tanks with super-cold propellants, 3 stringers cracked. Cracked stringers had never before, in 132 previous launches, been found on a flight ready tank. The tank is safety rated to fly with 3 broken stringers, with a margin of error allowing for as many as 8 cracked stringers if spaced sufficiently apart. If not spaced sufficiently apart, the likely scenario would be collapse of the fuel tank in flight, with loss of crew and craft. Fortunately, the 3 cracked stringers caused main tank insulating foam to crack as well, creating an unacceptable flight condition: remember, it was cracked foam that “liberated” from the main tank during the ascent of shuttle Columbia on mission STS-107. That chunk of foam would strike Columbia’s port wing leading edge, creating an undetected whole in the wing. During Columbia’s reentry into Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003, hot plasma entered the damaged wing, causing its disintegration.

Ultimately, it was found that nearly all of Discovery’s 118 stringers were cast using a mottled, substandard alloy. An unprecedented campaign was put in place to reinforce the mottled stringer. In all of this, some lasting truths about the shuttle program were laid bare.

First, the shuttle system was remarkably complex and flexible and capable but extraordinarily fragile. From a systems perspective, right up to the very end, to this last flight of Discovery, NASA and its contractors were never able to fully model and comprehend the myriad risk factors. A superb analysis of the organizational, cultural and resource factors that made this so can be found in The Challenger Launch Decision by sociologist Diane Vaughan of Columbia University. Vaughan’s basic thesis is that NASA after Apollo was forced to meld a capitalistic/bureaucratic operating culture, one dependent on demonstrating profitability, with what once was a pure engineering and experimental culture and mission. In the latter culture, practically all significant technical challenges and risk factors were assigned high priority, with near limitless resources available to develop solutions. Engineers had a strong voice and could readily bring forward to senior managers critical issues. In the former culture, resources were limited, highly determined by political processes, and line engineers were subordinated to a bureaucratic, hierarchical authority structure. In the new organizational culture, the concepts of “acceptable risk” and “experience bases” were abused and misused, to at once prioritize and rationalize critical elements of risk. Vaughn’s work tries to answer the question “How, after 132 prior missions, could a lead contractor and dedicated NASA engineers let the deficient stringers make it all the way to the fueling and launch stage. Where was the quality control? “

Second, the shuttle system after 30 years of service and 133 missions (as of today), was never the “operational” system NASA claimed it was after the first 4 flights of Shuttle Columbia. The loss of Challenger and Columbia, and the screw up with Discovery’s fuel tank, all speak to this. The shuttle was a phenomenal platform for testing and extending technologies for travel to and from low earth orbit, conducting science in microgravity, assembling a complex, semi-permanent space station in orbit, and hauling, deploying and fixing on orbit huge commercial and pure science payloads. But its operation and maintenance were anything but routine. Operating costs never approached breakeven.

Back to the present. Up at 5:30am, got to the rally point for buses to Kennedy Space Center by 6:30am, with arrival at the KSC visitor center at 8:15am. My daughter, Melissa, and I toured the rocket garden, sitting for a time on a bench adjacent to an ancient, rusting Saturn IB, displayed horizontally. We spent some time looking at various exhibits, and then queued up at 11:00am for the buses to the NASA causeway along the Banana River. The skies were blue, with some puffy cumulus and wispy cirrus clouds speeding along, a nice breeze of 10-15 knots blowing at sea level. The lines to the causeway buses were epic. The number of buses deployed was epic. It took 2 hours to travel about 10 miles. Our bus was one of the very last to roll out of the visitor center, depositing us ultimately at the extreme eastern end of the causeway around 1:45pm.

No matter our position on the causeway. We laid out a blanket. Melissa kicked off her sneakers. I set up a tripod with video camera and began snapping photos of the launch pads arrayed in front of us. About 7 miles away stood Discovery against a hazy blue sky, fully fueled, the astronauts onboard, no cracks in the main tank foam — indicating that the reinforced stringers were working as intended. Very few problems were “in work.” Somehow, as support staff closed the crew hatch, a small section of a thermal protective tile broke off, this tile being one of the many thousands of tiles protecting shuttles from searing temperatures when returning to Earth. In the end, this was not a show stopper.

Pink flamingos, pelicans, buzzards and egrets scooted past from time to time. Long silvery fish jumped out of the water and into the air. (Merritt Island, where the space center resides, is a national wildlife refuge.). The atmosphere of the crowd in attendance was tense but euphoric. These were committed people, real enthusiasts, some traveling from Australia, Britain, Canada, France, and all parts of the US, who had accomplished the pilgrimage to witness a shuttle flight from about as close as one can get — and they were among the very lucky few who won tickets in the lottery to see Discovery go on its final flight. (I actually purchased my ticket from a resident of Isle of Man who couldn’t adjust his travel schedule after the initial scrub of Discovery’s flight in November.) Lots of attendees talked about bucket list. Surprisingly, there was very little wistfulness and no institutionally-engineered schmaltz in evidence as we gathered to see the ship fire its engines one last time.

With my video and still cameras set up and shots framed, I headed off in search of the US Postal Service tent to buy and have postmarked first day covers of the launch. Some were addressed to Graham Weinschenk, some to Melissa Blum and some to home. On a day with 80 degree temperatures, bright sun and some humidity, it was my luck that the postal tent was situated as far west along the causeway as one could travel by foot from where Melissa and I had set down our things. No matter. It was a good 2 mile walk. Along the way the NASA launch support helicopter passed overhead doing its traditional, slow security sweep of the causeway and launch site before the T-minus 20 minute hold commenced. The crowds waved at the crew who appeared to be waving back. On the way back to our place on the causeway, I walked between the columns of parked buses, where it was shaded and eerily quiet.

Back with Melissa, with the T-minus 20 hold underway, people-watching was the primary activity. Melissa worked her phone, texting her BFF’s. All seemed well. Great weather, great vehicle with no technical issues, time to fly. Every 30 minutes or so, the countdown audio feed of flight and mission controllers verifying equipment readiness and crew prelaunch steps, broadcast all along the causeway, would pause for an official announcement warning spectators of possible mild skin irritation from the hydrochloric mist created by the solid rocket booster exhaust at launch. Another announcement reminded the causeway crowd that its presence so close to the launch represented a de facto waiver of NASA’s liability in the event of an unanticipated mishap within 30 seconds of launch: including liability due to personal injury from blast effects, debris and toxics. Spaceflight is inherently dangerous the announcer would remind us.

As the countdown clock approached the end of T-minus 9 minute hold, the loud speakers broadcast the go/no-go status reports in launch control and mission control. All sounded well until the launch director polled for go/no-go from the Range Safety Officer (RSO), the Air Force officer responsible for destroying the shuttle system remotely during ascent should it veer off-course or suffer a major malfunction. The RSO replied that “Range Safety cannot support launch at this time due to issues with the range safety master computer console.” Most folks on the causeway did not immediately grasp the implications. The RSO continued, “we will not be able to confirm our status before the end of the T-9 hold, troubleshooting efforts are underway but we do not know if we’ll be ready in time.” Basically, an unexpected electrical surge had hit the range safety ground support systems and it was uncertain whether the range safety systems would perform as needed should a contingency arise. Range Safety has an actual physical go/no-go switch. Unless the switch is in the “go” position, a shuttle launch is impossible. For the moment, the switch would remain at no-go.

Children and groups of teens horsing around didn’t seem to mind, but the grownups hushed up and conversational tones became muted and serious. In launch control, the news apparently created a stir, prompting the launch director to state on the open loop: “okay people, let’s calm down and work the problem.” A few controllers started positing possible solutions to no avail. It was decided that the countdown would continue as planned at the end of the T-minus 9 minute hold. Should it be necessary, Launch Control would initiate an extraordinary hold at T-minus 5 minutes as the single pane launch window opened at 4:45:27PM. This meant, effectively, that NASA was willing to run the countdown all the way to the very last second of the launch window, past the ideal launch time of 4:50:27PM, right up to the point at 4:53:27PM when the mechanics of orbital dynamics, spacecraft weight and thrust, and the boiling off of cryogenic fuel would make it impossible for the shuttle to reach the International Space Station if launched this particular day.

How this was processed by the crowd is difficult to explain. The pessimists among us thought the day was done. Melissa kept telling me I was wrong, it would take off. A level of tension and confusion began to develop. The countdown had moved from an exciting normality, to a contingency mode where the quality of the excitement was less than positive. Those of us who had thought through the timing of video and still shots, who were depending on the typical countdown cues signaling an impending launch, were confused. I lost track of time — it seemed to speed up — overwhelmed by the new countdown timeline and the need to rethink my photographic plans.

T-5 arrived and passed with silence from the RSO. The hold took effect. The launch director polled certain stations again and declared that some would not be polled again in order to provide as much margin as possible to make a last minute launch decision. The voice of shuttle launch control kept announcing the whittling away of the hold which now correlated second-for-second with the closing of the launch window. When the hold ended, if the indication from the RSO remained red, the launch would be scrubbed. As the countdown to the end of the hold approached single digits seconds, there was another poll of stations. A controller came on line and reported hurriedly to the launch director that he had just received verbal confirmation from the range safety manager that the board was green. The launch controller, in turn, announced immediately “we are GO for launch!” This all happened with 3 seconds remaining before the hold would have violated the launch window, leaving Discovery earthbound for at least another day.

The crowd went nuts with elation. I screamed with joy and did a 360 spin, ending with father-daughter fist bumps. Time seemed to accelerate further and tunnel-vision set in.  I was too excited to concentrate fully on the public address countdown. After the fact, I swore that the regular countdown marks were not announced. Melissa agreed. In fact, when reviewing the tape, it was clear that almost all of the usual countdown milestones were announced. What did go missing was the traditional count from T-16, when the waterflow sound suppression system started. As I kept trying to line up shots of the pad, suddenly the announcement came, “go for main engine start…,” followed three seconds later by “…we have main engine start!”

In the end, I did not see the main engines or the solid rocket boosters ignite. While trying to center my video camera’s display, I did get sideways glimpses the growing launch plume and the orange blast forces emerging from the right side of the cloud viewed face on. Through climb out and roll program, I was wrestling with my camera but finally found the good sense to put my still camera aside at approximately T+15 seconds.

The ocular experience was breath-taking and glorious though not as much so as with the night launches of STS-97 and STS-130 that I’d also witnessed from the causeway. On those two prior occasions, Endeavour brought about a sunrise in miniature and the white-blue flame of its three main engines remained visible all the way to main engine cutoff at the threshold of low earth orbit: it was a rising star. (At the launch of STS-97, the climb out was made all the more spectacular by two shooting stars moving east to west across the apparent flight path of Endeavour.)

My primary visual memories of the Discovery launch are these:

• The cloud-white pillar of smoke generated by the solid rocket boosters. It was massive, expanding rapidly in circumference long after the shuttle had sped away. At night, the coumn of smoke simply is not visible.

• The beautiful contrast of the white contrail against a blue sky.

• The intense, pin-point hot yellow of the booster flames at altitude.

• The sudden burst of avian activity around Banana River in the minutes following liftoff.

• Melissa looking skyward, tracking the outbound shuttle.

• As always, the visual and auditory disjuncture in the first 20 seconds of flight between the sight of the shuttle racing upward and the near complete absence of sound — other than the rising, self-synchronized vocalizations of the spectators reacting to the scene.

 

 

The latter observation leads to the one auditory memory I took from Discovery’s final liftoff. When the sound/shockwave generated by ignition reaches the causeway, it’s not one wave but two. First, for 5 seconds, is the roar of the main engine’s coming to life. Then, there immediately follows the sound of the air being fried continuously by the crackling, explosive forces of the boosters. These sounds arrive at a point in time when the shuttle is already miles away from the pad and thousands of feet in altitude. Whether night or day, the effect is the same always: the shockwave drives the spectators to release a primal yell that has something to do with joy and the basic intensity of the moment.

It was wonderful to witness one last time. The sadness I fully expected to feel at the closing of this era, representing the lost promise of “regular” spaceflight, just didn’t happen.

If there was any immediate regret, it was that I became part of one of the worst traffic jams in the history of Central Florida following the launch. How many people came to Kennedy Space Center, and Titusville and Cocoa Beach to witness the launch I do not know. Some reports suggested it might be the third or fourth largest turnout for a NASA launch. Whatever the facts, it took 5 hours, 30 minutes to return to Orlando, a distance of about 50 miles. In the time it took to get back to our hotel, Discovery had completed more than 3 orbits of Earth.

One closing note is in order. In 1980, inspired by a fantastic Physics teacher, Rusty Davis, and the national investment NASA made in engaging youth in space science, I fell headlong in love with science and space exploration. At the time, NASA organized a competition inviting high-school students to submit proposed experiments to be launched aboard early shuttle missions. Students were given a basic set of parameters for designing an experimental platform: one that would interface with Space Shuttle power systems and storage compartments, and would allow for relatively straightforward human manipulation and data collection. I conceived of an experiment to measure observed differences in Brownian motion in micro-gravity versus an earthbound control. The proposed experiment was typed up and mailed by the deadline to NASA. It was not accepted among the 10 finalists – was not even close. I really never addressed the design of the experimental platform, which was too bad. NASA sent me an acknowledgement with a letter of thanks for my interest and support. No matter, I was hooked. And I am happy (and a bit proud) to report the following: in February 1984, an experiment designed by scientists affiliated with the European Space Agency (ESA) flew on mission 41-B (Challenger), the eleventh flight of the space shuttle program, its purpose being to measure the differences in Brownian motion in orbit and on Earth.

I wonder today what our nation, as a matter of policy, is doing to capture and fascinate youthful minds and imaginations, to make young people fans of science, to encourage the same level of investment in scientific understanding that we promoted three decades ago.