Retrospective: The coolest orbital image of 2011

29 05 2012

Space shuttle Atlantis leaves a glowing trail from the heat of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere on its way home. (Credit: NASA)

In case you missed it, nearly a year ago on July 21, 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis was imaged as it began its fiery descent toward Earth.  As the final flight of the shuttle fleet, this was truly the last opportunity to grab this sort of image, and somehow the International Space Station Expedition 28 crew managed to snap the hero shot.

This visual – a heroic, blazing return to our world from the abyss beyond – is something sci-fi has been showing us for decades but that reality had yet to provide. 

A great moment, visually and historically.

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Views of a last space shuttle launch

26 06 2011

USSR's first and last Space Shuttle (Buran) launch, 11/15/1988. (Credit: RSK)

As NASA nears the final launch and retirement of its mainstay Space Shuttle, I think it only fitting to review another final Space Shuttle launch – one made twenty-three years ago.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. launched its own Space Shuttle, the Buran, for what would be the first and last time.  Replay camera videos of the automated launch and landing (yes, automated – in 1988!) can be found here and here, respectively.

Watching this footage now leads me to strange musings on the Russian space program that might have been and provides an eerie foreshadowing of what it will feel like to watch Atlantis’s final launch in only a couple of weeks.  Will NASA’s shuttle fleet suffer the same fate?  Will what was once an arguably successful and certainly iconic space transportation system soon be reduced to an array of archival YouTube videos?

The Buran, which means "snowstorm" in Russian, staged at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to launch. (Credit: RSK)

Buran, which is an obvious response to NASA’s Space Shuttle, arose due to the perceived military potential of the shuttle’s cargo bay.  In a piercingly accurate assessment recounted by Russian rocket engineer and historian Boris Chertok, U.S.S.R. defense analysts projected that NASA’s new spaceplane could be profitable only if it flew more than twice a month.  Because this was not the case, the U.S.S.R. concluded that NASA’s shuttle was, in fact, military-subsidized.  A response was necessary, and Buran was the result.

The first flight of the Buran was an astonishing success.  A specially-designed rocket, the largest liquid-fuel rocket ever constructed, lofted Buran to an insertion orbit.  Buran separated from the rocket without incident and fired its own rockets to boost its orbiting altitude.  It remained on orbit to circle the Earth twice before automatically firing its rockets for descent and an unpiloted glide landing.

The automated landing system nailed the touchdown to within 30 feet.  (The idea that this shuttle landed itself when I still thought a Nintendo represented state-of-the-art computing power is absolutely mind-boggling!)

The eerily familiar sight of Buran lifting off from the Cosmodrome's Launch Complex 37, site 110 left. (Credit: RSK)

However, economic difficulties and political instabilities saw that the triumphant 1988 inaugural launch would be Buran’s last.  The U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991, leaving the expensive Buran space program unfunded and in disarray.  The Buran visited airshows periodically and remained in storage until it was destoyed in 2002 when the Kazakhstan hangar containing it collapsed due to neglect.

-A tragically undignified ending to a remarkable craft.

Now, history is ripe with ironic twists.  As it would turn out, NASA’s Space Shuttle was not military in nature, (though certainly defense-sponsored research and even a satellite deployment or two was performed from time to time,) and so the military push to produce Buran was off the mark in the first place.  However, the automated spaceplane landing Buran successfully achieved would not be replicated until just last year, when an automated military spaceplane was launched by the U.S. Air Force (see: X-37).

It looks like the Russians were a couple of decades ahead of the defense curve on that one.

Today, just as NASA’s shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, there are talks of the Russians resurrecting the Buran.  Time will tell whether or not funding and political support materializes from Russia, but perhaps America’s new, small, automated military spaceplane will once again provide the impetus for Buran to rise from the ashes.  (Frankly, I’ll take military paranoia when it spurs the advancement of space exploration hardware.)

Buran completing an unpiloted landing after its first successful orbital flight. (Credit: RSK)

So, as the sun sets on NASA’s workhorse fleet, I am given to wonder where all last-lofted spaceplanes will sit in the annals of spaceflight history.

Was the idea of the reusable orbital cargo spaceplane a needlessly complicated hiccup in the evolution of space transportation systems, or was it a visionary leap in spacecraft design?

-Something to ponder while watching launches and landings on YouTube.





Humanity’s outpost in the sky

8 09 2010

ISS and Atlantis (docked) visible in front of the Sun as seen from Earth. 05/22/2010. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

A short note this morning on humanity in the cosmos.  In the above image, an outstanding French photographer managed to capture what otherwise would have whipped by in the blink of an eye.

Crop of the ISS and Atlantis (docked) in front of the Sun. (Credit: Thierry Legault)

For an instant on May 22nd, the International Space Station (ISS) and the docked Atlantis orbiter (space shuttle) moved between Earth and the Sun as they screamed past at colossal orbital speed (16,500 miles per hour).  Rapid photography, meticulous planning, and much skill managed to catch the fleeting moment.

(The ISS and shuttle are visible to the left of the Sun’s center, with the station’s long pairs of solar panels bracketing the shuttle on the left-hand side, its nose angled away.)

My point in posting this morning, aside from sharing the epic “gee-whiz” factor implicit in this photograph, is to try and bring home something about scale, the cosmos, and our place in it.

While looking at the awe-inspiring photo, try to realize that the point of view of the photo -the Earth’s surface- is nearly 250 miles away from the ISS, but the Sun’s backdrop is a full 93 million miles behind it.

Think about that for a moment.  Another way of looking at it is that the ISS is nearly 360 feet wide.  The sun behind it is 4,567,200,000 feet wide, (or 865,000 miles in width, more than 100 Earths across.)  How big is that?  How far away does that have to be?

-That’s like holding out a matchbox car at arm’s length in California and having it be dwarfed by something sitting in Russia.

The ISS, taken from Atlantis as it undocked on May 23, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When looking at the photo and realizing this immense reality of scale, the ISS’s cosmic ranking starts to come into perspective.  Even considering that the ISS is likely the most ambitious international effort ever attempted, (and by logical extension, arguably humanity’s most collectively ambitious project to date,) it is still clearly just the beginning of humanity’s toe-hold on the rest of the cosmos.

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  (Thanks, Douglas…)  Ahem..

But seriously, maybe by looking at images like the above transit image by Theirry Legault and forcing your brain to accept what it knows to be true – that the station and all of its habitable space (roughly comparable to a 3,000 square-foot house) is just a speck, our entire Earth could be swallowed whole by the Sun without it even noticing, and our Sun is just a mediocre star amongst billions of burning brothers in the cosmos – we’ll all come to realize that we should really start moving out into the rest of the universe… just for safety’s sake.

We’re obviously really significant to ourselves.  Yet, to 99.999% of the rest of the universe, we haven’t even gotten into little league.  Metaphorically, no one knows we exist yet, and minor league players out there like asteroids and comets, (not to mention major league events like nearby supernovas,) can still easily wipe us out.

So, if we want a shot at winning the world series someday, (interpret the cosmic meaning of this increasingly threadbare analogy as you will,) we’d better start playing ball.

 

Artificial gravity and large-scale settlement space station designed by Wernher Von Braun. (Credit: Courtesy NASA/MSFC Historical Archives)








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