Saturday, February 6, 2010

Last Nightime Shuttle Launch - Next Stop, the Moon?

"NASA to Launch Space Shuttle on Super Bowl Sunday"
Space.com (February 6, 2010)

"NASA is about to launch the mother of all Super Bowl pregame shows with the space shuttle Endeavour, which is poised to blast off before dawn on Sunday morning.

"Endeavour and a crew of six astronauts are slated launch toward the International Space Station from a seaside pad here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Liftoff is set for 4:39 a.m. EST (0939 GMT), about 14 hours before the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints kick off Super Bowl 44 in South Florida.

" 'It's going to be a special day,' said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach. 'We're going to launch Sunday morning and we're going to watch the big game Sunday night.'

" 'It's going to light up the ground around,' he said. 'You should be able to see it from as far as the Carolinas, I think, if the skies are clear. It should be a wonderful sight.' In fact, experts say the shuttle could be visible from as far away as New York if the skies are clear enough...."

"...Endeavour's flight comes less than a week after President Barack Obama ordered NASA to scrap its current plan to replace the shuttle fleet with new Orion spacecraft and their Ares rockets to send American astronauts into space and on to the moon.

"Instead, the administration released a 2011 budget request for NASA that would set aside funding to develop new technologies and support commercially built spacecraft that could send astronauts back to the moon – or to asteroids or Mars – faster than the old path...."

Besides more discussion of tomorrow's launch, the Space.com article goes into a little detail of the new Tranquility Module, a sort of dome-shaped bay window for the International Space Station.

I've got mixed feelings about the new direction NASA's going in. On the one hand, I've been following the manned space program since the Mercury days. This is a big change, with no direct successor to the shuttle fleet. I'm a bit nostalgic about the NASA manned space program right now.

On the other hand, I'm glad to read that the federal government is going to get out of the way and let outfits like Virgin Galactic and Bigelow Aerospace develop next-generation spaceliners, cargo ships, and tourist destinations.

And get some serious science done, too, I expect. Money for those university research grants goes somewhere, you know.

My guess is, that with people who want to make a profit in the foreseeable future running transportation services, the cost-per-pound for lifting payloads to low Earth orbit - or to the Moon - will go down. And, assuming that Virgin Galactic isn't the only business on Earth offering the service, the cost of a ticket should go down as operating expenses do.

Meanwhile, there'll be one spectacular night launch left for the shuttle.

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