Monday, May 16, 2011

Last Trip for Space Shuttle Endeavour; and Reaching for the Stars

"NASA Launches Space Shuttle Endeavour on Final Voyage"
Clara Moskowitz, (May 16, 2011)

"The space shuttle Endeavour, the youngest orbiter in NASA's fleet, soared into the morning sky Monday to begin the final mission of its 19-year career.

"Endeavour blazed a path through the sky here at the Kennedy Space Center at 8:56 a.m. EDT (1256 GMT), lifting off from the seaside Launch Pad 39A.

" 'It was a fantastic launch, a really great day for us,' shuttle mission management team chair Mike Moses said after the launch. 'We're happy to be in orbit.'

"The shuttle and its six-man crew are bound for the International Space Station, where they will spend 16 days delivering spare supplies and an ambitious astrophysics experiment. [Photos: Shuttle Endeavour's Final Mission]

" 'Looks like a great day to launch Endeavour for the final time,' launch director Mike Leinbach told the crew as the minutes and seconds ticked down to liftoff. 'On behalf of thousands of proud Americans who've been part of the journey, good luck, godspeed, see you back here on June 1.'..."

(NASA, used w/o permission)
"...Space shuttle Endeavour launches on the STS-134 mission to the International Space Station. Photo credit: NASA"

Space Shuttle Mission STS-134 is off to a good start.

Part of the article is a sort of human-interest section, mentioning Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, whose husband is on this mission; and Apollo 11 crew member Mike Collins. Also miscellaneous members of Congress and foreign dignitaries.

Of more interest to the Lemming, Endeavour's cargo includes the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) particle detector. It's designed to detect cosmic rays - the sort that don't get through Earth's atmosphere. That should open a new window for astronomers: and may shed 'light' on just what dark matter is. Assuming that dark matter isn't a contemporary equivalent of phlogiston. And that's another topic.

Then there's supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). That bit of inventory isn't quite so exciting: "a new tank of ammonia coolant, equipment for the station's Dextre robot, and spare parts for the laboratory's antenna communications system." It's sort of like furnace filters: routine; nothing to brag about; but vitally important.

Wait a minute: "equipment for the station's Dextre robot" was in that list of supplies. Between ammonia coolant and spare parts for an antenna. We've come a long way, since Apollo 11.

"Reach for the Stars"

The article repeats what Endeavour's commander Mark Kelly said before leaving:

"...'As Americans, we endeavor to build a better life than the generation before and we endeavor to be a united nation,' Kelly said in the final moments at the launch pad. 'In these efforts we are often tested. It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop.'..."

The Lemming is inclined to agree with Endeavour commander Kelly on that point: that "we must not stop" reaching for the stars. Not that the Lemming expects to be around when folks do reach the stars.

The Lemming lives in the United States, and won't do the conventional agonized writhing about America's failings, real and otherwise. You've heard it all before, anyway.

It's not just America that's reaching for the stars. Yes, this country has a half-dozen or so spaceports - so far. But other nations already have break-in-bulk points for outward-bound material - and more are on the way. There's a growing list of active national space programs.

Remember: Endeavour is making a cargo run to the International Space Station.

The Lemming won't make an impassioned plea to maintain the NASA budget - although it looks like the feds are spending money on a whole lot more than reusable spaceships and missions to Titan. (May 10, 2011)

The Space Shuttle program has demonstrated that semi-regular cargo and passenger runs can be made to and from low Earth orbit. Even with a massive federal program running the show. That's been, in the Lemming's opinion, a remarkable achievement.

But government programs aren't the only way to get things done. (October 4, 2009)

It's the Lemming's opinion that commercial operations - where folks have an incentive to get something done on time and on budget - will soon become major players in transportation and support services. For the first few hundred miles out from Earth, anyway.

Think commercial satellites: which are probably involved in any television you watch today. Even if you don't use a satellite service. Cable television providers get their signals from somewhere, you know - and that's yet another topic.

'This Space for Rent'

The Lemming remembers watching a terribly serious thinker sputtering after the Russian space program launched a satellite.

His problem wasn't that the Russians had practical launch vehicles. He seemed offended because those people had put an advertisement on the rocket. Imagine!! That was an affront to science, apparently.

The Lemming's understanding of the situation was that the Russian space program was short on funds - and sold advertising space on their launch vehicle to help cover expenses. Which, to the Lemming, made sense.

Maybe it would be nice if exploration of space could be a 'pure' pursuit: an occupation of gentlemen; unsullied by mere commercial concerns.

The Lemming doesn't think that's how it's going to happen.

Common Sense, Safety, and Leaving the 19th Century

One objection the Lemming has run into, when the idea of commercial operations in space comes up, is safety. It's a legitimate concern. There's a lot that can go wrong, and that occasionally has.

But this isn't the 19th century.

Thomas Nast's wicked plutocrats aren't, in the Lemming's opinion, typical entrepreneurs these days.

As for safety?

There was appalling disregard, something like a century back, for working conditions and product quality. This was partly responsible for the occasionally-irrational regulations American companies and consumers have to put up with - again in the Lemming's opinion. Some regulations do make sense - the Lemming's opinion again: and that's yet again another topic.

Of course, occasionally you'll run into a daft executive or manager who doesn't know that it's bad business to poison the customers, waste money, or both. (November 22, 2010, September 9, 2010,

That sort of self-destructive behavior seems to be self-correcting, except where the feds bail out losers. Still another topic. Topics. (December 12, 2008)

When it's Time to Build Spaceships - - -

Outfits like Bigelow Aerospace and Starchaser Industries, Ltd. are jockeying for position to put rental property in orbit - and provide ferry service for the research labs, factories, and resort hotels that'll probably be there before most of you have grandchildren.

That's exciting. But - yet once more - that's the Lemming's opinion.

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