Monday, February 28, 2011

Final launch of Discovery....and I was there!

Tom and Keith awaiting launch
I just got back from Florida Saturday night.  A long day of traveling with a drunk cowboy kicking the back of my seat all the way across the country.  I nearly turned around and told him what I thought but figured he would chase me through the terminal once I got off the plane.
It was kind of a quick decision to go to the launch, it was delayed back in November for a bunch of reasons including the cracks in the tank which required it to go back to the hanger for repairs.  Expecting a clogged up Gator Tours server the morning they sold them, I was surprised to find the web site open and fully functional.  Bought a ticket and realized at that point that it was time for a vacation, I was going to the launch!
As usual, anytime you try to see this thing fly, it's stressful.  Tickets bought about a month ahead, then NASA has to have the Flight Readiness Review to "officially" lock in the launch date and time about 2 weeks before flying.   The FRR passed (*whew!*) and launch was officially 2/24/11 at 4:50pm.

 (click on any of the photos to see full size)

Final time on 39A
Flew out on the red-eye flight on the 22nd at midnight.  I'll have to say that I sleep better on the daily ride on the Metro 111 bus than I did on the 737.  I kept waking up with my arm asleep, ankle jammed, drool on my chin or back twisted.  I met with Keith, one of my friends that I ride the bus with to work.  I actually talked him into going (not much arm twisting required).  He bought a ticket, and planned his trip around the Daytona 500 race.  Keith is also a pilot, although all his landings are engine-out (he flies and owns a glider), so we do speak the same language.  It was fun to have someone to travel around with, even if I do run into other people in Florida that I know from the forums or other connections.  Hard-core space geeks tend to know each other even if located in different parts of the world!
Discovery has cleared the tower!
After a little sleep on the night of the 23rd, I dragged out of bed at about 4am.  Shower, breakfast, gathering of cameras and enjoying the feeling of wearing shorts and a t-shirt in late February, we met the tour bus a few miles down the road. 
Several hours at the visitor center and back on the bus for the ride to the causeway.  I heard there was about 400,000 people there for this launch.  Not sure if that was total or just on NASA property.  I was just glad I wasn't driving!
The final hours before the launch are spent staring at the spacecraft across the water, watching an occasional dolphin, talking with total strangers who all share a common excitement, and checking, rechecking the camera again and again.
Rolling over and climbing
In the final moments of the countdown everyone is on their feet with cameras poised, all eyes out toward the east at the white space-plane in the distance.   What's that?!  The announcer said that the Range Safety has a problem and they are going to hold at the 5 minute mark.  Aw, Crap!!  Spacecraft, weather, crew, everything is go, but the team that blows up the shuttle if it strays toward the  Magic Kingdom is having a computer problem.  Tension and stress builds as the count continues.  Thirty years and the Range Safety hasn't had to blow up a shuttle, just pop Challenger's wandering boosters after they destroyed the shuttle with the leaky o-rings.  They won't blow up Discovery on her final flight, get on with it!
With only 3 seconds remaining in the launch window the countdown was resumed.  Talk about stress!!!  Normally I'm a fairly quiet person but I did yell out a "YEAAAHHHH!!!" and punched my fist in the air when I heard that.  I wonder who's had a faster heart rate in the final minutes?  Me or the astronauts strapped into that thing?  Pretty intense excitement - even after seeing 2 other launches.
I've tried to describe launches before, but it's just hard to really put it in words that can describe what it's like.  I did notice more this time the feeling of the sound hitting my chest, but didn't notice any feeling of the ground shaking or anything.  I just wish the shuttle would take it's time getting off the ground the show happens so fast.  I feel that this launch was the fastest that I have seen, but I know that isn't the case.  If it would just struggle into the air and pick up speed slower, like the old Saturn V did, then we could enjoy the feeling and view of it longer.   But it's a hot rod compared to the Saturn and doesn't waste time leaving the planet.
Booster separation - always a relief
It's kind of an emotional thing too seeing the last flight.  Growing up with the shuttle over the last 30 years I have always tried to watch or record the launches whenever I could.  When I was in high school, I would delay my bike ride to school and get an excuse note from mom so I wouldn't get busted for being late.  I would then ride my bike to school imagining it was a shuttle.  I would ride as fast as I could for 2 minutes and jump a curb (no bike helmet in those days) when my 'boosters' separated then coast the rest of the way down main street.  I was imaginative!  I still collect flown items, models, autographs of astronauts lucky enough fly in it, and read most of the books I can get my hands on about the shuttle.
Empty pad
Shuttle stuff in dining room
In the last few minutes of the countdown, I realized I was witnessing a very historical moment - the last time Discovery would fly.  I felt kind of sad...then the Range problem, the tension, and finally the biggest thrill of seeing 6.8 million pounds of thrust ignite just 6 miles away.
As I write this, I just heard they extended the mission for one more day.  Hopefully, they will take the Soyuz for a flight around the "pattern" and take some photos of the entire ISS complex with Discovery and all the other cargo spacecraft and Soyuz docked.  Such an amazing photo that will be if they work it out and do it.
Then in a few days we'll hear the call "Discovery, wheels stopped" after she lands for the final time.....never to fly again, that will be a sad moment.
Godspeed Discovery!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Aways rare winter clear skies. M78 in Orion

February 1st there was one of those nights that was clear and moon free.  Usually it's clear when the moon is full, but got lucky this time.  It was time to go after something new that I've never imaged before, so I went after the M78 nebula in Orion.  This is a pretty tough object, since there a dark gas/dust clouds around the brightly illuminated area.  If you capture and process it right, the dark dust can be seen against the darker background.  Although, I have a lot of noise in the image still, I did manage to pull the darker stuff out of the sky.
Autoguiding is still not perfect but getting better.  Stars are still not round, but closer.  I'll have to reprocess this and try faking it to make stars round.
Technical details:

Date: February 1, 2011 - 8pm to 10:45pm
Telescope: Meade 12" LX200 Classic at f/6.3
Camera: modified Canon 350D with CLS filter
ISO: 800
Exposures: 19 x 5.5 minutes
Software: ImagesPlus

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lost in space....

I always liked this quote...
"If we die, we want people to accept it. We're in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life."
               --Gus Grissom Apollo 1
8 years ago Columbia was lost.
25  years ago Challenger vanished.
44 years ago Apollo 1 burned.
The lost shuttles - Columbia STS-4, and Challenger
I wasn't born yet when Apollo 1 happened, so I don't have much that I can say about that other than what I know from studying the Apollo program.    February 1st, 2003 was another one of those bad days that I woke up hearing news on my clock radio that didn't make me reach over and hit the snooze button for another 9 minutes of slacking before I dragged myself out of bed.  The other time before this was September 11.  In my groggy state of sleep, with a heavy cat holding me down, all warm and cozy I hear "...reentry...pieces...lost...Columbia..."  Hearing that I jumped out of bed, cat goes flying as I dive toward the TV across the room to hit the power on my TV while quietly saying "Oh sh__, oh sh__...not another one!".  I hear the audio before the tube warms up and I'm hearing "...shuttle Columbia has evidently broken up on reentry over Texas..."  I'm squinting at the dim image as it fades into view on the TV and get that cold feeling you get when something really scary happens.  The screen lights up with images of flaming chunks crossing the sky over Texas, then another view of grass fires, a chunk of metal in a street and a photo of the 7 crew members.
Again, I was the first to hear of the latest disaster, called my parents and sister and said "turn on the TV now.....doesn't matter what channel, just turn it on...."  my mom hates those calls from me.  This was on a Saturday, so I didn't have to work that day and stared at the TV until late afternoon, until I realized that the news just kept repeating as well as the videos.
Strangely, I didn't seem to be affected by Columbia as much as Challenger did 25 years ago.  I think Challenger was the "JFK" of my generation, and probably the first big traumatic historical thing to ever happen that I was witness to.  Also, it was only just under 2 years since 9/11, so I may have been callused to disasters at that time.
My school ignored most shuttle events (it was old news after 25 flights anyway) and there wasn't any organized event to watch the Challenger launch, even though a teacher was on board. I guess it wasn't a Sammamish high school teacher, so why would they care?  Launch coverage pretty much sucked by then anyway, coverage started at T-9 seconds then back to normal programming before the booster separation, "The Price is Right, with your host -  Bob Barker!" was more interesting than a routine shuttle flight.
Challenger was a huge blow to me, I had been a pretty hard-core "shuttle hugger" by then and before the internet, I would watch the news every night with my finger the REC button on the VCR to collect any news I could get.  I still have my old tapes in the basement along with about 12 hours of Challenger coverage.  Newspapers were my "internet" in those days, I would cut out everything I find on the shuttle and tuck it into folders and albums.  Yeah, I still have those newspapers, they are in a collection along with St. Helens, 9/11, and the moon landings.  So being such a shuttle geek, Challenger felt like I lost an old pet.  I didn't know the astronauts, have any ties with any of them, never met them (although, Judy Resnik was at Abbotsford Airshow a few years previously, but I didn't manage to see her).  1986 was going to be a huge year for spaceflight, Hubble was launching, shuttle was operational with 12 flights scheduled, teacher was flying, and there was talk of a journalist going later, what an exciting year!
*Oooof*  a firm punch in the gut, and it was all over in 73 seconds and that view of the big ugly "Y" (or "why?") in the sky.  I think it took me over a week before I could function somewhat normally after that.  I'm thinking it was the same kind sadness back in 1963 when Kennedy was killed?  At least that is what I understand from comparisons from those who were around when that happened.
I think most have noticed 25 years ago as well as today again, the main emphasis has been on the non-astronaut of the crew of Challenger.  Sure, Christa McAuliffe was the first of us "normal types" to get a chance to fly in space, but there were 6 others on that flight also.  Let's not forget Dick, Mike, Ellison, Ron, Judy, and Greg!
With 2 or possibly 3 missions left, I'm going to really miss seeing the shuttle fly.  Over the last 30 years I went from local broadcast TV and a VCR with my finger, to a remotely accessible Mythtv computer and satellite TV with NASA TV channel.  Whatever way I get my video shuttle fix, I still watch the launches!  I've attended 2 launches in person and hope to see at least one more if possible.  If you can go, DO IT! (Just remember, the line forms behind me).  It's absolutely terrifying seeing that bird go, the power even from 6 miles away is humbling, and my tv recordings now matter how well recorded can't do it justice.  I hope there is a way to capture it as it really appears and sounds somehow, but I don't think there is - even Imax can't do it.  Too bad for future generations who won't witness this.  What will future generations have?  Right now after the shuttle, there will be nothing for the future - at least not with the US manned program.  That is a whole different blog entry for later.
"If this thing doesn't come out right, don't worry about me, I'm just going on higher." 
-- Mission Specialist Michael Anderson to his pastor, before STS-107