Thursday, September 08, 2011

The End of the Shuttle program - part I

It's been 2 months since I watched Atlantis rocket into the Florida sky on its way to the International Space Station.  I'll cherish my memories of that day as well as those that followed as we first watched the launch, then watched the SRBs return to port, then eventually, we watched the last space shuttle landing before returning to reality and home.  About 8 minutes after Atlantis disappeared behind the cloud deck about 40 seconds after liftoff, I continued to intently listen to the NASA TV audio - long after about half of the other viewers at Space View Park were heading for their cars and the long parking lot streets they must have experienced.  I listened to all the launch calls and all the abort mode calls as I was amazed at how quickly people started leaving.  Launch wasn't over!  SRB sep still hadn't happened and they were heading for the exits.  It was like Dodger stadium in the 6th inning!  Out of sight, out of mind - as soon as the shuttle pierced the cloud deck and vanished above the clouds, folks were off.  They hadn't even got to the "Go at throttleup" call & they were heading out.  Finally, I heard the call I was waiting for - "MECO!"  That's when I take my first deep breath, knowing that everything went fine all the way into orbit.  Until then, they are still launching and there are still a gazillion things that can go wrong and cause NASA and our brave crew to have a bad day.  "MECO." I hear over the Space View Park loudspeaker. I pumped my fist into the air and called out "They're in orbit!"  And then I also pointed out: "135 launches and not a single failure in the 3 main engines on all of those flights!" Back in April 1981, if you'd asked me what the most likely cause of the first shuttle accident, I would have said it was the shuttle main engines.  They have to burn perfectly for about 8 and a half minutes & there are so many moving parts and so many things pushed to unimaginable limits.  No way they would fly 135 times and not once have a significant failure!  Well, they did.  There were a couple close calls - just before Challengers fatal flight, an engine shut down in flight a little early, but it was only a sensor error and it was late enough during launch that the shuttle was able to limp into orbit with the only ever abort call during launch, "Abort to Orbit" where they burned the other engines a little longer and made it into a useful orbit without having to make an emergency landing at some runway around the world.  There was another close call during the first launch with a female commander when the engine nozzles had a small leak in a propellant line used to cool the engine bells.  But that wasn't in the guts of the main engines even.  135 times 3 times 8.5 minutes (less about 7 minutes for 3 of them on poor Challenger).  That is about 57 hours of main engine burn time!  If you had told me that the main engines would burn for almost 2.5 days without a single failure back in 1981, I would have laughed you out of the room.

The shuttle was an amazing vehicle, despite its flaws and shortcomings.  In a few blog posts, I plan to talk a bit more about the Space Shuttle.  I just wanted to start this off on the 2 month anniversary of the last ever Space Shuttle launch.  Click on this link to see my view of that launch:

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home