We have liftoff!
Cape Canaveral, Florida – The space shuttle Atlantis lifted off today after a nearly flawless countdown, beginning an 11-day mission to refurbish and repair the Hubble Space Telescope for the final time. That’s how a news story would report it. But there’s a lot missing there, even from the viewpoint of spectators watching the launch. It’s easy to find video of the launch – many news networks covered it, and you could get a live stream from NASA TV. But despite the image quality (and the live video from the external tank during ascent), these don’t capture the intensity of the experience. You know what to expect: the countdown reaches T-10 seconds, water tanks flood to minimize damage and to damp the enormous amount of sound energy that would otherwise reflect and damage the spacecraft. The orbiter’s main engines ignite, and start flashing the water into a billowing steam cloud as they come up to full thrust. Then the solid rocket boosters are lit, and the shuttle soon appears above the steam, lit from below.
When the shuttle clears not only the launch tower but the steam cloud, the first impression is how brilliant the orange exhaust of the solid rockets is. Even on a sunlit day, it dazzles the eye, and flashes to show how rapidly it streams downward. A few seconds later, the sound of ignition reaches most viewers, who must be at least 5 miles (circa 8 km) away. This is not something you just hear, you feel it from your feet up. It continues to rip through the air until the shuttle has climbed to perhaps 15 km altitude.
Even in daylight, it is easy to follow the rising shuttle as it shrinks skyward – there is a vapor trail of solid-rocket exhaust pointing the way. Binoculars would show the boosters falling away as their thrust ends, and the remaining brilliant blue-white of the liquid-fueled main engines. My next surprise – how quickly it seemed to be over. Up, up, and away, and in little more than 2 minutes it was out of sight. (At night it’s a bit longer as you follow the starlike point away towards Africa).
Today’s countdown went very smoothly, especially after remembering the many delays some missions have had. The only concerns were the rain in Spain (an emergency landing site), ice on a liquid oxygen fueling line, and a cloud just to the north with aspirations of becoming a thunderstorm.
One tour guide reported that this is the biggest crowd he’s seen in the last 8-9 Shuttle launches. I think that’s a good sign, maybe marking the enormous public interest in Hubble and its discoveries. In fact, that public interest may be one of tthe reasons this mission is happening. This is the fifth servicing mission to the telescope, known as SM4 because the work of the third had to be split between two (SM3A and SM3B), and changing the other numbers would add more confusion. Its planning goes back at least a decade. In the deep examination of shrttle operations following the Columbia tragedy, the availability of a safe haven in case of problems weighed heavily on the minds of administrators – and then-NASA administrator Sean O’Keeffe ruled that Hubble was out of bounds. A massive public outcry followed, with grassroots groups online and organizing campaigns to contact Congress ensuing. Much work was done to investigate whether the required operations could be done robotically, with extensive clean-room tests at NSA facilities going on for a couple of years. But it appeared that the development costs of such a mission would be high, and the deadline before the telescope’s batteries and gyroscopes ran down to tight. When Michael Griffin arrived to head the agency, the options were re-evaluated, and a shuttle mission was back on the table if appropriate rescue plans could be enacted (hence Endeavour on pad 39B right now).
Fast forward to 2008. The mission is almost ready to go. The Cosmic Origins Spectrograph (COS) and Wide-field Camera 3 (WFC3) are in the payload bay. Ambitious repair plans for the electronics in the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) and Advanced Camera Surveys (ACS) have been developed and tested. The next year’s observations to use these instruments have been selected in a peer-review meeting managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute (and Zoo participants will remember our reaction after that!). But, only weeks before launch, a key electronic segment affecting most instruments failed. The mission was delayed again while the failure in the data-formatting system was identified and the spare on the ground was found and flight-qualified (after 18 years in storage).
So now SM4 is in orbit and closing in for a rendezvous with Hubble almost two days after launch. They have a full schedule, with 5 working sessions. Rich resources are available to follow the mission. There is NASA TV, of course, and the official Shuttle news page. Veteran space reporter Bill Harwood has produced an extensive mission timeline. And as you follow along, if there is a sports bar, pub, or restaurant nearby with big-screen TVs and satellite feeds, maybe you can join us in “Raising a wing to Hubble”.