The last voyage of Discovery

February 27, 2011 • 6:06 am

The space shuttle Discovery is on its last (and 39th) mission, ferrying supplies and a robotic astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS).  Not many of us are following it intently—certainly not I!—but we might pause to reflect on how amazing it is that an evolved primate can do something like this.  I am still staggered at the thought that humans constructed vehicles, from the materials of the Earth, to take us to the moon and back.

I still remember the first American in space: Alan Shepherd, who flew for only 15 minutes in 1961.  The country went wild, and even wilder when John Glenn did three orbits the next year.  Now we’re jaded, hardly giving a thought to the notion that there’s a pack of humans continuously orbiting the Earth,  who are sporadically visited and brought supplies by other people in a reusable rocket.

They say that the ISS hasn’t yielded many tangible results, yet I still mourn its demise.  I still remember John Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962, and these words, which gave us chills but stiffened our spines:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. . .

The Atlantic has a page with lots of nice NASA photos of the shuttle, its preparation, and the astronauts. I’ll put up three.

Here’s the shuttle last October, being moved to the Vehicle Assembly building to be joined to its rocket boosters (click this and other photos to enlarge):

A mockup Discovery cockpit, used for training the astronauts:

A view of the shuttle from the ISS after undocking on April 17 of last year.  The island below is the Isla de Providencia, off of Nicaragua.

“nickg_uk” posted this twitpic of the shuttle about to dock with the ISS—it was taken in the UK with a regular Canon camera and a 500 mm lens:

Over in Manchester, England, Matthew Cobb, his family, and his cat Ollie watched the shuttle without binocs or a telescope; Matthew files this report:

We watched it an hour later (after docking) from the garden – slowly moving dot, just like an ordinary satellite, except this one has people in it! Ollie was v confused about us being out in the dark at night so hared up the cherry tree to join in. Girls were more interested in speculating about what he might be thinking (how could you tell?) than gazing in wonder at ISS…

This is about as good as it gets these days – after all we haven’t been able to look at the moon and say there were men up there since 1972! That’s just crap. I want my money back. 21st century is not what it was supposed to be!

Photographer Mark Humpage took this photograph of the space shuttle and ISS travelling together over the UK; it’s the large streak to the left.  This photo (reproduced with permission) is obviously a time-lapse, and was taken with an 8mm fisheye lens.

Here’s a frame from the ISS, showing Discovery when it’s docked.  The docking took place yesterday at 2:15 EST.

What’s it like inside the ISS? Here’s a 7-minute video tour (warning: the first 2.5 minutes include annoying music):

You can see a cool video of where the ISS is right now and what the astronauts would see if the weather were clear.  NASA’s also has an official site that keeps you up to date about the shuttle mission.

And here’s a 21-second video of the aurora borealis taken from the ISS.  Fantastic!

Finally, what would a space station be these days without Twitter?  ISS commander Scott Kelly has a Twitter feed; he often posts pictures of Earth taken from the Station, asking viewers to identify the location.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

17 thoughts on “The last voyage of Discovery

      1. If you’re talking about the astroviewer link, that’s not real-time video. It’s a scrolling Google Maps image of what’s below the ISS right now.

  1. We’re jaded because NASA has set its sights too low since the Moon landings. What would get Americans blood boiling again is a REAL space station, one that looks like what we’ve read about in science fiction books, one that rotates for artificial gravity.

    1. Too bad we’re jaded, because we seem to be getting good bang for the buck with unmanned exploration. We’ve gained an amazing knowledge of the planets and sun, deep space, and even our own planet, but I guess it’s not *sexy* if there aren’t people up there doing it.

    2. “…one that rotates for artificial gravity.”

      Einstein says it’s the real thing. The whole premise of General Relativity is that gravity and acceleration (including centripetal acceleration) are indistinguishable; there’s no experiment you can do that can tell the difference. If the space station were standing still and the whole universe spinning around it, you’d get exactly the same sense of weight (and Coriolis effects) from the pull of the distant stars.

    3. More precisely, it is the Congress, and that supremely intellectual and curious, scientifically and mathematically literate, and boldly thinking polity, the Amuricun people, who have set their sights too low.

      NASA has done what it can with the crumbs afforded it by the Jubilation T. Cornpones on Capitol Hill that aren’t otherwise directed towared subsidies and other corporate welfare earmarked pork.

  2. “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

    Used footage of this exact quote in a History Day project back in high school. I wasn’t alive at that time, but hearing JFK’s determined tone in making that statement was inspiring.

    1. Yes it is inspiring, and the only reason for ever doing anything. The reason why JFK wanted to do it, of course, was because he and the military-industrial complex were concerned that the Russkies would get there first and both exploit its potential mineral riches (still waiting for that one!) and use it as a weapons base (ditto, thankfully). The failure of the Russian challenge, coupled with the lack of financial interest, led to the shut-down of manned exploration in 1972. 🙁 Doesn’t detract from the audacity, bravery and boldness of all concerned, of course!

  3. They say that the ISS hasn’t yielded many tangible results, yet I still mourn its demise.

    Is this supposed to be sarcastic? Because I can’t tell on the background of seeming seriousness.

    If taken seriously:

    First, one may well wonder who “they” are. In the assembly years, with 1-2 hours of supervisory lab time at best, ISS science counted up ~ 140 paper. From the NASA report covering the manned presence assembly years 2000-2008:

    “While the ISS did not support permanent human crews during the first 2 years of operations (November 1998
    to November 2000), it hosted a few early science experiments months before the first international crew took up residence. Since that time—and simultaneous with the complicated task of ISS construction and overcoming
    impacts from the tragic Columbia accident—science returns from the ISS have been growing at a steady pace. From Expedition 0 through 15, 138 experiments have been operated on the ISS, supporting research for hundreds of ground-based investigators from the U.S. and International Partners. Many experiments are carried forward
    over several ISS increments, allowing for additional experimental runs and data collection.”

    Now there is the nominal 6 persons that allow actual research time (since it takes 3 persons to only maintain ISS), so expect the science downpour from orbit.

    It would be interesting to compare those first 5 years productivity with an ordinary lab. OTOH you may instead ask about ROI, which is probably terrible. But ISS isn’t only a lab, at best of times.

    Second, who correlates SST with ISS demise? No more shuttles means ISS bulk construction is finally complete. ISS will continue at least through 2015, likely to 2020. And as all small and great space observatories people will ask for continuations until no longer viable.

    1. Oops, substitute “experiments” for my mention of papers. IIRC they run some 200 papers out of the early years, the link would reference some of that for the interested.

  4. Small comment… the ISS is not ending. The Shuttle program is. The ISS will continue to be serviced by unmanned cargo ships and Russian spacecraft will shuttle crews back and forth.

  5. If we were really trying, we could probably send a manned mission to Mars in 2 decades, tops.

    As it is, I’m doubtful of it happening in 6 decades.

  6. To me it is the shuttle that has been rather the failure – in the long run, if successful in parts – too many resources put into it that could have been spent on the next & hopefully cheaper way of putting people into space. Still, not my taxes paying for it!

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