Atlantis and Mir

As I wrote two days ago, the last time the photo of a space shuttle docked to a space station was taken, it was in 1995, when Atlantis docked with Russia’s Mir. In the photo above, taken by a Mir cosmonaut as Atlantis departed, five astronauts bid farewell to Mir after a three-day visit in November 1995. It was the third Mir-NASA missions, during which the shuttle used its robotic arm to attach a docking tunnel to the Mir, so that future shuttles could dock without getting too close to the station’s delicate solar panels.

On June 29th 1995, Atlantis became the first US spacecraft to dock with a Russian spacecraft since the Apollo-Soyuz mission two decades earlier. During the Cold War, Mir-NASA would have been not only unthinkable, but also antithetical to what the space shuttle stood for.

In fact, even the International Space Station was initially conceived as a Cold War venture; when he greenlit the project in 1984, Ronald Reagan harbored Kennedyesque ambitions to one-up the Soviets and their puny Mir. With their enormous cargo bays, the shuttles became a crucial tool for these ambitions. (Nothing revealed these Cold War ambitions more than the names of these space stations. Mir meant Peace, while throughout the 1980s, NASA planned to launch another space station called Freedom).

Then suddenly, the space race was history, and nine Mir-NASA missions were carried out between 1995 and 1997, with Atlantis only flying seven straight missions. Last months of the joint project were terse, as the mission battled near-disasters; the aging Mir posed many problems to the shuttle astronauts. When Mir was launched into orbit on Feb 20th 1986 — less than a month after the Challenger exploded, it was planned to be in orbit for only five years, but flew for thrice that length of time.  The Russians had initially planned to deorbit the abandoned Mir in early 2000, but thanks to some private investors, it lived for a year more. It finally came down on March 23rd 2001.

Shuttle and ISS

Space travel involved taking risks and making sacrifices. Among many sacrifices were really expensive cameras. When astronauts came back from the moon, they left their Hasselblads on the moon to make space for moon rocks. After Paolo Nespoli took the above photo, he left his three Nikons to fiery destruction.

It was the ultimate photo-op: the first ever – and the last possible – photo of a space shuttle docked to the International Space Station. (Previously, only photos of  Atlantis docked to the Mir Space Station were taken — back in 1995.) It was taken on May 23rd 2011, during Endeavor’s last mission, and months of preparation and negotiation went into the making of this photo. Officials from the US and Russia arranged to overlap Endeavor’s mission with Soyuz’s, so that someone can take these photos.

The honor was given to the Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli who was leaving the ISS with Soyuz. Cape Canaveral and Moscow also agreed to rotate the ISS 130 degrees to give Nespoli the full view. However, Soyuz allows no extra weight aboard the descent module. After taking out the SD cards, Nespoli left $20,000 worth of cameras in the orbital module, which destructs in the Earth’s atmosphere. Since Soyuz is also not equipped to transmit the photos, the world didn’t see the photos until Nespoli landed back.

You can see all the photos and videos he took here. One day, they will no doubt be in textbooks, showing two of the most expensive things mankind has ever built.

And we will say, never was so much spent on so few things to achieve so little.

And we will say, what a wonderful age it was. What a wonderful age it is.

The Things They Carried

In addition to astronauts and satellites, the shuttles hauled many mementos into space.

With countless telecommunication flotsam and jetsam drifting there, the space now resembles the Earth’s attic. Space shuttle mission took many a cherish keepsake, both personal and communal, into that shared space: monopoly pieces, the Olympic torch, a replica of the golden spike from the Transcontinental Railroad, and rocks from the top of Mt. Everest and the surface of the moon. The doomed Challenger carried with it a drawing of the earth made by a kid inside a concentration camp during the Holocaust. On the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, a cargo tag from the colony accompanied Atlantis.

There were often corporate sponsors too. Since the very first space shuttle flight in April 1981, M&Ms accompanied every mission, right up to the final one that’s currently underway. In 1985, at the giddy peak of the Cola Wars, Coca-Cola and Pepsi both went up, ostensibly to “test packaging and methods of dispensing the liquids in a microgravity environment”.

In the recent years, as the public support over the shuttle program slowly dwindled, the PR campaigns were stepped up. Luke Skywalker’s original lightsaber, Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story, and ashes of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry were sent up, highlighting the fine line between fantasy and reality. For fanboys everywhere, the last shuttle mission will carry an iPhone and an Android Phone skywards.

Sport fans are appeased by a wide variety of memorabilia that went up: the home plate from Shea Stadium, dirt from Yankee Stadium, jerseys if every shape and color, including Lance Armstrong’s Tour-de-France-winning yellow one. An astronaut threw a first pitch via video from the ISS. Three green NASCAR starter flags were included in a shuttle mission that began with: “Gentlemen, start your space shuttle main engines.”

The Challenger Disaster

I have previously written about it, but no history of shuttle program will be complete without one of its low points: the Challenger Disaster. 

Hours after the Challenger disaster, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation. The astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth … to touch the face of God,” he said, quoting the poet-aviator John Gillespie Magee. But a more memorable quote that day was that of the mission control; as the shuttle exploded with seven astronauts onboard, an oddly detached commentary came: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

Writing in the Washington Monthly five years before the disaster, Gregg Easterbrook warned that the shuttles’ solid rocket boosters were not safe. On that fatal day, the cold air created a rupture in a seal on one of the boosters, letting a jet of flame escape and igniting the fuel. The last words from Challenger were “We are go at throttle up!” — this application of maximum thrust turned out to be a fatal act.

It was assumed that some survived the initial explosion but subsequently perished during descent and impact. The crew’s remains were flown from Kennedy Space Center to Dover Air Force Base for formal identification. The above photo was taken at that poignant moment as seven fellow astronauts accompanied the caskets on the journey. The crew was buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. NASA buried all the remains of the Challenger in an old missile silo and sealed it with tons of concrete so the debris would never be auctioned off or commercially exploited.

The subsequent investigation, the Rogers Commission, was a revelation; engineers who knew about the boost-joint problem asked NASA not to launch that day and were ignored. NASA and its private contractors had at first failed to recognized the design flaw, then “failed to fix it and finally treated it as an acceptable flight risk”. In short, the commission noted that it was an “accident rooted in history”.

But interestingly, the committee recommended that essentially nothing change. No one was fired; no additional safety systems were added to the rocket boosters whose explosion destroyed Challenger; no escape-capsule system was even discussed. Easterbrook wrote, “Post-Challenger “reforms” were left up to the very old-boy network that had created the problem in the first place.”

Space Shuttle Program (1981 – 2011)

After three decades, Atlantis which was launched on Saturday will be NASA’s last space shuttle mission. For the next eleven days, it will be orbiting the Earth, and for the next eleven days, the Iconic Photos will feature the most breathtaking images from the shuttle’s career.

Nixon and NASA administrator James Fletcher redefined the space program after the Apollo missions

First, a disclaimer: I am not a fan of the space program; my friends go so far as to say I have “deep-seated mistrust in science and scientific community”. Many articles and pundits this week noted — and will note — the space shuttle program’s extraordinary achievements. While I do not deny this, it is worth reflecting on its failed promises.

When first conceived in the 1970s, the shuttle was to launch once a week. However, since its first mission thirty years ago, only 135 flights were launched, a dismal average of one every three months. So much for a vehicle envisioned as an everyday freight truck.

But it is not very good at freighting either; initially, it was estimated that each kilogram sent into orbit will cost $1,400. Costs spiraled to $1.5 billion a mission, at the cost of $60,000 per kilogram. Although its big selling-point was reusability, extensive maintenance needed after each mission meant that it was never truly reused again.

Its supporters point out that actually less than 1% of the federal budget went to NASA. It is true but in three decades, at the cost of $192 billion, the shuttle program has cost American taxpayers more than the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Programme and the Panama Canal combined. Its safety record — 1.5 per 100 flights — is also not topnotch.

True, its achievements — like delivering the Hubble Telescope and countless other satellites — should not be ignored, but the space shuttle was costly, both in terms of money and human life. Other nations and robots will perform the shuttle’s duties, and American astronauts will hitch rides with Russian rockets. Those are cheaper, safer alternatives, even if they are less magnificent.