Saturday, August 29, 2009

Happy Anniversary, Discovery!

At about midnight last night/this morning, the shuttle Discovery blasted off on a mission to resupply the International Space Station (ISS). This is Discovery's 37th mission, and her 10th to the ISS.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of Discovery's maiden flight, STS-41D, which flew from August 30 to September 5, 1984.

Given her role in constructing the ISS, it's perhaps fitting that one of the primary experiments on Discovery's first flight was a test of the OAST-1 solar array. This was a prototype of the solar panels that now supply power to the ISS. Folded into a package that was 13 feet wide but only 7 inches deep, the OAST-1 was extended to a full length of 102 feet. Discovery also deployed three communications satellites during the mission.

Discovery's launch had been delayed since the originally-scheduled date in June 1984. A launch attempt on June 26, 1984 resulted in the shutdown of the Space Shuttle Main Engines after a few seconds. (Astronaut Steve Hawley quipped, "Gee, I thought we'd be a lot higher at MECO [Main Engine Cut-Off]!") About 10 minutes later, while the crew were still strapped in their seats, there was a hydrogen fire at the base of the launch pad. It was a very tense and dangerous situation, and NASA revised its safety procedures using the lessons learned from this pad abort.

It's sad to note that this was Judith Resnick's first flight, and that her first launch attempt was such a scary one. She perished a year and a half later aboard Challenger.

When Discovery flew, she was the third and newest Space Shuttle. With the loss of Challenger and Columbia, Discovery is now the oldest orbiter in the fleet.

There is speculation that Discovery will replace the Shuttle Enterprise at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center once the Space Shuttle program ends in late 2010.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Apollo-Saturn 202 and the USS Hornet

I've been leading workshops in Santa Cruz, California for four weeks this summer. My last one concluded this past Friday, August 21, at 10:30 a.m. I had a 10:30 p.m. red-eye back to Washington DC from San Francisco, and I wondered what I could do to fill in my time before my flight. Several people at collectSPACE recommended that I tour the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, docked at Alameda Point on San Francisco Bay. I'm very pleased that I took their advice!

The Hornet was commissioned in 1943 and saw action in the western Pacific during some of the major campaigns at the end of World War II. Perhaps its most famous role was as the recovery ship for Apollos 11 and 12 when they returned from the Moon in 1969.

The Hornet hosts what is billed as the largest collection of Apollo-related material on display on the West Coast. Among the exhibits one can see:
  • A Sea King helicopter which was last used in the movie Apollo 13, and which is painted identically to the helicopter that brought the Apollo 11 crew on board the Hornet following splashdown.
  • Painted footprints on the deck, tracing the Apollo 11 crew's walk from the Sea King to a Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) van.
  • The MQF, which is the one used by the Apollo 14 crew, the last crew which was quarantined following a Moon landing. The tabletop in the MQF is autographed by Ed Mitchell of the Apollo 14 crew!
  • A 1/48 scale model of the Saturn V launch vehicle, nearly 9 feet tall.
  • A 1/12 or 1/10 scale contractor's model of an early version of the Lunar Excursion Module.
  • A Moon rock from Apollo 15 (not present during my visit).
  • Numerous Lucite displays with pieces of Kapton insulation from Apollos 11 and 12.
Most noticeable on the hangar deck is an Apollo capsule. This is CM-011, which was flown on the Apollo-Saturn 202 mission (informally also called Apollo 3).

My visit to the Hornet was, coincidentally, just four days shy of the anniversary of the AS-202 flight on August 25, 1966.

AS-202 was an unmanned test of the Command and Service Modules in Earth orbit, primarily to test the Service Propulsion System and the ability of the CM's heat shield to withstand a high-velocity reentry. The tests were successful, although the capsule splashed down nearly 200 miles off target. The capsule was recovered by the Hornet about 8-1/2 hours after landing.

I wish I'd had the foresight to bring a camera with me to California this trip. However, I doubt that I could have captured the scale of the Hornet or the sense of history that I felt getting to tour her. The ship's website provides information for potential visitors, including several Quicktime-VR panoramas of various locations on the ship. If you scroll this panorama about 180 degrees around and zoom in, you'll see the capsule as well as the MQF and Sea King helicopter.