Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Space Shuttle Countdown


Regular HOLDS are important in Shuttle countdowns, allowing planned "pauses" for tasks and procedures as NASA teams attempt to pinpoint precise launch windows. Holds of varying lengths always occur at T-MINUS 27, T-19, T-11, T-6, and T-3 hours, as well as T-20 and T-9 minutes.

While every situation can be highly variable, and scrubbed at any point with a NO GO, these are the general milestones in each Space Shuttle countdown…

T-43 Hours and COUNTING
The clocks is activated when the Shuttle Test Director (STD position currently held by Jerry Spaulding) makes the first Call to Stations. Tasks include:
- Final vehicle and facility close-outs for launch
- Review flight software stored in memory units and display systems
- Load backup flight system software into orbiter computers
- Remove middeck and flight deck platforms
- Activate and test navigational systems
- Complete preparation to load power reactant storage and distribution system

T-27 Hours and HOLDING
The first built-in hold typically lasts 4 hours, whereupon the launch pad is cleared of all non-essential personnel and the rotating service structure around the Shuttle is slowly rolled back. Ground crews then load cryogenic propellants.

T-27 Hours and COUNTING
- Propellants go from power reactant storage & distribution (PRSD) system to fuel cell storage tanks.

T-19 Hours and HOLDING
Another four hour hold, where the STS mid-body is de-mated from the umbilical unit, and an external tank nose cone purge is carried out. They also vacuum the crew module. That’s right… house-cleaning!

T-19 Hours and COUNTING
- Begin preparations of the three main engines for main propellant tanking and flight
- Fill-up of launch pad sound suppression system water tank
- Closing out of tail service masts on the mobile launcher platform

T-11 Hours and HOLDING
The third hold can be up to 14 hours long, and includes engineering briefings, weather review, a launch pad inspection and the activation of the orbiter’s communications systems.

T-11 Hours and COUNTING
- Activation of the orbiter’s fuel cells
- “Blast Danger Area” is cleared of all non-essential personnel
- Orbiter is purged of air and filled with nitrogen mix

T-6 Hours and HOLDING
This hold typically lasts two hours, whereby the Mission Management Team (MMT) reviews the weather and the launch team must verify that all launch commit criteria has been met. If they have, the external tank is loaded with 500,000 gallons propellant and the launch pad is then cleared of ALL personnel.

T-6 Hours and COUNTING
- External tank filled with flight load of liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

T-3 Hours and HOLDING
Another two hour hold where the Final Inspection Team conducts analysis of the orbiter and launch tower, and if all is well, another weather review ensues. The Closeout Crew configures the crew module and the Astronaut Support Person also enters to perform communications checks.

T-3 Hours and COUNTING
- Upon arrival at the launch pad, astronauts enter via the “White Room”
- Air-to-ground voice checks with Launch Control (Kennedy Space Center, Florida)
- Air-to-ground voice checks with Mission Control (Johnson Space Center, Texas)
- Hatch is closed and checked for leaks, then Closeout Crew departs

T-20 Minutes and HOLDING
This built-in hold usually lasts a mere 10 minutes, in which the NASA Test Director conducts final launch team briefings.

T-20 Minutes and COUNTING
- Transition of the orbiter's onboard computers to launch configuration
- Fuel cell thermal conditioning
- Closing of orbiter cabin vent valves
- Transition of backup flight system to launch configuration

T-9 Minutes and HOLDING
This is the final built-in hold, and varies in length depending on the mission. The ground crews determine the parameters of the final launch window, and activate the flight recorders. The NASA Test Director, Mission Management Team and launch director conduct final GO vs. NO-GO launch polls.

T-9 Minutes and COUNTING
- Automatic ground launch sequencer starts.

T-7 minutes, 30 seconds: Retraction of orbiter access arm
T-5 minutes: Auxiliary power units start
T-3 minutes, 55 seconds: Aerosurface and engine gimbal profile tests
T-2 minutes, 55 seconds: Retraction of beanie cap (i.e. gaseous oxygen vent arm)
T-2 minutes: Crew members close and lock their helmet visors

T-50 seconds: Orbiter transfers from ground to internal power
T-31 seconds: Ground launch sequencer starts
T-16 seconds: Launch pad sound suppression system activated
T-10 seconds: Main engine hydrogen burnoff system activated
T-6.6 seconds: Main engine starts

Solid rocket booster ignition and liftoff!

Godspeed, Atlantis...

Shuttle Prep


Diane D of Clearwater, FL commented after the last shuttle: I watched! Didn't used to, and I liked seeing people do their preparations. But honestly, it's kind of boring. YOU probably know what all's going on, but they start talking about helium pressure or whatever, and I am lost, lol!

Yep, perhaps not too spine-tingling if you aren't sure "what's going on" during launch prep. NASA Television gives it you straight, and doesn't always add soundtracks or tickers or commentaries. You see space center activities as they unfold, and then wait while Mission Control sifts through complex groundwork.

It can seem bland to some viewers, as we are cinematically accustomed to dramatic background symphonies, close-ups of perfectly coifed actors delivering irony-laced one-liners, and quick-cut editing styles. NASA is more concerned with procedures, checklists and safety than "putting on a show." The one channel not worried about ratings!

Shuttle Seat Assignments
Crew Seat Assignments

Still, if you get into viewing launches live, keeping an eye on weather, weather-watching, countdown clocks, or feeling the thrill as astronauts "close and lock," the different stages in launch prep become real nail-biters (and wow do I miss living in Florida!).

So, today I'll introduce the upcoming mission, and tomorrow I'll post a guide to launch countdowns. And I imagine these last three will be the most closely followed of the entire program!

Each day now, NASA TV will show status updates on the ship, clips of astronauts in training, interviews of what they will do on their mission, etc. Other great places to follow launch prep are NASA’s many Facebook and Twitter feeds, particularly any with "Kennedy" or "KSC" in the title.

And confidential to Jill in New York: It's not your imagination. I have been continually "moving" the post called "Final Five Shuttle Missions." On, you can move blog posts around by their date and timestamps. Each time there has been shuttle news, I've simply updated it so that it appears closer to the top! :)

STS-132 Mission PatchUp next this week on May 14th is the launch of STS-132, the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis, leaving from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A.

Dependable Atlantis, our first lady to dock to Space Station Mir. She delivered the Destiny module and the Columbus Science Laboratory to the ISS. She also made the fifth and final service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

On her last hurrah, Atlantis will transport the second in a series of new pressurized components for Russia called the "Mini Research Module," to be attached to the Zarya module. The new MRM1 is named Рассвет ("Rassvet") or the Russian word for "Dawn." STS-132 will also transport maintenance and assembly hardware, including spare parts, for space station systems.

Rassvet or Dawn Module
Рассвет / Dawn Module

Three are three planned EVAs to be completed by astronauts Reisman, Bowen & Good, each to last about 7 hours if all goes according to plan.

One spacewalk will be to install a spare space-to-ground Ku-band antenna on the station’s spine; another will replace three of the six batteries on the port truss to store electricity from the solar arrays. Lastly, three new batteries will be installed and if time permits, the astronauts will retrieve a grapple fixture from Atlantis’ payload bay and bring it inside the ISS for use as a spare.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Browncoats Forever!


Catering to the Browncoats again…! Too busy with all my various work projects to debate aliens anymore this week (though I could probably fill another whole blog with that subject!), so it just felt like a Firefly kinda day.

All hail the good ship Serenity!

Last year, I tried my hand at creating a new application on the Facebook interface, centering on Captain Malcolm Reynolds quotes.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds
Since then I also developed applications for Jayne Cobb and Inara Serra. A fellow Browncoat in England, Mrs. Joanne Campbell, created similar generators for Zoe Alleyne & Hoban Washburne, so we are burning our way through the entire cast...

And people sure are eating it up. Between us, and with precious little promotion, we’ve now collected over twelve thousand users on the five Facebook fan pages in less than 6 months! Whoa. You could say I got yet another lesson in the viral power of social sites.

We also uploaded all the quotes from the Firefly episodes and the Serenity movie into our Discussion tabs... so if you want a particular line, you can just keep hammering at it until you find the one you wish to post.

Firefly Facebook Applications
Ah, the empire that could have been...

Please come try it out! Each quote generator per character links to every other generator. Become a fan, post a review, or share your favorite quote or episode on the Facebook Wall.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010



Mike Robertson writes: Stephen Hawking said that if we ever meet ETs, they'll most likely be hostile and we shouldn't look for contact... because looking back on our own history, whenever a superior culture met a less advanced one, [the latter] have been eliminated.

First of all, from a scientific point of view, he can't make that comparison because we don't know if the ETs are going to be like us. Second, if they've reached the technology to travel thousands of light years from one galaxy to another, that means can go anywhere they like, and resources we may have here on earth, they can find in many other planets as well.

Also, since we don't know ANYTHING about them, the chances of them being nice are just as much as being hostile. I was surprised but more angry to hear Hawking say that, because people listen to him. You may argue that it's just HIS opinion, but when one is so high up the food chain, with virtually the whole world as his audience, he has to be more responsible.

Well, we could say the same a thousand times over about performers, athletes or political figures who influence people with their comments and behavior (don't get me started on Charlie Sheen). At least Hawking is getting people to THINK!

Here's my take —
What if intelligence itself actually kills planets? Maybe spheres are better off with instinctual life forms and none that become self-aware. Perhaps one pack of clever, aggressive, territorial warriors with guns & iPods per solar system is enough, and the universe is deliberately set up in such a way as to keep us in separate cages.

Spock and Kirk
Spock, you were saying something about friendly aliens?

Like Buzz Aldrin, Hawking probably wants people off the "Hollywood Diet" and embracing a higher dose of reality. Since he possesses what is likely one of the highest known IQs in human history, no one demands that he qualify his statements.

These issues have been debated among such esteemed, medaled, accomplished, published people as Einstein, von Braun, Enrico Fermi, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Carl Sagan. Most thought actual contact with intelligent aliens is exceedingly improbable, given the sheer distances between possible habitable planets, and the nature of intelligence as we know it.

Can we HOPE? Sure, we like hoping. Some might argue that Hawking is not opening his mind to "wild possibilities," but his brain operates in a more practical, mathematical way.

I still run into people all the time who do not understand the difference between science and science fiction. Alien contact, if it ever occurs, isn't going to be like our movies, whether benevolent (E.T.) or hostile (Independence Day). Those are the valuations of our desires or fears as a species. We invent those stories to comment on our own nature. In that sense, Hawking's brand of pragmatism is definitely more responsible than the average film director.

Stephen Hawking also pointed out: "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."

I thought that was his most interesting quote. He didn't mention the Drake Equation by name, but this comment refers to the variable "L" : the length of time civilizations are able to transmit detectable signals into space.

Drake Equation / Green Bank Formula
In light of Scientific Determinism, we have no reason to believe any technological alien species aren't grappling with similar challenges on their own floating rock: crafts, life support, budgets, and the laws of physics. We may kill ourselves with our own intelligence before we reach off-world status and so might they. Maybe no one gets off before a techie society collapses.

Can intelligent civilizations survive a technological age where they develop the means to destroy themselves, as we are currently doing? Life may arise constantly everywhere, but if the duration of "intelligence" proves tragically short, visitation is unlikely. In the mere 10-billion year lifespan of our little yellow star, no one may detect our signals anyway. But, that's just my opinion ;)

I think it goes without saying that Hawking is well versed in all the "famous" alien arguments: the Fermi Paradox, Green Bank Formula, the Galactic Habitable Zone, the pros & cons of SETI, and the Paleocontact Hypothesis. Spend some time comparing those, and let me know if it still makes you angry. I'd be very curious to know if that's still the case after you see the research on which he may be basing his opinions... :)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010



So our bedrest buddy Scott S. sends along this uplifting missive, from a blog that features people's ideas for redesigning U.S. currency.

The Dollar ReDe$ign Project hopes to "rebrand" the US Dollar, rebuild financial confidence and revive our failing economy. You can sign their petition to support a currency update, or learn how to enter their annual efforts to find better designs.

Dollar Re-Design Project Apollo Money
1st Prize: $500 Cash + a ReDe$ign t-shirt.
2nd + 3rd Place: $100 Cash each + a ReDe$ign t-shirt.

ALL submissions are posted online!

Obviously, my and Scott's favorite-by-a-mile was the runner up series by Nate Castiglione of San Diego, CA. He created 12 absolutely stunning and designs, right down to blindness aids, security threads and other anti-counterfeiting measures.

Apollo Program Currency
Says Nate:
"Celebrating one of America's great achievements, this currency design chronicles the Apollo space program, from Kennedy's ambitious challenge, to man's first steps on the moon… we sometimes forget what an amazing feat was accomplished..."

He also hopes that, "In a time when the economy is failing, jobs are disappearing, schools are failing and hopelessness abounds, these bills would serve as a reminder of American spirit, ingenuity, determination and courage."

Click any of the space bucks to see his ideas for the $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills and read the rest of his fine essay of how America's space program inspired the world!

Monday, May 3, 2010

What is NASA?


I've gotten a bit brain-fried in the past few months discussing NASA with what seems like hundreds of people, and I don't want to keep re-hashing it, because you'd have to be living in a cave somewhere in the Arctic Circle these days not to see NASA all over the news.

However, I've seen a video circulating for a couple weeks I'd like to share, and I really hope everyone takes a few moments to watch this. This is the most worthwhile 5 minutes I've seen on YouTube in a long time.

American astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson asks, what is NASA? What is NASA to us as a nation? While it's clear that "patriotism" is no longer intertwined with achievement in space the way it once was, I worry that people don't understand how much NASA still means to America's future.

New York - March 31, 2010

Why do we spend money in space as opposed to all our money on Earth? You'd be amazing how many Earth issues have been solved by looking at them from space. But like Tyson, the almighty "someday" we keep hearing about from our government truly worries me.

Someday, we'll go to Mars. Someday, we'll be pioneers again. Someday, when all our Earth problems are solved (as if that will ever, ever occur!), we'll worry about our place in the universe.

But as he emphasizes, the nations that embrace the bold investments are the nations who lead the world. So why is something so obviously valuable actually fading?

If you enjoy this, spend some time on his website... his many appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (please no hate mail about Pluto!!) and his interviews on Planetary Society Radio (hey, they interviewed me once too!) are great fun.

I also tirelessly recommend my favorite of his many books: "Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries."