All summer In A Night
April 27, 2010 9:35 PM   Subscribe

The final night flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavor

Well, kinda and maybe. Nonetheless, Space Shuttle Parking Lot is sure to put a lump in the throat of more than a few of us.
posted by humannaire (24 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I drove from Fort Lauderdale to Cocoa Beach with a friend to see that launch. So glad we did. Day launches I've seen, but that was my first night one.

I had a funny feeling in my throat when the crackly radio said, "We are go for lift off" a few minutes before T.

What kept us from going all the way to Titusville was that I had to be at work that morning, in Miami. Kind of wish that I had gone in late, but that really wasn't feasible.
posted by bilabial at 9:46 PM on April 27, 2010

So, who wants to chip in on one or two of 'em?

I figure we can try updating the SRBs with some third party boosters from Russia, install a bus-sized passenger module in the payload bay and start charging admission for orbital space tourist rides. By the time they even think about de-orbiting ISS we'll go all pirate on that shit and boost it back up to a more stable orbit.

Once we're settled in we can start growing space ganja and squarepigs and mix up some mighty dubs and just chill the fuck out for a bit, but then we'll have to start ultrasonically welding together the kevlar and tyvek sheets for the inflatable habitation and garden pods so we can harvest a few good asteroids for the raw metal and ore to start building some proper ships and stations. Then we can start the heavy industry stuff. A couple of chip fabs, some microsphere mills, a solid tourism industry, extremely pure crystals for high powered lasers, plasma drives, squarepigs, moonbases, mass drivers, comet-catching for propulsion mass and drinking water, you name it. All that good stuff

I'm looking at a near-term timeline of about 10-20 years before a bunch of space-camp dropout stoner nerds just utterly own interplanetary space and can basically tell anyone who needs to be told to properly fuck off. "No, we're not coming down. What're you going to do? Dude, we'll just drop rocks on your head. Fuck off."
posted by loquacious at 9:52 PM on April 27, 2010 [26 favorites]

Square pigs, for anyone else who was curious.
posted by idiopath at 10:09 PM on April 27, 2010

Yeah, I'm just screwing around. The SST is pretty much a flying brick full of rusty bolts at this point.

What I really want is a launch loop.
posted by loquacious at 10:25 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Square pigs aren't where Lorne Sausage comes from?

(I notice loq mentioned squarepigs twice and omitted anti-gravity beer).
posted by GeckoDundee at 10:29 PM on April 27, 2010

What I really want is a launch loop.

Nice, but what we really need is a space elevator. Chemical rockets will always be too expensive for mass space travel. A space elevator would create a whole new economy in orbit. It would be the start all of our sci fi dreams.
posted by zardoz at 10:33 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

"I notice loq mentioned squarepigs twice..."

I noticed that too. He must be hungry. Dude, eat something.
posted by vapidave at 10:52 PM on April 27, 2010

Great documentary. It breaks my heart that we're abandoning manned space travel; the Shuttle needs replacing, but I wish we'd keep it flying 'til we have something better. What a loss.
posted by vorfeed at 10:54 PM on April 27, 2010

Nice, but what we really need is a space elevator.

Launch loops are better than space elevators. I like the space elevator idea, too, but launch loops are better than space elevators.

They can be made out of materials we have today - not out of theoretical materials from tomorrow. Space elevators cannot be made from current materials, and may not be feasible to create even if we find a material both strong enough and light enough. Space elevators require rockets or propulsion to keep the space end of it parked, and on the ground they require tracking movement as well. Also the payload vehicles for a space elevator need to be powered to climb the ribbon or tower. So far the best way to do that seems to be using a laser to transfer energy up the ribbon, which is probably not very efficient or safe, considering you're basically beaming a high powered laser right along the edge of a thin ribbon of carbon nanotubes or what have you.

Launch loops don't require chemical rockets for the ships or end points. It's basically a self-supported mass driver that launches from outside (most) of the atmosphere. They can handle many, many more launches and landings per unit of time than a space elevator, and as ships re-enter that kinetic energy is captured and re-used by the launch loop. The payload vehicles do not require energy input in the climb to orbit because it's all kinetic, and you can place much larger payloads per energy unit in space, which nicely opens up the ability to place vehicles in orbit that have chemical, plasma or ion engines for interplanetary travel, higher orbits, moon missions, etc.

And it can (theoretically) be created now. With today's technologies. No waiting for diamondoid unobtanium ribbons, no figuring out how to power the payload vehicle, no waiting for the long, slow crawl up the ribbon, no waiting to figure out how to keep the ribbon stable or deal with resonance of vehicles climbing the ribbon.

Forget the space elevator. Launch loop. You really want a launch loop.
posted by loquacious at 11:06 PM on April 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

Oops. Well, I could wait for someone to make a joke about link sausages. Or I could just fix it...

Square pigs aren't where Lorne Sausage comes from?

That launch loop looks like an awesome idea, but 80km high and 2,000km long? Where would you build it? Russia and Canada have the space but only in very cold places. I don't think any one African country is big enough. Central Australia?
posted by GeckoDundee at 12:11 AM on April 28, 2010

Considering the scale of the structure it could be built over water pretty easily with either end on land or islands, but in any case only the ends of the magnetic bearing-cable touches the ground, and it's in a wide loop that's heavily anchored into the ground. Remember, it's self-supporting. The force of the mass rotating inside the cable pushes it aloft. The hard part is tethering it to the ground and anchoring the ends.

The main danger is that you don't really want to live beneath it. If it fails it's going to release nuclear bomb sized amounts of kinetic energy, particularly at either end. It takes a lot of force to bend that extremely high velocity internal cable, and all of the kinetic energy from the 2000 km long segment is aimed at a straight line at either end.

But it's probably less dangerous than a space elevator, which is 20,000-odd miles long and is probably much more vulnerable, especially to orbital debris, and could unleash similar or greater scales of kinetic energy over a wider area. That's a real long piece of space to try to protect from spacecraft or debris in orbit, and that long tough cable that's designed to have a very high tensile strength. Give it enough velocity and it would probably slice mountains in half like a giant katana. It's not going to flutter to the ground peacefully because it's under tension and all that.

Sorry for the derail. So, uh, where were you when Challenger blew up?
posted by loquacious at 1:07 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The phrase "The final [...] flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour" brings to mine "The Final Flight of The Osiris", and I get images of some desperate Nasa staff staging an emergency shuttle launch to escape the squiddies.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:21 AM on April 28, 2010

Sorry for rambling here, but: Long story short, I agree that the shuttle has run its course and needs to be retired. I am painfully upset at the poorly thought out transition, the loss of capacity that the shuttle provides and the poor management and lack of vision by both NASA management and Congress over the last twenty years. It's a remarkable vehicle and in many ways one of, if not the great engineering triumph of the 20th century. I'm very saddened that we have not taken advantage of the opportunities to build upon the capabilities the shuttle gave us.

To the point of the shuttle being a flying brick full of rusty bolts by this point: actually, the orbiters are in far better condition today and are easier to maintain (that's a relative term, by the way) than they ever were. The upgrades put in place over the last 10 years have made them infinitely safer (again, relative term) than the vehicles that first flew starting in 1981.

This does bring up a good point, and one of the biggest disappointments of the STS program: the upgrades that were planned but never implemented over the years. There were numerous upgrades planned for the orbiters that would have made many of the most troublesome components far less complex and costly. There was a major push to replace the current APUs with an entirely new subsystem that wouldn't require the level of complexity or cost associated with the current ones. Another major subsystem planned for upgrade was the RCS upgrade to replace the use of hypergolic propellents for the OMS and RCS system with an easier to manage, less toxic system. More importantly was the plan to create a cross-connect between the forward and aft RCS systems to allow propellant transfers in the event of failure of one or the other. The main engines have undergone substantial improvements over the years and there was another block series planned that would have reduced their complexity and increased reliabillity even more.

My point being - all of these projects were shelved after Columbia, and to a certain extent it is a shame. After 30 years we finally have a very good, very solid and very thorough understanding of these vehicles and what it takes to operate them, we were in the process of improving that, slowly but surely, and we are now disposing of the whole system. I find it unfortunate we did not fully develop Shuttle-C, the unmanned cargo carrier, or push on for something similar to the DIRECT project.

And while we may have better success with Elon Musk (and I wish him all the luck in the world), his track record to date with the Falcon program is reminiscent of the early days of rocketry. The assumption we're making with Musk is that as a private company he can operate more efficiently and less costly than NASA. While it's still far to early to say for sure, Musk has the advantage of access to much of NASA's engineering data and resources, so we as a country have already effectively subsidized the project as we would NASA. Musk's advantage is that he doesn't have politcians meddling in as many strategic and engineering decisions, demanding jobs or capabilities that are outside of his core vehicle mission. This doesn't necessarily mean he'll be able to make Falcon and Dragon (his rocket and module) substantially less expensive or more successful than NASA programs.

Remember - the losses of Challenger and Columbia were management failures, not engineering failures. In both instances the vehicles performed exactly to design specifications, it was management that made decisions which overrode the engineering data presented them (weak SRB joint design and temperature violations on launch day for Challenger; Foam liberation and vehicle impingement from the ET in the case of Columbia).
posted by tgrundke at 5:36 AM on April 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

(disclaimer: i work in human spaceflight for NASA)

Thanks, tgrundke, for saying what I was going to say. It's very flip to say "the Shuttle is almost 30 years old, it's time to retire it." The aircraft carrier Enterprise was commissioned in 1961. The B-52 bomber has been flying since 1955, and if Wikipedia is to be believed, the US Air Force is planning on flying it until 2040, some eighty years after it started flying.

The point is, these are incredibly complex machines. It's kind of awe-inspiring to think that we are capable of designing machines so complex that no one person is able to understand how they work- indeed, they're so complex that it takes literally decades for some of the smartest people on the planet to get a handle on how they work. Aside from being incredibly complex, I'll wager that nothing on the planet- machine, facility, or vehicle- undergoes better maintenance than the Space Shuttle. Age simply doesn't factor into its readiness to fly.

Also, check what some other government programs spend- $4ish billion a year for the Space Shuttle and Space Station really isn't all that bad...

(and for you space station haters, keep in mind what I said above. The ISS is even more complex than the Shuttle- we're still in the infancy of learning how to use it, and we've kept it up and running almost flawlessly for more than 10 years now. Imagine what the next 10 could bring...)
posted by zap rowsdower at 7:00 AM on April 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

Remember - the losses of Challenger and Columbia were management failures, not engineering failures

That's walking an awfully fine line. To me it's like saying your average computer user is completely responsible for any and all viruses, malware, etc. on their machine when it's the design of the operating system which makes these things so easy to pick up. Overcomplexity is an engineering failure.

The point is, these are incredibly complex machines.

The irony is that NASA's lack of funding is (in large part) due to the failings of the overly-complex society in which it resides.
posted by symbollocks at 9:16 AM on April 28, 2010

I was there. Here's my video
posted by Mwongozi at 9:24 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

symbollocks -

I get the point you're making, but what I'm arguing is slightly different. The point is that in both instances the engineering teams had warned that the vehicles were operating outside of their design paramters and as a result "bad things will happen".

Management viewed the engineering anomalies as "acceptable risk" and proceeded anyhow.

Complex systems will break and there is an inherent risk that must be accepted. However, when a potentially fatal flaw is recognized and corrective measures ignored, that is something entirely different.

You are correct that society is overly complex - but I would argue that in many ways, complex systems such as STS and ISS help us better understand how to successfully operate in complicated environments.
posted by tgrundke at 9:59 AM on April 28, 2010

I'll pile on that simplicity is always better, sure. However, what I would consider the simplest and most reliable rocket in the world- the Russian Soyuz- is still a fantastically complex machine. Spaceflight requires a different scale for thinking about complexity and risk and expense- there's literally nothing else like it (for instance, submarines are complex, but you still have the benefit of gravity to make your pumps work- not so in space...).

I would add that the Soyuz has a fantastic safety record, due in part to minor upgrades over the last 30 years of flying it. Simply put, the Russians understand their machine, and are hesitant to change it in ways that they won't be able to easily predict- that's why it just. always. works.
posted by zap rowsdower at 10:49 AM on April 28, 2010

Oh, and I assume you're talking about how Congress and the White House can't seem to keep NASA on one track for any length of time (especially the amount of time it takes to accomplish something like this).

Yeah, you're right.

And it sucks.
posted by zap rowsdower at 10:50 AM on April 28, 2010

So... tgrundke and zap rowsdower. I'm assuming you can beg, borrow and steal some documentation that we'll need after picking up the SST at the surplus yard, yes? I have several large trucks standing by for any manuals, schematics, blueprints, archived digital files, microfilm or whatever you've got. We'll eventually need some files on the ISS, too.

Is there a "SST launching, recovery and pre-flight for Dummies" book available or something? I mean, it can't be that hard. I'm sure I could rebuild the main engines myself with my Leatherman and a few q-tips to clean out the fuel lines and whatnot. It's just a few turbopumps and some plumbing, right? A dab of axle grease here and there? I figure with enough coffee I could pull an all-nighter and have it ready for testing by morning.

Err, what was that huge fucking noise? Did we just have an earthquake? *looks outside* Oh, nice! Someone dropped an engine off. Holy shit that thing is big. I could live in that. I think I need to go to Home Despot for some larger wrenches and hexbolt keys... and a couple of 5 axis CNC mills. Do they have aerospace grade titanium and beryllium bar stock? I should also probably pick up some more coffee... in the form of the entire country of Columbia.
posted by loquacious at 10:59 AM on April 28, 2010

Don't forget the hydrazine...that's the good shit right there. I think it's over in "housewares."
posted by zap rowsdower at 11:05 AM on April 28, 2010

In the 50's, during the space race that led to Sputnik etc., the Russians turned up their noses at hydrazine, calling it the acid rocket.
posted by intermod at 8:44 PM on April 28, 2010

I convinced some friends who work in shuttle processing to get passes to see this launch on the KSC causeway, standing in squishy grass. Just when the main engines lit up it looked like the sun coming up in the wrong direction - totally silent, unreal and brilliant and amazing.

I work in shuttle flight control, so having to be on console at 1AM the next day for the blighted early-morning shift for the next two weeks...not quite so amazing. But flight manuals? Yeah, I can get you flight manuals. ::shifty eyes::
posted by casarkos at 9:11 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I... That no-torquing power drill Bernken is holding.. I've touched one

(it wasn't rated for spaceflight, but I have a whole lot of pictures of a bunch of M.E. nerds pretending to use that and a tile adhesive applier as space guns)

I'm going to be sad when we move on from the shuttle, if only because I think it is simply beautiful. I love the SRBs, the external tank, the airplaneyness. Rockets are so symmetric ;_;
posted by rubah at 11:24 PM on April 29, 2010

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