NASA briefed journalists yesterday, June 1, about both the activities of the Expedition 15 crew who are residents of the International Space Station and the schedule for space shuttle Atlantis' lift-off on June 8. In these days when shuttle missions are sort-of routine. "Beam me up Commander Fyodor Yurchikhin" says the Atlantis mission commander, Rick Sturckow, a Marine colonel to the ISS' Russian commander. It is pretty normal fare these days after Atlantis has flown 28 times out of 118 shuttle missions.
Somehow this press conference caught my imagination more than usual. Not as much as, back in the 1950s, a pal's father took us camping on Cocoa Beach to watch a long-ago lift-off before there was a race to the moon or giant Titan rockets. We had fun. It got to T minus 20 and stayed there. It didn't happen. Those were more primitive days. Today the shuttle is on its way out and it doesn't create the same rapt awe as once it did– even for another night lift-off.
We also hadn't been entertained or, perhaps, saddened to find our astronaut's were not larger-than-life, the only remainders of the mythic heroes like Armstrong, Shackleton, Hillary or Lindbergh. They had jealousies and loves and even shared insanity with the rest of us. Welcome to the human race, guys and dolls.
So we now have a new situation, perhaps a new respect for the men and women who are launched (some have spoken of "riding the rocket") heavenward to face an immensity of space, a different level of reality where the face of the infinite must make even the most uptight and shipshape of them explode with wonder. They must come back changed at least a little.
The shuttle herself has taken on the mantle of the experienced old lady of space. Maybe a little ill-at-ease locked onto the Earth and immobile after the relative freedom of low-earth orbit. She was getting ready for her launch back in March when hail damaged her nose, tore away some heat shields and sent her scooting (2 mph, I believe) back to the NASA-sized hangar for her nose job.
She's back. And she wants to fly.
This mission romantically referred to as "STS-117" by NASA plans to keep working on the construction of the International Space Station just as have the last two missions. This one is to use what has been learned on previous flights to install new solar collectors and pull in an older one.
There will be a crew of seven who will do three spacewalks (EVAs). Atlantis will "deliver and install" a 17.5 ton truss system to the starboard side of the station. The truss is loaded with photo voltaic cell "wings". When the wings are spread the increased power to the station will run the international science modules being added in the coming two years.
They will also pick up a hitchhiking woman hanging out at the space station. Doesn't that sound like the other 2001, the better version of life by Stanley Kubrick. 2001 had a space Hilton or Howard Johnson's (I've forgotten which was plugged) and an anti-septic crew stopping by on their way to Nirvana. This time Astronaut Sunita L. Williams will be given a lift home after staying at the space station since December, 2006 when she arrived on STS-116. This was her first mission on the station although she already held the record for "extravehicular activity time" (spacewalks) on previous shuttle missions. She was uniquely alone, as it must feel like with the Earth below, for 29 hours 17 minutes during 4 spacewalks. When she gets back she will have been in space more than any woman has before.
Bravo to NASA for trying so hard to keep sentimentalism from space. Today's press release needed page after page of acronyms listed to keep them straight: ISS – International Space Station, AJIS – Alpha Joint Interface Structure, CETA – Crew and Equipment Translation Aid, FRD – Flight Requirements Document, GPRV – Gas Pressure Regulating Valve, MCC-M – Mission Control Center-Moscow, PHALCON – Power, Heating, Articulation, Lighting, and Control Officer, WRM – Water Recovery Management.
There will be no room for "Hey, Joe. You're the guy in charge of all that maintenance stuff, right?" Not in this man's Space Patrol. "Commander, Ma'am. Are you the PHALCON today? You'll need a CETA to go with your FRD."
Yet in spite of all the effort to make automatons to explore the universe step by step, their humanity must surface as the surface recedes and the heavens that Hubble shows us teeming with Vincent Van Gogh nebulae and Jackson Pollock far space views that overwhelm the human mind. Try as they might the astronauts fly and flying, feel the need to explore heaven.
They may have feet of clay but their hearts go soaring in spite of the fetters of NASA-speak. They get to soar because they are military-like and unperturbed. Their Earth-bound lives their own to live.
On Friday Flight Engineer Williams packed her "science payload and personal items" and collected the fifth and last package of blood and urine specimens for the Nutritional Status Assessment to measure the body's changes while in spaceflight. To keep up with the ISS, crew activity and "sighting opportunities" check the NASA site for the station.
The real news of the day, Friday, was that the countdown for the launch of Atlantis will begin Tuesday 5 June at 9 PM, the T-43 hour point. That 43 hours includes 27 hours, 32 minutes of "built-in hold time" aiming toward launch at "approximately 7:38 PM EDT on Friday, 8 June. There is an open launch window of 5 minutes. A detailed list of the launch schedule is available. NASA has provided information about the crew and mission on the 'Net.
It could be one of those spectacular fireworks for the soul with an unleashed Atlantis rising skyward on its tail of fire. It could be one small step for man and one giant step for woman-kind. You never know when you stop for a female hitchhiker by the side of the space lane.