Thursday, April 12, 2012

Yuri's Night 2012

April 12 is International Space Day and a special day for all space geeks.

51 years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became humanity's first astronaut, blasting off into space atop a Soyuz rocket and safely returned to Earth 108 minutes later

31 years ago today, STS-1 Space Shuttle Columbia launched on its maiden flight and circled the Earth 37 times in 54 hours. Columbia's successful landing gave the U.S. its first reusable spaceship.

And finally, today, April 12, 2012, I found a video that I have never seen before - Yuri Gagarin's launch video (presumably from Baikonur Cosmodrome, which in this video still looks only partially completed) with a lot of bonus material on how the Russians handled and reacted to the flight and Yuri's safe return to Earth. One thing's for sure: I have never seen so many Russians so happily exuberant at the same time. 


I have become fascinated with this video. The more I watch it and listen to it the more Russian phrases I understand. At least I suspect I understand them. Which is pretty cool.

It also struck me how blissfully, peacefully happy Yuri Gagarin looked right after he returned to Earth. Go to about 3:07 and you'll see what I mean. It is a look of contentment, wonder and awe that all astronauts experience when they see Earth from space with their own eyes. 

This reminded me of a conspiracy theory I came across regarding Yuri Gagarin's untimely death. He was 34 when he died in an accidental plane crash. Officially. Unofficially, the story goes like this: After his historic space flight, Yuri became reluctant to embrace communism and wary of being portrayed as a Socialist hero by the Soviet propaganda machine. He opposed isolationism and escalation of the Cold War. And, of course, people listened to him. So the KGB arranged for a convenient accident, because Gagarin as a dead Soviet hero was much less trouble than a man revered by the Russian people who spoke out against the human rights violations and oppression of a Soviet Union whose government ruled by fear, intimidation and violence. In other words - Don't send a man to space and expect him not to broaden his consciousness and horizons beyond the confines of national borders and ideologies. 

Or, in the words of Arthur C. Clarke: "There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not wave in a vacuum.

Or, in the words of astronaut Don Pettit @astro_pettit, currently living and working on the International Space Station, who wrote this poem from space:

And why the Sun comes up each morn, and why the Earth goes ’round?
I wonder what the Sun on Mars, would bring at dusk and dawn?
 I wonder what two moons would say, from Earth lit sky when Sun is gone  
I wonder if Mars mountain crags would be a sight to hold?
 I wonder if I’d dare to climb, how could I be so bold!  
I wonder when Man’s mind will grow, 
and cease to be so small  
I wonder when we’ll venture forth, I hope before we fall  
I wonder if we’ll never dare, to reach up through the sky 
Forever doomed to live on Earth, and this, I wonder why?

Don Pettit, Node 2, Deck 5, ISS, LEO (International Space Station, Low Earth Orbit)

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 - The Final Launch

A month after attending the NASA tweetup at JPL on June 6, 2011, I was on a plane to Orlando to see the final space shuttle launch in person. It wasn't convenient, it was expensive, it was exhausting. The humidity almost drowned me and the mosquitoes ate me alive. None of that mattered as I arrived at Merritt Island, near Kennedy Space Center, two days before the launch on July 6, 2011.

I shared a house with a number of fellow space geeks, most of whom I had not met in person before. During my three days in Florida, I met dozens of amazing people who I'd previously known only through their twitter presence. They are kindred spirits and many of them have become friends. 

Most of all, traveling to Florida for the last Space Shuttle launch rekindled my lifelong passion for space and space travel and has had a significant impact on my life. This blog is one example. 

Atlantis was scheduled to launch on July 8, 2011 at 11:42 EDT. When I left L.A., NASA predicted a 40% chance of go for launch due to weather. That prediction dwindled to 20% go the evening before the launch. I had no flexibility in my travel plans, I was leaving the next day, launch or no launch. After a sleepless night and no improvement in launch probability, the morning of July 8 arrived. I had resigned myself to a likely launch abort, which I knew was a possibility when I planned the trip. The launch would be visible from the house, so I thought I'd stay and see it from there. So did two of my house mates, Sophia (@phiden) and Gavin (@charmcitygavin). 

At the last minute, we decided to see if we could get closer. Traffic was forecast to be horrendous around KSC. However, we made it to an uncrowded viewing site about 8-10 miles directly across from launch pad 39A at Banana Creek, and found parking, with an hour to spare prior to the scheduled launch time. As the time drew closer, Atlantis remained Go for launch. As the final minutes and seconds clicked by, 11:42 arrived and.... nothing happened. People started to wonder about an abort. We had no definitive information at our viewing site. Then, at 11:45, the tell-tale white plume materialized across the water, followed by Atlantis roaring off into the sky in a fiery, graceful arc. At the time we didn't know that the countdown clock had stopped at T-31 seconds for a 2.5 minute hold to check out a mechanical issue. 

The video below was shot by @charmcitygavin. I'm the one screaming and cheering the loudest. It was a moment I will never forget. After mentally preparing myself for an abort and seeing 11:42 pass without a launch, the realization that Atlantis just went from 20% go for launch to Liftoff!! was overwhelming!

Here is NASA's launch video, which includes the nerve-wracking hold at T-31 ("We've had a failure") and its resolution. 

I will never again underestimate the power of 
"20% Go for Launch".