The twilight years of any space program are usually filled with extremely interesting times. For the most part you’re either gearing up for the next biggest thing or getting ready to plunge your craft back down to earth in a spectacular fireworks show. STS-129, which launched at around 6:30am AEST, is the former as it brings with it a truckload of spare parts, many experiments and something that has got me all flustered about the future of the International Space Station. There’s the usual media coverage as well as a NASA tweetup giving blow by blow accounts of mission as it goes ahead. Of course there’s a lovely 10 minute video of the launch and trip into orbit.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfMbPOZMaAs
The first part of the payload is 2 ExPRESS Logistics Carriers which combined weigh a total of around 13 tons. These are primarily filled with spares and other equipment necessary to ensure that the station can function properly. As the shuttle is one of only 2 craft (the other being the Japanese HTV as I mentioned previously) that can bring up large sized cargo it makes sense that they’ve crammed 2 of these things into its payload bay. They’ll spend most of their life attached to the main truss segments, only being accessed when the parts are needed. They are in essence, giant supply crates.
Another payload they are bringing up is a Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE) carrier which is an experiment designed to see how certain materials and coatings hold up in space. They’ve flown a few of these before with the ones being sent up now having the designation of MISSE 7A and 7B respectively. Back before the days of the International Space Station they did similar experiments to these on a much larger scale. The Long Duration Exposure Facility was a school bus sized version of MISSE that flew on STS-32. It was initially envisioned as a one year project being repeated multiple times but due to budget constraints and the tragic Challenger disaster its retrieval was postponed indefinitely. It was eventually retrieved however after almost 6 years in orbit after STS-41C launched a communications satellite for the navy. The launch of this expriment made for quite an impressive picture to:
There’s a couple other minor things flying as well, like a S-band Antenna Sub-Assembly which is being flown up as a spare. The mission’s experiments consist of a microbe experiment (to see how they grow in microgravity), some butterfly larvae which will hatch on the station and be studied alongside their cousins which have been raised by school kids from over 100 schools across the US and finally a plant experiment to see how microgravity affects their growth. Pretty standard stuff, but that’s not what’s got me so excited.
The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) UHF communication unit is being flown up with STS-129. For those of you in the know the COTS program is a NASA initiative focused on encouraging private industry to develop launch capabilities that NASA can then purchase from them. This particular piece of equipment is developed by none other than my space crush company SpaceX, and will facilitate communication between the ISS and the future manned space capsule called Dragon. It’s a tantalizingly real step towards a fully private institution providing transportation to the ISS, something which has never been done before. It also shows that all of SpaceX’s work is very real and they’re extremely serious about making sure that once the shuttle retires that NASA will have a local alternative to get their astronauts up into space. Back a few years ago it was hard to judge whether or not SpaceX would be able to provide such capability to NASA. Today it is a guarantee.
So whilst this isn’t the most sexy mission (that still belongs to the Hubble servicing mission that just oozed cool) it is definitely a big step forward for the future of space. The ISS is being geared up for the shuttle’s retirement by stocking it up with all the goods it will need for a long time whilst SpaceX continues to push the envelope in terms of its capability. Next year’s test launch of the Falcon-9 rocket really can’t come soon enough and I know it won’t be long before the Dragon meets the ISS.
Blog fodder doesn’t get much better than this 😉