Thursday, May 5, 2011

50 Years

On this morning 50 years ago, Naval pilot Alan Shepard, wearing his silver flight suit and white helmet, was raised by a small elevator to his waiting spacecraft, Freedom 7, perched atop a modified Redstone IRBM. Delays ensued at Cape Canaveral, as engineers and technicians raced to eliminate any glitch that popped up that would compromise the safety of the spacecraft's pilot. Shepard was getting weary of these holds to the countdown, and knowing his prowess as a test pilot, with a steely determination said, "Let's light this candle!" At 9:34am ET, the engine of the Redstone ignited, and America watched it's first astronaut ascend to space. 15 minutes later, the trip was over, with Freedom 7 safely parachuting to a landing in the Atlantic Ocean 300 miles away from the Cape. The astronaut and his spacecraft were recovered by aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain, a welcome sight to Shepard.

Today, to honor the service of Shepard, the Freedom 7 is on display in Annapolis, Maryland, at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center. Access is available to the public. The capsule has a place of honor in the rotunda leading to the center's exhibit area. It is encased in plexiglas, missing its hatch (which was jettisoned by Shepard during recovery), and has the Earth observing periscope deployed. This capsule was originally displayed in the Smithsonian, then moved to the National Air & Space Museum.

Today, we celebrate 50 years of Americans in Space, as we honor the flight of Freedom 7.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Orbiter Retirement Homes

It's official. Today at Kennedy Space Center, in the shadow of Orbital Processing Facility 1 and the orbiter Atlantis, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden choked back tears as he announced the retirement of the orbiter fleet. His emotions were from love and respect, not only of the spacecraft he has had the opportunity to ride four times into space, but also for the men and women, some gathered around him, who give the fleet wings. Here is the rundown of where the orbiters will one day chock their wheels for the final time:

OV-101 Enterprise
The flight-test orbiter which has been displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center will fly one more time to its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York, NY. It will be displayed on the dock along side the naval vessel that was used to recover both Mercury and Gemini spacecraft.

OV-103 Discovery
With Enterprise vacating its current home, way will be made for Discovery to be displayed at America's premier facility for aerospace history. The Udvar-Hazy Center location has been known for quite some time, so no surprise for most of the people in the audience.

OV-104 Atlantis
Met with a cheer and a standing ovation, Bolden announced Atlantis will remain at the Kennedy Space Center and located in the Visitor Complex in the current Shuttle Plaza.

OV-105 Endeavour
A surprise to me was the location of Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, CA. While I suspected a west coast location for one of the orbiters, I guessed a location with a slightly more aerospace focused theme. The CSC will provide a worthy home in a high population, vacation destination locale.

So, that's it, kids. Two more flights, then see them on display. While it will be sad to see them grounded, there is and will always be an immense amount of pride in the gems of the Space Transportation System.

Atlantis to Kennedy?

Florida Today posts that OV-104 Atlantis will remain at Kennedy Space Center for retirement.

We'll know for sure at 1:00PM today.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting Ready for 30

Next week brings the 30th anniversary of the first launch of the space shuttle. Festivities are planned for the KSC Visitor Complex (weather and government shut-down permitting) at which Administrator Charlie Bolden will announce where these historical spacecraft will retire. Allow me to place my prediction in writing, and to be used as a reference once the decision is released.

Discovery OV-103 - Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, VA
This is the only place previously announced, as the Smithsonian is granted first dibs to NASA hardware. The twist could occur if the money needed to provide this institution with the required funds to obtain the orbiter is not produce by congress. Would NASA give them a bye and allow for the time needed to get the funds, being in the same congressional budget boat? Or would they say the Enterprise is good enough and be satisfied with that? My bet is they get it, which would leave Enterprise available to fly somewhere else.

Atlantis OV-104 - National Museum of the United States Air Force, Dayton, OH
This selection would place an orbiter in the center of the Heartland, but also acknowledge the contribution of the USAF in the development of the orbiter. Fully half of the development cost was carried by the Air Force, and plans to provide an orbiter (Discovery) to be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base ere well underway when the Challenger accident occurred. This disaster caused the military to rethink their plans to use orbiters and they withdrew their claim, allowing Discovery to remain with NASA. Never the less, the orbiter was used to launch many military payloads and it seems fitting to honor the missions by granting a shuttle to the Air Force Museum.

Endeavour OV-105 - Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, KSC, FL
I'm trying hard to be biased here, but among all the proposals I have seen, this one tops the list. Where many of the proposed displays consisted of versions of "we will build a big glass box to put the orbiter in", the KSCVC has an outstanding presentation to not only showcase an orbiter but to tell its story. After entering a preshow orientation that highlights the process of getting an orbiter ready for flight, a wall opens to reveal Endeavour, suspended at a 45ยบ angle in front of moving representation of the Earth from orbit. A walkway allows for views of the orbit up close and personal while maintaining the integrity and safety of the vehicle. Alcoves off the main floor will highlight the Hubble Space Telescope, International Space Station, and the shuttle programs. All this will be constructed in front of the existing Shuttle Launch Experience attraction, so after your encounter, you can see what it is like to ride one. No other venue allows for such a complete experience. Besides, Administrator Bolden would have to have a tremendous amount of chutzpah to announce at KSC without promising one of the orbiters would stay. And, as Center Director Bob Cabana says, "Possession is 9/10ths of the law!"

Enterprise OV-101 Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA
While this is one of those 'glass boxes' I mocked earlier, I believe one of the orbiters would find a home on the west coast and this seems the likely place. Having astronaut Bonnie Dunbar as the museum director can't hurt. And though Enterprise never reached orbit I think the museum would be thrilled at the acquisition.

Wild cards - Three other locations have high hopes and some compelling strengths (mostly political) that may alter the above placement: Space Center Houston, Houston, TX; Intrepid Air & Space Museum, New York, NY; and Adler Planetarium, Chicago, IL. While these locations each offer large populations that an orbiter could attract, only Houston has the historical perspective that such a placement would complement. I just don't think the SCH has the facilities or capability at this point to provide for the needs of an orbiter. In my humble opinion, an orbiter going to any of these otherwise worthy museums would indicate a compromise of principals and be made for purely political reasons.

Next week will show if my predictions are correct. Until then, leave your comments.