Thursday, July 23, 2009

A delicate dance in space

This story captured my imagination earlier this week, and I've been meaning to share my take on it sooner. Last Saturday afternoon (local Eastern Australian time), the space shuttle Endeavour docked with the International Space Station some 354 kilometers above the Gulf of Carpentaria.

On first hearing the news of the launch of the shuttle and it's subsequent docking, I didn't really grasp the significance of how delicate the docking manoeuvre is, and the enormity of that event. Not until I read that the two space vehicles were traveling at 28,000 kilometres per hour when they approached each other! According to NASA, this gave Commander Mark Polansky, the commander of the Endeavour, a margin of error of 4.5 centimetres to complete the procedure. That's shorter than the length of my index finger! Ouch. I hate to think of what would happen if he'd missed. Or they'd rammed each other.

For all the bad news surrounding the US's aging shuttle fleet, and some of the technical difficulties – and exorbitant expenses – with the growing international space station, it was good to hear of some success. It is quite heartening to think of the immensity of skill, training, good technology and probably a bit of dumb luck behind the deceptively simple notion of a successful space docking. I am, admitedly, awed to think of these two tin cans hurtling through space at each other, albeit in orbit, and being able to connect in a delicate balance of what I imagine to be lots tiny adjustments involving rocket thrusters, velocity, angles, calculations, and computer programming – and probably 'upside down', at that.

A far cry from the days of hurling grappling hooks on the end of ropes.

Of course, with the Americans' finely tuned sensibility for a good story and creating media buzz, they would have timed this space mission to capitalise on the 4oth anniversary of the moon landing of Appollo 11, and they have made much of the success of both this launch and the docking.

They must be very annoyed, then, when the news came out that the main toilet on the International Space Station broke. How does that happen on a multi-million (billion?) space station? I guess if Melbourne can't even get the air-conditioning to work properly on its trains, it's hard to expect perfection on a space station. Though it's not like you can just call out the plumber or have a new toilet flown in. And it's not great timing when you've now got a joint crew of 13 on board needing the toilet!

The BBC News online service has video of the Endeavour crew being welcomed aboard the space station, which is funny to watch, but I've decided to share this other famous clip instead – in honour of the astronauts (and cosmonauts) dancing that wonderfully delicate dance in space.

Homer and the Space Chips (via huluDotCom)

Let's hope that things stay well for the crews of the Endeavour and the space station as they pursue their missions.

Images from NASA, used under the terms of NASA's fair use policy]

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At July 24, 2009 11:23 am, Blogger unique_stephen said...

Shit happens

At July 24, 2009 12:39 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Yes, but the unfortunate thing about the space station is that this shit has happened before

I wonder if there's someone up there wondering 'why does this shit keep happening to me?'


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