Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Good landings

By Carol Gee

"Go for the de-orbit burn" -- These dead stick glides to earth of the big old heavy warhorse shuttles remain an absolute miracle to me and other incurably addicted "space junkies." Listening to the NASA channel, it is a tense process. You can hear it in the voices of the people at the consoles and in the pilots' flying the Atlantis shuttle -- voices just a bit rushed report the minute by minute landing sequence. "Copy, good config for the burn," says Commander Steve Frick. The engines will burn for a little over two minutes in a braking maneuver. The shuttle will drop out of orbit at 16,000 miles an hour towards its inevitable fiery 2500 degree reentry into the earth's thin blanket of atmosphere. It has been a 5.1 million mile mission.

The shuttle comes in just west of Cuba, a small country attempting to make a good a landing, itself, after Fidel Castro's resignation from office. We wish them well. Atlantis does a series of "s-turns" to slow its speed. For direction, NASA makes use of the GPS positioning technology, just as if they had "OnStar" and were lost outside of Poughkeepsie. Eighty miles out we get the first dim view of the still upturned shuttle. Twin sonic booms "heralded the arrival of Atlantis." With s-turns to slow their speed, and a big overhead turn towards the field, the shuttle makes an amazing landing at 8:07 CT, with Commander Frick at the controls. We get to see this landing through the same "heads-up display" used the Commander and Pilot in Atlantis -- another one of those "Wow!" things for space junkies.

This was a big trip for the STS-122 crew, and for the cooperating international space community. The 12-day mission completed the installation of ESA's Columbus science module, complete with a French crew member Flight Engineer Leopold Eyharts, deployed to see to the activation of the module and its experiments. It was also a big trip home for Mission Specialist astronaut Dan Tani, who has lived for an extended four-month period at the International Space Station. He lost his mom in a car accident in December and now he is coming home to the arms of his family.

A long convoy of vehicles meets the shuttle crew after the landing. After a period of "safe-ing" the hot, huffing and puffing vehicle, a flight surgeon checks out the crew. There is a private disembarkation, because coming back to earth is a rough experience, particularly for Tani, who will get several weeks of rehab for the after effects of his 120 days of weightlessness. The crew will have lunch with their family members.

"Next stop for Atlantis, the Hubble Space Telescope in late August," says the familiar voice of the NASA announcer. The boys are home and I can breathe again.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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  • It was nowhere as loud as last time, but the double sonic boom could be heard here on Florida's Treasure Coast. It's a comforting sound meaning that the dangerous part of reentry is over, but it's amazing that they are so high up and only 150 miles from landing - too high to see, but certainly loud enough to make people run outside to see what the sound was.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 11:23 AM  

  • Thanks for "joining the circle" for me with your comment. There are times when I am acutely aware of how tiny this life boat we all live on truly is. I hope to see a launch some time.

    By Blogger Carol Gee, at 2:44 PM  

  • From where I am, a daytime launch is just a thin contrail that comes to an abrupt end as the boosters fall away, but a night launch is worth seeing. Even from 150 miles away, it lights up the sky.

    A few years ago they launched a Delta 4 toward the Southeast at night and at first I thought I was witnessing an asteroid falling and then an airliner on fire. Absolutely astonishing!

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 10:10 AM  

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