Tuesday, March 11, 2008

T-minus... and counting

By Carol Gee

Updated today at around 4:00 PM CDT.

This post is dedicated Michael, to recognize Canada's very important contribution to the international space program. This mission will install an amazing new capability on board the International Space Station. Dextre will become a new full time crew member on station."He" is a dream come true to the robotic world. The assembly task will be so much fun to watch. Congratulations to the Canadian Space Agency for this important contribution to the world's space program.

3:00 AM, 3/11/08

Live-blogging at the Cape, via NASA TV -- It is T minus two hours and 39 minutes and 46 seconds and counting until lift-off. The big bird --bathed in the bright spotlights of a night launch --has several small streams of vapor coming out from both top and bottom of the shuttle-rocket-tank assembly.

The 7-member crew of the STS-123 Endeavour Mission, with another important payload is about to launch towards the International Space Station orbiting at 225 miles above the earth. Through multiple camera views we get to sneak on board with the flight crew to wish them bon voyage. To quote from NASA.com:

During the 16-day mission, the crew's two prime objectives are to deliver and attach to the International Space Station the first component of Japan's new laboratory called Kibo, as well as Canada's new robotics system, the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre. STS-123 is the 25th shuttle mission to the International Space Station.

Commander Dom Gorie, of Louisiana is first astronaut to be assisted in the tower vestibule with completing his suiting up in standard orange. Zippers, straps, backpacks, gloves and helmets are put in place carefully by the assisting white-clad crew of 6 Space Center worker bees. Gorie crawls with difficulty into his lie-down seat to wait for the bomb to go off. The helper crew tries to make them as comfortable as possible, given the tight quarters, weird positions and bulky safety space suits. I have no idea how they suit up by themselves when it comes time to reverse the process and come home.

Mission Specialist Garrett Reisman will be riding in the mid deck. He will stay on board the Space Station when the rest of the crew comes back to earth. Rookie Pilot Greg Johnson is riding right seat at the front. Mission Specialist Rick Linahan, of Massachusetts who is a Veterinarian , and rookies Bob Behnken, from Missouri will perform 3 space walks each. Flight Engineer Mike Foreman, along with veteran Japanese astronaut Takao Doi , round out another all-male crew. As each gets tightly strapped into his seat, the communications checks clear that all can hear each other and the control room, via little twin mikes at the corners of their smiles. Chatter goes back and forth with the now-familiar phrases, "Cleared for Step 26," "Copy that," etc. Tightly wound Flight Directors and handbooks strapped to fliers' right knees assure the launch will go by the book. They are all very smart and careful daredevils.

This will be the longest shuttle mission ever for the space program -- 16 days, including 5 space walks. They have a lot to do in this race to get the space station completed before all the shuttles are retired. The whole process is now completely and truly international. They risk their lives in this endeavor (pun intended) with people from lots of other countries with strange accents and different ways. Several control rooms all around the world will coordinate with each other in order to manage this incredibly carefully choreographed mission to install Japanese and Canadian components on the station.

12:20 AM-EDT.The ground launch sequencer will automate much of the launch process. Built in holds in the count down allow the machines and men to get in tandem, and check that everything is still "go." The access hatch is now being closed by the crew in the vestibule outside Endeavour. This particular shuttle made its first flight in 1992; it is the newest of the remaining shuttles. The Kennedy Space Center in Florida is in the process of coordinating with Houston Texas Johnson Flight Control Center, who takes over after the shuttle is launched into orbit. T-minus 55 minutes until launch, and the pace of different voices begins to quicken just a bit. Lots of numbers are read off between various consoles, some female voices among the controllers.

Astronaut Steve Lindsey is flying around the Space Center checking winds and weather and generally keeping an eye on things. It looks like a beautiful night for flying. The flight crew has completed a leak check following closure of their hatch. The Commander is ready for step 822. It is now 45 minutes and 52 seconds to launch, give or take a few minutes for holds, or 2:28 AM. Everything is going very smoothly. The voices are now coming from Houston --more coordination with the crew for their numbers for the ascent checklist. The helpers crew is now leaving the white room on the tower. They must get out of harm's way before the bird can take off.

Right now, I recognize the voice of Launch Director Mike Linebaugh, calm and clearly in command. Soon he will go "around the horn" to every console to see if everyone is still in "go" mode. There are now twenty minutes left in the count down, says the briefer. More control now transitions to the on board computers, with the current input added by the commander. I wonder if his palms are sweating. . . probably not, because these guys are pretty cool characters.

Tonight's launch (at 2:28 AM) features a number of new camera views, some just spectacular. The five huge blue-tinged floodlights illuminate a beautiful sight, like a big metal Christmas tree surrounding the white and black bird attached to an orange fuel tank and a couple of solid rocket boosters. All noses point skyward. "SRO copies, cleared for launch." All non-essential chatter is quelled. Now it is T-minus 9 minutes and holding for 45 minutes. This is a built in time-out to the sequence so that the shuttle will be in the correct position to catch up with the space station on Wednesday. The current announcement clarifies a complex communication problem that has just finished a work-around to be able to keep in touch with one of the down range tracking stations. Obviously, it is a vital link. Steve Payne, another one of the honchos, has now gone around the horn again with the latest launch time. Linebaugh did his final of these. There are now 15 minutes remaining in the hold, and the weather still looks good. Astronaut Lindsey will now fly a bit away from the area to observe the launch at a safe distance. Big boss Linebaugh's familiar voice speaks for the agency: "Good luck, Godspeed and we'll see you in 16 days." Commander Dom Gorie responded in kind. "Cleared to launch Endeavour" is the final word.

The final countdown clock has restarted. "Now nine minutes to launch." Auto-sequence has now been initiated; it will hand off to the shuttles computers at 31 seconds left. The crew access arm is retracted. The APU's have started. LOX drainback is started, along with helium reconfiguration. Flight controls checked. Main engine steering checked. "Whoosh Whoosh" sound starts. Vent arm retracted at the top. Crew to start "visors and O2 flow." T minus 1 minute, and counting. Countdown at 20, the water flooding system started. "Where east and west do meet," is the NASA sound bite. Roll complete. Looking through the tank camera on the shuttle -- purple flames. "Go to throttle up." The pilot's voice is shaky.

Progress numbers: 11miles down range. Fuel cells working well. 104% thrust. Staging rocket = burnout separation confirmed. 38 miles downrange, 3900 mph. At three minutes=4300 mph. 48 miles up. "All systems in good shape." 115 mi downrange; 300,000 ft. "Negative return." (Shuttle unable to return to land if an emergency at Kennedy). 214 downrange at 4:45 into the flight. Still 3 good engines. At 5:20, 294 miles downrange, altitude 67 miles. Vehicle rolls to heads up position. 6+ minutes=486 downrange, 65 mi up. At 7:30 (Tank camera view)= 16,000 mph, 780 downrange, altitude 64 mi. Main engines cut off. Separation from external tank. Camera flashed (new). Tank falling into the ocean.

Endeavor is now safely on orbit at about 10 minutes into the flight. We return to the control room at NASA in Houston. "Capcom" is at his console. The boss took a sip of coffee. It is 2:00 AM here in Texas. Another burn will happen in 26 minutes to put Endeavor into operational orbit. This crew is now headed to build "A Third Global Village in Space."

View NASA's Launch blog here.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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