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Category: NASA

Behind the scenes at the last Atlantis launch: What to watch for as the shuttle program ends

Atlantis Countdown Clock 7-7-11

The scheduled launch of Atlantis space shuttle, with a reduced crew of four, will be all over television today. It's the 135th and final flight in the fabled 30-year history of America's space shuttle adventure.

We are participating in the NASA Tweetup this week with unique access to the space center and NASA experts. So in anticipation of the launch we decided to gather gobs of details about what you won't hear or see on TV, courtesy of numerous interviews at the Kennedy Space Center, most especially with the veteran and patient American astronaut Doug Wheelock. Plus we have some inside NASA launch videos below:

While you were sleeping, technicians fueled the amazing mechanical monster. Flight managers made that decision at 2 a.m. Eastern, hoping to find a clear spot of weather between today's predicted storms.

The rockets are so huge, they will take more than a half-million gallons of liquid oxygen and nitrogen. If you laid Atlantis and its rockets down on a football field, they would reach from one goal line beyond the far 30-yard line.US astronaut Doug Wheelock by Atlantis 7-7-11

And these engines have a voracious appetite. At T-minus three hours, technicians will have loaded 150,000 gallons of liquid oxygen and 345,000 gallons of liquid nitrogen. The LOX alone weighs 10 pounds per gallon. So there's 1,500,000 pounds right there.

Most of this fuel volume will be consumed in the 8.5 minutes it takes to reach orbit.

Attached to the huge rust-colored tank (the color is thermal protection, no longer painted white, which saves 600 pounds) are those twin solid rocket boosters. Each of those long white cannons weighs 1.5 million pounds. They are reusable. (See video below for a rocket's eye view of the last launch.)

Altogether depending on payload, the rocket-shuttle combo weigh just under five million pounds, even more than the combined weight of Congress after lunch. Did you know that together the package is called the shuttle. When Atlantis returns home alone, weighing less than 250,000 pounds, it's called the orbiter.

There are several holds or planned pauses built into the countdown. The main reason for these: To let human minds catch up with the monitoring and analysis of their computers.

At T-minus 15 seconds, 350,000 gallons of water flood the area beneath the shuttle. But not just, as you might think, for the heat. It's to subdue a sound pulse created by the engines' beyond deafening roar.

Those sparks you might see beneath the main engine nozzles are intentional to burn off any hydrogen fumes. At T-minus 6.6 seconds the main engines ignite. But the entire assembly remains bolted to the pad.

As the thrust from the three shuttle engines builds, it actually moves the tip of Atlantis three feet over and then, in slow motion, back to vertical. If all is well with the main engines, eight explosive bolts tethering the machine to earth are blown. (Watch for small puffs of white smoke at the rocket base in the bottom video here.)

And the solid fuel boosters ignite.

These twin towers of power have no throttle. No controls. They  know nothing but full blast. It's basically a pair of two-minute controlled explosions out the rear.

As Wheelock puts it, "Once you light those babies, you're going somewhere."

Together at liftoff the engines provide in excess of six million pounds of thrust and the burning fuel reduces the weight it's carrying by thousands of pounds per second.

Watch this cockpit view video of a launch and see how even the tightly-tethered crew is firmly jostled. (More text below)

Ever wonder why shortly after launch as it starts its flight up the East coast, the shuttle always turns on its back? "Houston, Atlantis roll program." One, that movement aligns rooftop antennas with the myriad of tracking stations below.

But since the shuttle has wings with lift, it wants to fly on its own. Not a good thing when tethered to rockets, or until journey's end. Turning upside down transforms that wing lift into negative force, saving strain on connections.

You're likely to hear a myriad of other terms in the radio chatter. "Go at throttle up," meaning all is well and the engines can be returned to full thrust after passing through the sound barrier.

"CDR" is the flight commander, Chris Ferguson. "PTL" is the pilot, Doug Hurley. "MS1" and "MS2" are the mission spoecialists, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

At two minutes-five second comes "BECO," booster engine cutoff. Those twin rockets that have been burning 11,000 pounds of fuel per second are discarded by explosive bolts. However, since their burning fuel will carry them four miles higher, mini-rockets steer the spent engines away from the shuttle.

In the nose of these rockets is a trio of parachute packages that open, first, to right and steady the falling cylinders, then slow them more and finally take them to a splash landing in the Atlantic, where two recovery ships are already waiting 120 miles off Jacksonville.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to fall about 14 miles, check out this video from NASA booster cameras and then read more below:

You might also hear "Negative return," meaning Atlantis is too high and too far away to return to the Cape if something went wrong. NASA has emergency landing fields around the globe.

"MECO," main engine cutoff, meaning they've made it into orbit. Shortly after the boosters fall away, the shuttle is traveling 4,000 miles an hour. Less than two minutes later it's going Mach 8, about 5,700 miles an hour. Thirty-five seconds later it's increased to 6,600 miles an hour.

Before six minutes of flight it's hustling along at Mach 13, 9,000 miles an hour. A minute later 13,000 miles an hour. One more minute and they're doing 17,500 miles an hour, Mach 25. (And, yes, during launch all astronauts wear diapers.)

Here's another sense of space speed. In orbit, they have a sunrise or a sunset every 45 minutes. In its 293 days in space Atlantis has seen 4,648 of each with temperature swings of several hundred degrees.

Wheelock recalls casually while returning to Earth one time, he looked down and saw Seattle. Nineteen minutes later he was in Florida -- just one mile from where Atlantis now sits for her next -- and last -- adventure.

RELATED:

Atlantis unveiled for flight despite storms

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President Obama  speaks on the future of U.S. space exploration: Yes, but....

-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photo: Andrew Malcolm / Los Angeles Times (Atlantis countdown clock at T-minus 11 hours and holding, Atlantis on Launch Pad 39A can be seen just to the right of the clock, three miles away, July 7); Andrew Malcolm / Los Angeles Times (Wheelock by Atlantis, July 7).

Videos courtesy of NASA TV.

Atlantis space shuttle unveiled for flight despite storms

Atlantis Unveiled for flight 7-7-11 Andrew Malcolm photo for LATimes

"May God Bless Atlantis and Her Crew" say the signs all along the Eastern coast of Florida near the Kennedy Space Center. There, on Pad 39A Thursday Atlantis was unveiled for its 33rd and last flight, despite leaden skies and vicious circling thunderstorms.

If all goes well, after 12 days 250 miles up at the International Space Station, where the humidity is considerably less than Florida in July, Atlantis will end up as the prime attraction at the historic space facility's Visitors Center.

We are participating  in the NASA Tweetup this week for the final U.S. space shuttle launch with unique access to the space center and NASA experts. Scroll down for Thursday's collection of Tweets, vis Storify.com, including a photo of a longtime Ticket reader we finally met in person, Jenn Perry, a veteran launch-watcher.

The photo above was taken about 1,000 feet from the shuttle and booster rockets after the service facility was retracted Thursday afternoon.

The four astronauts are sleeping right now. The launch is scheduled for 11:26 a.m. Friday Eastern time. Bad weather threatens that time, but launch controllers will not decide until the wee hours of Friday morning if the weather will permit loading of hundreds of thousands of gallons of volatile fuel.

If they go proceed with fueling, they will try to find a moderate weather window to launch in time to catch up to the circling ISS. They can scrub Friday's flight, but if they've fueled the rockets, another try can't come before Sunday. If they decide to write off a Friday flight attempt without fueling, Saturday and Sunday are fallback launch dates, when weather is predicted to be slightly better.

There's a tight launch window for NASA's Atlantis because the Air Force has another timed launch scheduled for next week and needs the range clear.

We'll be here, of course, tweeting up our own storm @latimestot with occasional items, numerous Tweets and exclusive photos here too. Spread the word.

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President Obama  speaks on the future of U.S. space exploration: Yes, but....

-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photo: Andrew Malcolm / Los Angeles Times

The historic last launch of Atlantis: The Ticket's front row seat to America's final shuttle flight

Atlantis ready to go

Once upon a time there was a high school senior so fascinated with space discoveries and exploration that he organized a school-wide petition drive to suspend classes so the student body (namely his student body) could watch TV coverage of the first American orbit of the earth.

That was 18,033 days ago, when John Glenn spent 296 minutes in orbit, circling the world three whole times. For comparison, the shuttle Discovery made 5,830 orbits during its 39 space flights.

This week, after those full 49 years four months and 16 days, that same former student goes to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral as one of a few score lucky lottery winners in NASA's final space shuttle Tweetup.

We will have front-row seats for the last of 135 United States space shuttle launches. For the next several days we will be posting occasional up-close items here on The Ticket and regular tweets from @latimestot hashtag #NASATweetup.

According to the ongoing countdown schedule, late Friday morning Eastern time, Atlantis is set to fly away atop those thunderous pillars of flame for a 12-day mission to stock up and empty out refuse from the International Space Station about 250 miles above.AtlantisCrewOrngeSMDHRWCFJohnRaouxAP

Many have followed the initially tardy but gallant and amazingly successful American space efforts since that autumn morning in 1957 when the eerie sound of the Soviets' pioneering Sputnik satellite beeped out over the radio.

There is now a real sense of sadness with this final shuttle flight after some 30 years. All the achievements. The twin disasters. The courageous men and women who designed, built, tested, prepared, flew, rode in and died in these space trucks.

Even retired astronauts have spoken out against the crimped future of America's manned space program. These include Neil Armstrong, whose left boot touching the moon we watched on a giant screen at Kennedy International Airport while interviewing other awed witnesses in 1969. (Scroll down for the historic video clip.)

NASA officials try to put the best light on the Obama administration's decision to scrap the Bush administration's manned space plans, the return explorations to the moon and beyond and to let go thousands of highly-skilled technicians and space workers.

There's much brave talk about exciting new adventures ahead relying on collaborations with commercial rocket operations and other countries for President Obama's vague vow to someday land on an unnamed asteroid for some reason. Hopefully, the hopes are fulfilled for science and for the existing generation of astronauts trained with endless places to go and, now, no way to get there.

A new Pew Research Center poll this week finds that 55% view the space shuttle program as a good investment and nearly 6 in 10 Americans believe that U.S. leadership in space is essential, thinking of the scientific, industrial, economic, medical and even military lessons learned from such expensive research.

At the moment, thunderstorms could jeopardize the 11:26 a.m. ET Friday launch. But whenever Atlantis flies for the final time, it will carry only a partial crew -- flight Commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim.

That's not to save charges on checked baggage. That's because, due to all the preceding vehicle retirements, NASA has no ready backup in case of an Atlantis emergency. If, say, Atlantis lost some heat tiles during launch and was deemed unsafe to endure the temperatures of reentry for landing, it would stay parked in space.

And the American crew members of the once-pioneering United States space program would eventually return to Earth one by one in borrowed seats aboard Russian space capsules.

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California to Mars: Another pioneering rover begins its long journey

President Obama  speaks on the future of U.S. space exploration: Yes, but....

 

 

-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photos: Gary Rothstein / EPA (Atlantis poised and ready to go); John Raoux / Associated Press (Atlantis' final crew members, from left, Sandra Magnus, Doug Hurley, Rex Walheim and Chris Ferguson).

Ticket pic of the week: From California to Mars, another rover's long journey

NASA JPL Mars Rover Curiosity befoire leaving Pasadene 6-11

Regular Ticket readers may have detected here a fondness for and fascination with things space.

First photos of Mercury from orbit. Not many more U.S. space photos like this.

Well, here's the amazing latest: The newest Mars rover, Curiosity, has finished assembly at the JPL-Caltech facility in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., and begun its 14-month, 354 million-mile journey to the red planet.

The rover and its new rocket-powered space crane now reside at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida preparing for their launch around Thanksgiving this year. The space trip will take them 255 days at about 58,000 miles an hour.

You may remember the first two rovers -- Spirit sand Opportunity -- were supposed to last three months after their 2004 landing on the surface of Mars. Spirit was just shut down and Opportunity continues to explore. That pair landed, in effect, in immense inflated bouncing balls that eventually came to rest, deflated, righted themselves and disgorged the rovers.

The new rover, however, weighs about a ton on Earth, too much for the ball strategy. So it has its own rocket sky crane attached, which will maneuver to the best landing site and lower the rover to settle, hopefully not too hard, on all six wheels to begin its far-away explorations.

As usual, the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have produced an impressive animated video showing Curiosity's planned flight and landing in August 2012. The video is viewable here. Highly recommended.

There is also a diagram here showing the timeline of Curiosity's last few minutes of flight and complex descent.

Bon voyage.

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Ticket pic of the week: Bad hair days not a problem

You won't see space photos like these for long

-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle.Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech (New Mars rover Curiosity after construction before leaving on its way to Mars; ETA August, 2012).

Ticket pic of the week: You won't see new space photos like this for much longer

NASA space shuttle Endeavour and the international space station as seen from a Russian Soyuz craft 5-23-11 Paolo Nespoli

Rare are the stand-away photos of the entire International Space Station and a docked shuttle.

This photo, taken from a Russian Soyuz spacecraft May 23 by Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency, shows the last docking up there of the U.S. space shuttle Endeavour, now retired and headed for a Los Angeles space museum.

As a June Saturday bonus scroll down for a second photo of Endeavour's final landing at the Kennedy Space Center.

NASA Endeavour's Last Landing 6-4-11

One last shuttle flight is scheduled, in early July for Atlantis. Then, according to the Obama administration's plans for NASA, it too will be retired, and any space-bound Americans will rent seats on Russian rockets for the foreseeable future.

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-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photo: Paolo Nespoli / European Space Agency (Endeavour docked with the International Space Station, May 23, 2011); Joe Skipper / Reuters (Endeavour's last landing, June 4, 2011).

Endeavour headed back to Earth for its final landing -- and then retirement in Los Angeles

NASA Endeavour before undocking from the international space station 5-30-11

The space shuttle Endeavour is due to return to Earth for the last time late Tuesday evening, Pacific time, ending its 25th space flight.

Here in this NASA photo taken during one of Endeavour's last nights out of this world from the International Space Station, you can see the docked shuttle's left wing in the upper right. Beyond that is Earth's atmosphere about 200 miles below and the ribbon of light of an approaching dawn.

Take a close look at the night sky, however. A whole lot more stars than any of us ground-bounders are ever able to see through that same atmosphere.

The sturdy Endeavour vehicle will have traveled 122.8 million miles in those journeys during 299 days in space. After one more shuttle flight, the U.S. will rent seats on Russian rockets for U.S. astronauts.

After official retirement, Endeavour will travel a couple thousand more miles to go on permanent display at the Cailfornia Science Center in Los Angeles, a little over 100 miles from Edwards Air Force Base where returning shuttles sometimes landed. Discovery is headed for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, which always gets something historic.

The prototype Enterprise will go to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City, which had virtually nothing to do with the space program.

After its final flight scheduled for July, the 135th of the program, the shuttle Atlantis will stay at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where all the flights launched.

Houston, headquarters and training center for NASA's entire manned space program, gets nada, an Obama administration decision that retired Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan called "politics over history."

Family members of the lost Challenger and Columbia crews also bemoaned the decision to leave the manned space program's homestate of Texas shuttle-less.

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Ticket pic of the Week: an Endeavour out of this world

-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends

Photo: NASA

Ticket pic of the week: An Endeavour out of this world

NASA Endeavour Spacewalk ndrew Feustel Right and Michael Fincke 5-11

Extraordinary things have become ordinary over time, thanks to the skills and courage of the NASA folks.

While Earth people fuss over everyday matters, the crew of the shuttle Endeavour continues construction on the International Space Station a couple of hundred miles overhead.

Here, this week, astronauts Michael Fincke, left, and Andrew Feustel stow equipment in the shuttle bay.

It's the last of almost three dozen space flights for Endeavour. Discovery has already been retired. One more later this summer with Atlantis.

And that's it.

Then, the United States of America starts renting seats on Russian spacecraft.

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-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photo: NASA (Endeavour's last flight, a spacewalk with Andrew Feustel, on the right, and Michael Fincke storing equipment, May 26).

Ticket pic of the week: Better to fly over this thing than into it

NASA esa ISS 1-11 Paolo Nespoli

What do you think this is?

Hint: It's space-related.

At first glance, we thought it was one of those spectacular gas clouds a million light years from Earth, captured by the amazing eye of Hubble Space Telescope.

Not so.

This is actually a photo looking down from space.

Back at Earth.

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli, perched in the International Space Station about 120 miles up, took this photo of a colossal lightning storm over Brazil. No wonder they call it the rain forest.

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Ticket pic of the week: Even pandas need to play too

-- Andrew Malcolm

Don't forget to follow The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

Photo: Paolo Nespoli / NASA / ESA

Royal wedding: On behalf of almost all Americans, Jay Carney wishes Kate Middleton, Prince William well

Wedding Royal Kiss 4-29-11Prince William Kate Middleton

Even though those British bozos did not invite his boss, Barack Obama, to the wedding, nor his boss' boss, Michelle Obamajay Carney ponders a question, file, Press Secretary Jay Carney was designated to say something nice in public (full text below) about the romantic Cinderella event that captivated millions on global TV today.

Meanwhile, the president of this former British colony, whose father came from a former British colony, was left to take his daughters and mother-in-law down South.

There, the president looked at Alabama tornado damage, and then everyone went to see inside a large building at the Kennedy Space Center because the Endeavour shuttle launch was postponed, at least until Monday.

Which really ruined that photo op.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Speaking of bright futures, ensure yours (and ours) by following The Ticket via Twitter alerts of each new Ticket item. Or click this: @latimestot. Our Facebook Like page is over here. We're also available on Kindle. Use the ReTweet buttons above to share any item with family and friends.

 

Jay Carney's statement on the Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton

We congratulate Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on their wedding today and wish them a lifetime of happiness together. 

The United States has no closer friend in the world than the United Kingdom.

On this occasion, the American people extend heartfelt congratulations to the peoples of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth and share in their hopes for a bright future for the Royal couple.    ####

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Complete Royal Wedding photo gallery available right here.

Photos: Matt Dunham / Associated Press; Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press (Carney).

That went well: With Mubarak gone, 52% of Egyptians dislike Obama's policies, barely 20% like the U.S.

North Africa, Egypt and the Nile River valley seen from space

A case study in klutz?

Yes, it took a while for him to figure out which side was going to win in Egypt's popular uprising earlier this year. But remember all of President Obama's warnings and unsolicited pieces of advice for the people currently inhabiting that land of ancient culture? 

Everyone should avoid violence. You can't repress ideas. Time to go. No going back. Everyone deserves universal human rights. Peaceful assembly and self-expression are very important.

The Real Good Talker and his rhetorical sidekick, Mideast power player Jay Carney, have been issuing an abundance of White House warnings in recent weeks to Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria. Forget about Iran. It's worked so well that demonstrators continue to....

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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