Monday, May 16, 2011

Endeavor

I napped too long today so now I am awake. While blogging about the Hazardous Weather Testbed, I had the computer tuned in to http://www.spaceflightnow.com where I was watching the NASA video of the new instrument going to the ISS. [mental note: I know so many acronyms that they are starting to repeat.] It is called the AMS and will look for really cool particles (dark matter hopefully) and figure out where they came from. Truly spectacular experimental platform. They do really cool science and I am always awestruck at how risk averse science can be. Especially at NASA. Risk averse probably isn't even in there vocabularly.

They probably use a word like redundancy. Take big risks but only if you can make a back up system for it. So I over-dramatize. Sh. This is my blog. Seriously though. They spend decades building equipment, that helps them design big experiments. The satellite that entered orbit around Mercury? They built a giant umbrella to protect it. They have fancier names like heat shields but whatever. The umbrella is made of stuff they had to dream up, before they could even consider flying to Mercury. And they had to prove it could withstand the heat and protect the satellite. They are so close to the sun, that the solar panels have to be at an angle to the sun or they would melt away. Talk about taking risks.

And that is yet another reason why watching shuttle flights is so powerful. It isn't just the 385,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 143,000 gallons of liquid oxygen that are placed in two tanks in the external tank ... next to each other ... at -423 F and -298F respectively. It isn't just the fact that when mixed those volatile substances power the shuttle to orbit and oh by the way, makes water. Its all the stories of the astronauts, the science they do in space, the science produced to get to space, the engineering required to make it all work, and the payloads they carry that will produce more information which leads to robust and powerful understanding of the universe. And every now again we hear about the science that mission provides to us right here on this blue dot.

It was a risk to start with and it will always be risky to go beyond what we think we are capable of. Yet, this year NASA will launch or has launched a number of truly remarkable satellites. More space discovery awaits even though the shuttles will retire. Instead of mourning the loss of the shuttle fleet we should take the time to appreciate our accomplishments via the shuttle program. The next time we launch our astronauts into space, it could be aboard a commercial rocket. And that will be another milestone in space exploration. I hope I get to at least wait in line for my ticket into space.