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December 13, 2006

Share fun and excitement of space with family

As I watched the spacewalk by Robert Curbeam “Beamer” and “Christer” Fuglesang on Monday, I marveled at their handiwork and envied them the view of a lifetime. How could they concentrate on all those intricate fastenings and connections while the blue and white Earth danced below them! As NASA manager John Shannon said at the press briefing on Monday night, the crew and ground team made “extremely hard things look easy.”

Today, Tuesday, is the start of a 4-day sequence that will, assuming all goes as planned, result in the station finally getting its wings, as in solar-array wings. These wings will rotate to track the Sun, boosting the power available to the existing Destiny lab and also allow the addition of the Japanese Kibo and European Columbus labs. In order for the wings to rotate, the “tree” of wings that now extends out the top of the Z1 truss has to be folded up. This is no easy task, especially considering that the wings have been in that position for six years.

“Beamer” said at the pre-mission press conference, “If it [the P6 array] doesn’t retract, we’ll do it by hand using a pistol grip tool [PGT] if that’s necessary. We’ll latch it if that’s necessary. All these things have mechanical backups. …One way or another we’ll get them retracted. I’m much more concerned about things on the main truss, powering them up, because they have been on orbit a little bit longer than we expected them to prior to actually using them as designed.”

All this talk of wings that move has unfortunately added to a misconception that the station “flies” by flapping these wings! We space buffs know that flying requires air to move faster over the wings than under them, generating lift. The shuttle didn’t really “fly” into orbit as much as it was pushed via the solid rockets and its main engines, but it does fly to a landing, further reinforcing the idea that spaceships “fly.”

We know that the station does not fly, it falls. It does not fall to the ground because of its speed and altitude, which are maintained by boosts from its engines, the Russian Protons, and the shuttle. It has nothing to do with the wings. So if you encounter this misconception, please kindly set these folks straight: and resist the urge to laugh. It is not their fault that we have adopted aviation terminology to describe space-flight! Or call freefall zero-g when in fact there is gravity in space…

I had planned to post these blogs throughout this amazing mission, but the death of my father-in-law this past weekend has changed my priorities, as I’m sure you all will understand. My husband works for NASA, and his dad never missed a chance to brag about that fact to people he met. Before my husband and I went to work for NASA, his dad confessed that he hadn’t paid much attention to space. But it wasn’t long before he was following the missions with us and sharing in the joy of discovery and the hope that one day, his grandchildren might visit a space station or live on the Moon because of what we are doing today.

My father-in-law was certainly not alone in sharing the pride and joy of his son’s work in the space program. During the pre-mission press conference, I asked STS-116 Pilot Bill Oeflein (“Billy O”) about taking his family into space. He said, “I think it’d be great if I could take my family and show them all the great things out there to explore. My dad’s always been a space enthusiast, and he’s trying to work his way onto the orbiter even now. He always talks about space travel and so forth. Just like the crew, it’s fun to be around people who are excited about space.”

So as you rush around this holiday season, please take a few moments to share the fun and excitement of STS-116 and the space station assembly with your family. Maybe you will interest someone in your family who wasn’t interested before, or maybe you will interest your children or grandchildren who will fly into space one day like Billy O. His dad may not be up there with him in person (yet), but I feel certain he is as proud of his son as my father-in-law was of his, as are all members of our extended space family who take pride in knowing that someone they love is taking part in creating a bright future that all of us will one day inherit.

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 02:19 PM

December 09, 2006

STS-116 Holiday Show of Lights

Americans love lights and holiday shows, and NASA sure provided one of the best ever tonight with the night launch of the space shuttle Discovery. The white dove of the orbiter poised on the fat “branch” of the external tank made for a gorgeous holiday greeting card image while sitting on the pad with the launch tower lights twinkly, the flags whipping in the wind, and the “main event” spotlights lightly caging the bird with their criss-crossing beams.

And then they lit the candles! The deep orange glowing fire of the solid rocket boosters reflected off the water and probably thousands of awestruck faces as the shuttle rose majestically into the velvety winter sky.

Even though I watched the show on my new high definition TV, I know that the lucky ones were there on the beach, seeing the surprised fish jump out of the water, being rocked back and forth by waves of sound punctuated with firework crackles and pops and the collective “wow” of the crowds. The cameras didn’t show the crowds, but I know they were there.

As songwriter Leslie Fish wrote in “Witnesses’ Waltz,”

Twelve thousand, half million, million and more,
Picknicking out on the warm water shore.
Nobody notes that we’re always at hand,
To watch all the spaceships that take off and land.”

[The song is included on the To Touch the Stars space songs CD sponsored by NSS and the Mars Society. Order it through]

About eight short minutes later, the flashing firings of the engines were relayed to us from a camera on the external tank as the orbiter set itself free of the tank. Inside Discovery, five of the seven astronauts enjoyed orbital freefall for the first time. Commander Mark Polansky said, “Got a lot of smiling faces up here.”

The camera view of the Kennedy control room showed controllers hugging and shaking hands. They deserve to celebrate. That was one holiday spectacular!

The crew will be up around 9:30 AM Sunday morning for a day of checking that the orbiter was unhurt by any falling foam during launch. They will dock with the International Space Station on Monday afternoon around 4:30 PM.

The STS-116 main event is to “string the lights” for the space station. The complicated choreography of the holiday “lighting” show requires three “acts.” The first “act” is a spacewalk on Tuesday that will “play” from around 2 PM Central Time to about 8:30 PM Tuesday night.

The stellar cast’s leading man is the handsome Robert Curbeam who plays the lead spacewalking role in all three “acts.” Pilot Bill Oefelein will be “stage managing” the show from the inside with Nick Patrick and Joan Higginbotham working the robotics.

The second “act” is on Thursday from about 1:30 PM to 8 PM, co-starring the poetic and witty Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang. The third “act” is scheduled for prime shopping time on Saturday, December 16 from around 1 PM to 7:30 PM. Curbeam will be joined by leading lady Suni Williams who said this spacewalk is “the start of my nice long expedition, and I’m really looking forward to it.”

So is an appreciative audience here on the ground! We know with each launch we are a little closer to the bright future you are building for us in space. That is a welcome gift for this holiday season. Continuing with "Witnesses' Waltz,"

“It’s the loveliest show on this Earth that you’ll see,
It’s living and real, not just tape on TV,
So come to Canaveral and bring lots of beer—
When the spaceship takes off, we’ll all stand up and cheer.”

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 11:42 PM


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