Saturday, February 27, 2010

Getting a little space, part 2

As luck would have it, there was an Atlas V rocket launch scheduled just two days after the STS-130 launch, at a more reasonable hour of the day. The rocket was carrying NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) into orbit. SDO is designed to give us a better-than-ever view of the star that is the engine of life on earth (the only life we've yet encountered in the universe). See? The romance of it! I was sure the SDO launch couldn't match the wow factor of Endeavour's night launch, but I knew I would love it, and I hoped the kids wouldn't yawn at it.

All five of us went to Kennedy for the scheduled launch, which was scrubbed with less than 4 minutes to go because of winds >20mph. The next day I brought just the two older boys out for the second try, and we had our rocket launch. As expected, there was the drama of the countdown, and the glory of a giant fancy pencil with a flare for an eraser, driving itself into the sky. By chance, there was a layer of clouds that produced a nice sun dog effect in the path of the rocket. And best of all, we witnessed a stunning atmospheric effect that looked like ripples on a pond as the rocket went supersonic on its way up, up, and away. The sundog blew away in the wake of the rocket. It was just so neat. Videos of the launch tend to impress even veteran rocket watchers. Explanations of the effect are also neat to read.

Just two hours later, as the boys and I toured the Space Center, we were amazed to read (@NASA) that SDO was orbiting on her own. Our newest satellite, silently (as things are done in space) unfolded her mechanical leaves to collect solar power, and prepared to stare at the sun for years, to send back to the inhabitants of this little blue planet all sorts of data that we can't detect with any of our ground-based eyes. And we had just watched her launch! Don't you ever just say "Wow!"?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting a little space, part 1

Growing up in a NASA household, and in my generation, I have a certain romantic relationship with space and with the space shuttle. My dad worked at NASA for 27 years, and the whole family reflected the NASA spirit. We celebrated Moon Day (July 20). We played with Enterprise space shuttle models when the shuttle program was just beginning. We wore NASA t-shirts!

As a family, we watched Columbia's first launch and landing on live TV in 1981. We tuned in for many launches and landings in the months and years that followed, occasionally missing an hour or two of school for the events. I was watching on TV in the library of my middle school when Challenger exploded on ascent, and we suddenly appreciated the risk and heroism inherent in advancing the frontiers of our knowledge. Years later, on a whim of my latent space love, I tuned in at the last minute to watch a shuttle landing -- just in time to share the nation's confusion and distress as Columbia didn't appear when and where she was expected, and reports poured in of smoke trails and debris fields. It was like losing a distant family member I'd admired from afar my whole life.

Joe worked at NASA Kennedy Space Center as a college intern, and was later hired at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which is how he came to Maryland. He worked on Hubble (source of so many images that fuel my sense of wonder at our brilliant universe), and we eventually met through one of his co-workers whom I'd known for years through one of my brothers. His circle of friends in those early years were mainly NASA folk, and I grooved on their smart and science-y goodness. Yeah, NASA has figured in my life. I'm a space child.

Despite all that NASA love, I had never seen a shuttle launch. Joe saw two as an intern, and another when Hubble (out of favor at the time because of its mirror flaw) was being serviced. When I heard in January that we could be near enough to see the launch of Endeavour on STS-130, one of the last scheduled launches, I arranged to get as close as possible. My dad came down for the launch as well, having never seen a launch in all his NASA years. I knew it would be a grueling all-nighter, with the payoff of a beautiful lightshow not at all guaranteed, so I chose not to put any of the kids through it.

The lines to get into Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex were unbelievable, and there was little time for anything but waiting in lines, waiting on a bus, and then waiting on the causeway in the cold wind off the water. Because I'd come alone on a tour bus from Orlando, I wasn't with Dad or my other friend who was at the launch. But I was so excited, I didn't much mind anything that night. After the scheduled 45-minute hold at T-9 minutes the countdown was unable to continue because of clouds, and the launch was scrubbed for 24 hours.

On the second night (oh, yes, I bought a ticket for the second night on the bus ride back to Orlando) the lines were much shorter, and the crowd much smaller. I hung out with Dad at the Visitor Center until my bus left for the causeway, and I wrapped myself in a blanket and chatted with my new bus mates during the 2-hour wait in the chilly air. And for all that trouble I was I treated to a spectacle I can't begin to describe in words, and that I will probably never see again. The brightness was starlike (as in the Sun, not the faraway ones), and the impact of that brilliance on my psyche was something like seeing the vastness of the Grand Canyon the first time.

When my dad called me after the launch, I told him I was so happy he'd seen it, too. And then I cried, because, well … he knows why, and maybe some of you do, too. Because I'm a space child.

I followed the news of the mission on NASA's website and on Twitter (@NASA), feeling like I'd sent a kid off to school that morning. Japanese Astronaut Soichi Noguchi (@Astro_Soichi) has been tweeting beautiful pictures of earth taken through the windows of the cupola that Endeavour delivered to the International Space Station. Geography, geology, and space buffs alike will enjoy Soichi's photos. He also caught Endeavour re-entering the atmosphere at the end of the STS-130 mission.

I wasn't near enough to KSC to see or hear any aspect of the landing. I followed the play-by-play on Twitter (@BAnews). Dad called when Endeavour made its de-orbit burn. He knew -- he'd sent that kid to school, too. And then I found myself sprinting out to the beach so I could look out across the Gulf and imagine her gliding home. Alone on the beach, my thoughts on our returning explorers, I felt an ancient and modern connectedness to the rest of humanity. We are all space children, after all.