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Return to Flight

Looks like NASA’s back in the spaceflight business.

Watched the launch on NASA TV at work with about two dozen other engineers. The highlight of the launch was (naturally) the ET Cam — every time the live feed switched to it, an appreciative murmur went through the crowd, and ET jettison was met with a chorus of awestruck “Ooohs” and “Aaahs”.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t 100% picture perfect, as there is apparently some cause for concern:

A 1 1/2-inch-wide bit of tile captured on camera appeared to fly off the shuttle’s belly, on the edge of a door that encloses the nose landing gear. It was not clear if the tile had been struck by anything. Pieces of tile, which protect the shuttle from searing heat on return to Earth, have been lost on past flights without preventing a safe homecoming.

“We’re going frame-by-frame through the imagery,” said John Shannon, a NASA operations manager.

Also, NASA video revealed what appeared to be a sizable piece of material – maybe a chunk of insulation – coming off the shuttle’s external fuel tank two minutes into flight. It did not strike the orbiter that carries the seven astronauts, the NASA manager said.

Given the fact that foam has typically fallen off the ET on ascent, I have to wonder how much what concern there is over the insulation is motivated by new data: being able to actually see the problem happening for once, instead of only seeing the effect of foam shedding post-landing. Perhaps the ET routinely sheds cable-tray foam (or whatever it ends up being identified as) with no ill effects.

Losing a tile around the nose gear door, however, is a little more concerning. It’s hard to tell from the picture and the data provided so far how serious it is, or whether it too is in-family with prior tile damage. It should be very interesting to see how this develops — especially with all the neat new gizmos aboard to test for (and potentially repair) such damage.

Interestingly, I was talking with a non-engineer friend this evening who was quite enthusiastic over today’s launch. Out of the blue, she said that she herself wanted to fly into space, if it were possible someday to do it (which, of course, may be possible sooner rather than later) — the salient point here being that while she was excited about NASA resuming the civil space program, she clearly did not consider NASA the end-all, be-all of space travel. It made me wonder just how many laypeople’s minds are moving in the same direction.

On the other hand, I caught the first few minutes of Rush Limbaugh while driving between offices this morning, and his guest host Mark Belling seems to have had his head in the sand with respect to space exploration for the past year and a half. He spent about ten minutes talking about the launch and NASA in general, congratulating NASA on the safe launch before launching himself into a rant about the problem with NASA being its lack of focus: NASA hasn’t had big public support since Apollo, he reasoned, because it hasn’t had an organizing goal since Apollo, and what it really needs is something tangible to strive for…like, say, a return to the Moon and possibly sending humans to Mars.

It was truly bizarre, as if I were somehow tuned in to radio signals from a parallel universe, one in which the VSE had never been proposed and NASA was not now reorganizing itself around the very goals this guy was advocating. It seemed to be the flip-side of my friend’s reaction to the launch — here someone I wouldn’t have guessed to be interested in space was inspired to want to take her own trip someday, while someone I would have expected to be up on Bush Administration policies was embarrassingly unaware of a quite significant policy relevant to the subject he was discussing.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to listen to any more of the show to see how many listeners called in to point out his error.

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