Saturday, 30 April 2011

Time for a break

With the KSC media centre closed on Saturday it was a chance to take a break from the space routine and recharge the batteries with an afternoon walk along Cocoa Beach to the resort's small pier.


Among the more interesting sights was a beach wedding and the departure of a cruise ship from nearby Port Canaveral.


Meanwhile, back at the launch site, Endeavour's countdown was being held at the T-minus 11 hour mark.

News came out late on Saturday afternoon that an APU thermostat had failed tests. If so, this is the better of the two most likely failures and would allow work to proceed towards a new launch attempt on Monday.

Technicians continued working late into the night to test thermostats for Endeavour's APU-1 fuel line heater to help determine what caused it to fail.

NASA flight planners also tweaked Endeavour's target liftoff time for a Monday launch attempt to 2:34 pm (7.34 pm GMT).

If a Monday launch is possible, the countdown would resume at 10:07 pm on Sunday, with fuelling starting at 5:09 am and the crew strapping in at 11:14 am on Monday.

Meet and greet

A few hundred metres - I guess it’s about as close as I’ll ever get to the President of America.

With the launch postponement still fresh, the visit of President Barack Obama and his family to Kennedy Space Center on Friday afternoon gave the assembled media something else to focus on.

I joined some of the TV crews and presenters on the roof of the CBS tower which is a good two storeys high and provided a grandstand view of the space centre landscape.

Obama was arriving on site by Marine helicopter after landing at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station - and the media cameras were scouring the horizon, all wanting to be first to pick up the imminent arrival.

America doesn’t do things by halves and in the end there were five military helicopters buzzing over KSC as the President swooped in, taking in a view of Endeavour on the pad on the way over.

From our distance it wasn’t easy to identify exactly which helicopter he was in - but then it turned out we’d been dupped anyway.

As we all focussed on the four big helicopters manoeuvring in from the north east behind the giant Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), Obama’s chopper had discretely moved in at lower level from a westerly direction.

The first family was already on the ground as the four military escort helicopters put on a mini display for the live TV cameras, making it look as though they were landing the President.

So there was President Obama, wife Michelle and their two girls already being shown around the Atlantis Space Shuttle in the Orbiter Processing Facility, in reality not so far from where we were standing.

It would have been the first time in NASA history that a sitting President and his family had witnessed a Shuttle launch.

As well as seeing Atlantis in the VAB, The President and his wife met briefly with Endeavour's crew. Obama told them he was still hoping to get back to Florida for a liftoff.

So, unhappily but not unexpectedly, I didn’t get remotely close enough for a Presidential meet and greet or that all important handshake. The official party remained mostly inside while we media were cocooned on our tower, watching from afar in the afternoon sunshine.  

Friday, 29 April 2011

Last minute hitch

 "We will not fly this machine until it is ready - and today it was not ready." These were the words of flight director Mike Leinbach at the end of a press briefing this afternoon following the postponement of the launch of Endeavour.

At the Kennedy Space Center it was a day of highs and lows. Despite the early overcast skies there was optimism and excitement in the air.

Ironically, by the end of the day, it was the weather that was cooperating and the technology that had gone arry. An hour before the scheduled launch time clear blue skies had returned making perfect conditions for liftoff.

The Shuttle team had worked hard through the previous night, performing the Rotating Service Structure retraction at the launch pad shortly before midnight to leave Endeavour bathed in bright arch lights, looking pristine and ready to go.

The milestone in preparing the Shuttle for launch came some five hours later than planned but the team still managed to start fuelling on time first thing in the morning.

From an outside perspective it seemed as though things were all going to plan - but behind closed doors the team had been alerted at around 9 am to a potential problem with a heater associated with the Shuttle's hydraulic power system.

Blissfully unaware of the unfolding situation, things continued as normal and I was among about 150 of the reporters and photographers present signed up to witness the crew walkout at the start of their journey to the launch pad.

Before being allowed on the NASA buses to transport us to the viewing point all bags and equipment had to be placed in a line for inspection by an army sniffer dog. This is standard practice when being taken to any secure KSC area.

A drive of several miles brought us to the Operations and Checkout building where the astronaut crew had been quarantined in their quarters since arriving two days previously.

We had a wait of about 45 minutes, a security helicopter with a machine gunner positioned in the open door swooping overhead. When it began to hover above at about midday we knew the crew, dressed in their orange flight suits, were about to appear.

After posing for photos they were off in the silver Astrovan with military escort to the launch pad. The iconic Astrovan has been used to transport crews to launch pads at KSC since the days of the Apollo Moon programme.

We’re back on the buses in a few minutes and head along the same route back towards the press centre area. But, bizarrely, after a mile or so, we see blue flashing lights coming in the opposite direction - closely followed by a speeding Astrovan.

It could mean only one thing - the launch had been aborted and the crew were on their way back to their quarters. In the next few seconds word came through via Twitter and text message confirming a postponement.

The Shuttle has three Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) that provide hydraulic power to steer the vehicle during ascent and entry. NASA’s launch commit criteria and flight rules require all three APUs to be fully operational for launch.

Endeavour's orange external fuel tank had to be drained of more than 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and oxygen - a process taking about 24 hours - before engineers could access the area and evaluate the issue with APU 1. The only option was to postpone the launch for at least 72 hours.

A bird's eye view

Happy wedding day! A truly wonderful occasion as I watched on CNN over breakfast here in Florida. Even the majesty of a Space Shuttle launch won’t be able to match this for a once in a lifetime event!

It’s an overcast morning with a few spots of rain as I arrived at KSC about 8.30 am. They are predicting the weather fronts will clear in time for this afternoon’s launch.

Already the roads down to the coast were nose to tail with traffic streaming in to get a viewing point. Many have been camping out overnight to get prime spots.

Here are a few photos taken as I arrived to show you the scene so far. The osprey family really have a bird's eye view of everything going on but I think they would prefer to be left in peace!


Thursday, 28 April 2011

Back on track

What with wildfires and electrical storms, nature seems to be throwing the lot at Endeavour this time around. The storm was truly spectacular and lasted for several hours - but thankfully it was nothing like the deadly tornado that devestated Alabama the night before. 

The lengthy lightning alert at Kennedy Space Center halted the countdown activities at pad 39A for several hours - the all-clear was eventually sounded at 1130 pm local time and teams got back to work on readying Endeavour for its launch tomorrow at 3:47 pm in the afternoon.

As you can see from the picture above it didn't look so good for most of the evening - though it was spectacular to watch! By the way, the pic below it is me taking one of the fire pictures yesterday afternoon. I spotted it on the website.

Meanwhile, the weather forecast for launch day continues to be quite favourable, though the chances for a weather violation at launch time have increased slightly to 30 from 20 percent yeseterday.

The primary concerns are a low-cloud ceiling and a crosswind ‘violation’ at the Shuttle Landing Facility, the runway that would be used if Endeavour needed to return in an emergency straight after launch.

Waiting for storm to pass

It’s just before 9 pm and we’re in the KSC press centre to see if the launch pad retraction will still go ahead tonight following lightening and thunder in an early evening storm.

The latest it can be to maintain tomorrow’s launch is around 1030 pm - technicians are out at the pad now checking to see if there has been any lightening or storm damage.

They are also reviewing the weather forecast for the night to see if it will be safe to proceed and then to start fuelling the giant external tank.

If things can’t start by late this evening then tomorrow’s launch could be postponed.

Praying for clear skies

Arrived KSC just before nine. About a 30 minute drive from where I’m staying on Cocoa Beach. The car temperature gauge was reading 82F as I pulled into the car park at press centre.

Had dinner last evening wth Ken Kremer and some Dutch writers, and a journalist with Scientific American magazine. One of the Dutch guys, Jacob Kuiper, works for the weather service in Holland.

Very interesting guy who certainly knows his altostratus from his cumulonimbus - and a lot more besides, including volcanic ash clouds and the spread of radiation in the atmosphere from the Japanese nuclear reactors.

Back to the Shuttle, he told me that if the skies over the UK are clear tomorrow evening then the Space Shuttle ground-track will bring it across England.

So, given the right conditions, the Shuttle (and the separated external tank) should be visible in the sky between 18 and 20 minutes (9.05 pm BST) after launch.

Watch the launch live on NASA TV, have a cuppa and then pop outside to see Endeavour passing overhead with its crew of six. How cool would that be?

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Wildfire brings drama

NASA weather girl Kathy Winters (officially known as the Shuttle weather officer) is relied upon to get the forecast spot on in the days before a Space Shuttle launch.

At the pre-launch press conference this morning her main worry was a cold front moving through Thursday evening, which would mix with the warm and humid air and set off lightening storms.

This is at the crucial time when the launch pad’s so-called rotating service structure is pulled back from protecting the orbiter so the loading of fuel can begin.

Needless to say, any kind of lightening strike in the locality at such a volatile time would not be desirable.

But what Kathy (pictured above) could not know as she was speaking and the relaxed press conference was drawing to a close was that outside over the southern flank of KSC a bush fire was raging out of control.

At first it had seemed rather innocuous as a pall of dark smoke billowed into the blue sky. On the ground it was spreading like wildfire, fanned into life by a strong southerly breeze.

Some six hours later it was still raging out of control, with a helicopter dumping water to try and halt its march. Its progress had been frighteningly quick and far.

The launch pad was sufficiently far away not to come into the equation if it had been launch day - but it would have certainly marred the view for the press and others watching from KSC.

Bush fires and lightening storms aside, Friday’s launch day weather forecast remained positive, with the only possible violation coming in at just a 20 percent chance of high altitude winds making it unsafe for liftoff.

With Mike Moses reporting nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the Shuttle’s processing on the pad things are going smoothly.

And, just for the record, the temperatures in this part of Florida have been in the mid-80s this week, with humid air and strong winds. They say this is more typical of July than April - haven’t I heard that somewhere else recently?

Visitors flood in

NASA managers have an extra problem to deal with for this last launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour - and it’s a presidential-shaped one.

At the pre-launch press briefing this morning Mike Moses (processing manager) and Mike Leinbach (launch director) were at pains to say that President’s Obama’s presence for the launch would not compromise in any way mission operations.

Air Force One will touch down on the Shuttle landing runway and will have to be moved aside just in case the runway is needed for a return to launch site abort.

The President and his family have been given a number of options as to where they can view the launch from but these will not be disclosed in advance. "I can’t tell you where it will be but I can tell you where it won’t," said Mike Leinbach, referring to his own launch director’s seat.

The Obama’s won’t be the only American’s homing in on the area for a chance to witness one of the final majestic Shuttle launches.

This part of Florida is expecting up to three-quarters of a million visitors, almost double the number who turned out to watch the final launch of Discovery in February.

The crowd estimate means that roads surrounding the centre will be blocked for hours after the launch - a major problem for those KSC workers just wanting to get home after a busy day at the office!

Media badging up

There are going to be around 1500 media at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the STS-134 launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.

Whilst not a record, it is a 70 precent increase on those present for the last Shuttle launch, that of Discovery at the end of February.

The accreditation process for bona fide media representatives can be a complex affair. First off, foreign media need a visa before NASA will accept an electronic application.

Outside of KSC itself there are two badging stations - a news media access badge and a mission badge. Both require photos, fingerprinting and, if you are to drive through security under your own steam, an FBI check.

All went smoothly this morning, so I’m badged up and good to go. There are security check points on all the roads into KSC, mostly a couple of miles outside of the main area.

As the mission gets closer security levels will be increasingly raised, all adding to the excitement and anticipation.

This morning there is a smattering of the regular ‘space’ journalists here already. In 45 minutes’ time there if a pre-launch news conference.

Most likely, one of the main topics will be the weather forecast and the storm clouds amassing on the horizon.

The prediction at present is for good launch day weather but with thunder storms the night before - which is not such good news for the overnight fuelling operations on the pad.

The great and the good

Perhaps it has finally dawned on America that the age of its ‘remarkable flying machine’ is rapidly drawing to a conclusion.

If all goes to plan, this week’s launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour will be the penultimate in all time history - and it will be a bittersweet occasion for many.

For the thousands of Americans who have worked on the Shuttle programme for three decades or more it brings home the stark reality that, from this summer, many will find themselves out of work.

The layoffs by NASA and its contractors have already bitten deep. The spaceport city of Titusville, a stone’s throw from Kennedy Space Center itself, was a boomtown founded on American’s human spaceflight endeavours.

But its glory days have gone. Workers have already left in their droves and the once thriving restaurants and businesses are heading for lean times.

This week, as the great and the good gather at Kennedy Space Center to witness a final launch for themselves, human interest stories abound.

It was good to see at the weekend that doctors have allowed Gabrielle Giffords, the US congress-woman who was shot in the head, to travel to Florida to see her astronaut husband’s Space Shuttle launch.

The trip will be the first for Ms Gifford since she was flown from Tuscon, Arizona, to Houston more than three months ago to recover after being shot in the head at a community event in her home state of Arizona.

Husband Mark Kelly proudly told US television that Ms Giffords will be able to witness the launch of Endeavour, scheduled for Friday afternoon, in person.

Ms Giffords has not been seen publicly since the shooting and will likely watch it from a private family viewing area.

Her shooting at a community outreach event back in January could have put in jeopardy the Shuttle mission. Kelly is commander and had he needed to spend longer at his wife’s bedside the flight would likely have been postponed.

Replacing the commander so close to a launch would have been unprecedented and, as there are no backup crews in training for such complex missions, a tricky dilemma for NASA.

President Barack Obama and his family are also planning to watch the launch, though it is unclear whether they will be alongside Ms Giffords or at a different location.

Even on the most routine of occasions, a Space Shuttle launch is an emotionally charged and tense affair.

The fact that this will be the last ever countdown for Endeavour and the penultimate flight of the near 30 year programme makes it all the more poignant.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Flying across the Atlantic

Gatwick airport, 0745 am. To my chagrin the airport shopping experience is already in full swing as a I burst into departures after just about the most rapid check-in and security process ever. I beat a hasty retreat to the bustling Café Rouge with its panoramic view of the runway as a backdrop for breakfast.

I’m almost on my way. Infact, as I retrospectively write this onboard the plane, the inflight information screen shows we are heading well out over the mid-Atlantic en route to Florida. Another seven or eight hours to go before the 747 touches down in Orlando.

Most of the 316 passengers will be heading off to theme park land - a few of us will be travelling in the opposite direction towards Kennedy Space Center on the east coast where putting people into space is, for the moment at least, still for real.

This Friday afternoon (in the evening UK time) the Space Shuttle Endeavour is set to blast off on its final flight - a 16 day mission to the orbiting International Space Station.

I’ll be attending the launch as Editor of Spaceflight magazine. This is the eleventh year I’ve been in the (part-time) post but it’s just my fourth trip to cover a Shuttle launch.

Of the others, I’ve actually only witnessed one live Shuttle launch - albeit a spectacular middle of the night one. The others got postponed for various reasons, so it is by no means a guaranteed event.

I’ll be meeting up with friends and fellow journalists and photographers who do regular stuff for Spaceflight, including Ken Kremer and Dwayne Day from the States, Joel Powell from Canada, and Gerard van de Haar and Rudolf van Beest from the Netherlands. We should have it covered between us!

My nine hour flight between London and the east coast of America is about as good as it gets at present for those of us confined to travelling the globe at heights of 35,000 feet in modern jet liners.

But when the engines of Endeavour ignite on the launch pad at 3.47 pm on Friday afternoon (8.47 pm UK time) the six men onboard will be catapulted into orbit inside just nine minutes.

In that first orbit they may very well fly across the southern part of the UK and, if that coincides with a clear sky, the orbiter can be seen with the naked eye tracking through the heavens as a bright swiftly moving ‘star’, with the just-separated external fuel tank trailing behind.

In that case, the Atlantic crossing for Endeavour will have taken a mere 20 minutes - which kind of puts my own trans-Atlantic journey into a little more perspective.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Work, rest and play

It is as if the planets were aligned – a late Easter coincided with a Royal wedding and the May Day bank holiday to give British workers a rare run of days off combined with three and four-day weeks. And to cap it all the brilliant spell of spring weather continued unabated.

It’s not so long ago that such four-day weeks were envisaged as the future. In the 1950s Winston Churchill saw a time when accelerating technological advancement would enable us to "give the working man what he's never had – four days' work and then three days' fun".

This did not seem as improbable then as it sounds now. After all, the weekend was a comparatively recent and expanding invention.

So where did it all go wrong? Not only has the concept of a three-day weekend pretty much evaporated but, for many, the two-day weekend is in jeopardy.

According to Ian Price, author of The Activity Illusion: Why we Live to Work in the 21st Century and How to Work to Live Instead, this crowding out of leisure time is due to something of a ‘perfect storm’ - hurtling advances in communications technology colliding with changes in attitude to activity.

In the headlong rush to embrace modernity, we have stripped ourselves and our work places of many of the old indicators of hierarchy, such as PAs and corner offices. Instead, we have conflated activity with status - how busy we are has become an indicator of importance.

Simply owning a BlackBerry, or similar device, drives a new kind of compulsive checking behaviour. The little vibrating object, with its flashing light, stimulates our brain's dopamine system in much the same way as the flashing lights of a fruit machine ensnare a gambling addict.

It might feel as if email and BlackBerry have crept into our lives gradually but, in the context of the 5,000 year history of written communication, their arrival has been sudden and disruptive. Hand-writing an internal memo to be typed up by a secretary was still the norm in the 1980s - and tended to make you more selective in its use.

Now that such barriers have been removed, so have the filters that weeded out messages that were either too urgent, or too trivial, to be committed to writing.

One unintended result of our busy way of working, straddling evenings and weekends, is that we have crowded out ‘deep thinking’. How often have we stumbled upon the answer to a problem when doing something else altogether such as showering, gardening or taking the dog for a walk?

It has long been recognised among occupational psychologists and physicians that proper rest and recovery is important, not just for long-term health and happiness but also for resilience at work, productivity and performance.

In all this busyness we may also neglect at our peril the spiritual element to life, of which Easter serves as a poignant annual reminder.

Easter Sunday’s celebration at Peterborough’s KingsGate church was certainly among the highlights of my own weekend. Quite wondrous! For the spiritually challenged it is definitely worth a visit... perhaps on one of those weekend’s off you’ve now promised yourself.

One way or another, I hope you had a restful Easter break. And, if not, the planets may still hold some favour - for there’s a Royal wedding and May bank holiday weekend coming right up.

As for my own plans on Royal wedding day. Sorry William and Kate, I’m afraid ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ is attending something else on the other side of the pond - of which there will be much more in the coming days.