Just watched the launch of STS135; the lift-off of shuttle Atlantis on the last space shuttle mission. Two weeks from now, Atlantis will touch down one last time and bring an end to 30 years of Space Shuttle Flights. An end of an era.
I must have watched dozens of shuttle launches live on TV, but regret not having had the opportunity of watching one in-person, in Florida. All of them were great to watch (especially the ones I saw on NASA TV). The complexity of the machine, the mission control center interactions, the sheer magnitude of engine power, the grandeur of lift-off… fascinating!
Overall, the shuttle program has been quite successful, apart from the two tragedies of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Most of the other missions went through without any major issues – to the point that these missions were felt as really ‘routine’.
Like was the case with the Apollo Program nearly 40 years back, budget cuts have played their part in ending the shuttle program. The debate between cost-benefits of manned space flights will continue. Travelling to Mars is a possible long-term goal, but definitely not in the near future. In the medium term, some alternatives have been proposed, which aim to address some of the limitations of the space shuttle. Still, no firm plan exists today.
Leaves me wondering when the United States / NASA will return back to manned spaceflights. For now, the International Space Station will be served by Russian spacecrafts. Feels a bit odd that half a century since John Glenn’s historic flight – the United States doesn’t have a firm manned spaceflight roadmap. At least they should have planned for a few more shuttle launches, until the medium strategy was ready and set for deployment!
–Note added July 22, 2011 — STS-135 completed its mission yesterday and the space shuttle landed for the last time. Here’s a great video tribute to the space shuttle program, compiled by Nature that showcases all the missions over the past 30 years: http://youtu.be/II7QBLt36xo
Lift-Off of GSLV-F04 (image credit: Wikipedia)
It’s a sad coincidence that today’s failure of ISRO’s GSLV D3 Mission happened virtually on the exact day, 40 years on, since Apollo 13! Post the safe splash-down return of Jim Lovell and crew in the Pacific Ocean, many dubbed Apollo 13 as NASA’s most successful failure. How will this first test flight of the ISRO’s indigenously developed cryogenic engine be viewed? Only time will tell.
Space missions are fraught with risks and failures. ISRO has had a reasonably good track record, especially if you compare it with the early days of the USA and USSR Space Programs. And ISRO has been able to achieve success on a literal shoe-string budget as compared to what the other space leaders have spent.
What is the big deal with the Cryogenic Engine? A Cryogenic Engine uses a liquid propellant (typically liquid hydrogen) that is stored at a very low temperature (below –200 C). The other engines that have been used in ISRO’s rockets (including the first two stages of today’s mission) are solid fuel propellant based. Cryogenic Engines deliver a longer duration and more powerful thrust, per unit weight of propellant. They can also be controlled more effectively as compared to solid fuel propellant engines. Hence Cryogenic Engines are critical, as the range and weight capabilities of space missions increase. GSLV rocket has been designed to put heavy payloads (communication satellites, etc.) into a ‘Geo-Synchronous’ orbit (36,000 km orbit around the from earth). It will also provide a basis for future ISRO Missions to the Moon and beyond.
A little after 4:30pm, Indian Standard Time, a huge cloud of gloom descended upon ISRO. The first two stages had performed per expectations. However the 3rd stage powered by the cryogenic engine failed and the flight deviated from its desired path. One look at the scientists faces on TV, said it all. The emotions were there to be seen. It is these emotions that highlight the passion of these scientists, in their quest for building a great space program. In the present age of every-hyped entertainment and sports heroes, it it these real heroes that we all need to be proud of.
I am confident that ISRO will bounce back successfully from today’s failure, with the 2nd test flight due later this year. The data and results will be analyzed and corrective actions taken. Let’s not forget the spectacular success of the recent Chandrayaan Mission!
GSLV Mission / ISRO – Some Useful Links
ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) http://www.isro.org/
Official Press Release from ISRO about the GSLV D3 Mission http://www.isro.org/pressrelease/scripts/pressreleasein.aspx?Apr15_2010
Cryogenic Rocket Engine http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryogenic_rocket_engine
ISRO Wikipedia Entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Space_Research_Organisation
ISRO Chandrayaan Mission http://www.isro.org/Chandrayaan/htmls/home.htm
1. The Saturn V remains the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever brought to operational status from a height, weight and payload standpoint. (In the 1980s, the Soviets designed and developed a rocket that was slightly more powerful, but it was never fully operationalized)
2. The Saturn V rocket stood 363 ft (over 35 stories tall) 33 ft in diameter, and weighed around 3,000 Tons.
The height was about 2 times that of the space shuttle.
3. The power generated by the 5 F1 engines of its first stage was in excess of 150 GW (1 GW = 1,000 MW). That’s roughly equivalent to the entire installed power generation capacity in India! Or nearly 2.5 times of the power generation capacity in Texas.
4. The fuel consumption of the first stage was a staggering 15 Tons / sec of Kerosene. The fuel pumps that fed the engines alone consumed 100s of MW of power, enough to light an entire city.
5. The total lift capacity for putting a payload in a ‘low earth orbit’ (LEO) was about 120 Tons. And the capacity for putting a payload in a lunar orbit was around 47 Tons. For comparison imagine putting an entire fully loaded Boeing 757 into a low earth orbit, or a Boeing 737 into a lunar orbit!
6. The thrust generated by each of the first stage’s F1 engine was around 7.6 Million lb ft. Again compare that with a supersonic fighter jet, F16: 23,000 lb ft and an engine of the Boeing 747: 60,000 lb ft.
7. The noise levels and vibrations/shockwaves generated during lift-off (or ‘blast-off’ as it is often and more appropriately referred to…) were so high that spectators were kept at least 3 miles away.
8. The 1st stage of the Saturn V rocket consumed kerosene and liquid oxygen. The 2nd and 3rd stages consumed liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Unlike the space shuttle, or any of the rockets in the Indian Space Program, there were no solid fuel boosters. A majority of the 3000 tons liftoff weight of the Saturn V comprised of the propellant and liquid oxygen.
9. The 1st stage could power the rocket to a height of around 42 miles and speeds of around 2.5km/sec. The 2nd stage took it to over 100 miles in height and achieved near orbital velocity. The 3rd stage was used in 2 steps: first to insert the Apollo spacecraft into an earth orbit. And then it was fired again to get it to the ‘escape velocity’ of around 11.2 km/sec, and onwards towards the moon.
10. The costing of the Saturn V program is also quite staggering. It was one of the biggest chunks of the overall Apollo Program. Across the 1960s and early 1970s, the Saturn V program cost around US $ 6.5 B – this figure adjusted for today’s prices comes at around US $ 35- 40 B !
Sources of information
Note – I am recounting the high level factoids from memory – based on readings, and visits to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. I have also referenced the NASA website (which has a treasure trove of information) and Wikipedia (which presents information from the NASA websites, in a more organized fashion) for the specific details.