Permanent Human Settlement of the Earth, Space and Ocean Frontiers

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Gliding Home at Mach 18

After the Columbia disaster, no Space Shuttle landing will ever be the same again – not to anyone. When the STS-118 mission was on its way in just two days ago, I sat on one of the many landing consoles to monitor its return. It would land some four miles from where I actually sat and would come in from the east, so that any view of it from this distance would be fleeting and quick. My best view by far was from the console before me and the images beamed back from the landing site itself.

Shuttle landings are every bit as exciting as launches in my opinion. I love the excitement of seeing a 100 ton glider streaking in from space itself and landing at such incredible speeds – yet with such astonishing grace. All of it is, of course, the graceful dance of the endpoint of ten thousand equations per second accomplished both months in advance and in real time, guiding down what still seems like an impossible mission – and all of it accomplished in near silence and all the smooth precision of a beautiful ballet.

The first time I went out for a shuttle landing – I arrived at the SLF (Shuttle Landing Facility) just as the shuttle streaked over Hawaii. Less than half an hour later, it was on the ground, wheels locked! It is difficult to appreciate what is happening in space as that unpowered glider streaks in at Mach 18 with no second chances if something – anything - goes awry. The belly of the ship and her wing edges are being painted by an ionized plasma blowtorch that reverses the energy spent by its rockets on the way to space - only this energy is being spent entirely on her skin! If anything goes wrong in this play of events that are measured in milliseconds, the consequences, as we discovered, are more than awful.

The photo above is presented here to prove that I wake up each morning with something other than seaweed and sharks on my mind!