Space fever!

July is the month for space nuts. We’re in the midst of a wonderful hullaballoo surrounding the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, giving the younger generation a taste of the original excitement. The Guardian, the New York Times, and almost every other major newspaper is providing tons of Apollo 11 anniversary coverage, although my favorite piece of media so far is a stunning collection of high-resolution photos from the mission, thanks to the Boston Globe’s amazing photo essay collection, The Big Picture. There’s something timeless about these gigantic photos; one of my favorites is the close-up shot of Neil Armstrong from an earlier mission, where he had to pilot Gemini VIII through the atmosphere and dock it to a vehicle in orbit. He looks wonderfully lost in thought, almost melancholy; my romantic brain thinks it’s the expression only a man who’s seen earth from space could wear.

But enough reminiscing. In July space nuts are spoiled for choice, because we’ve also got a real, live mission to ooh and aah over: the space shuttle Endeavor and its crew of seven finally took off last Wednesday for the International Space Station. The launch had been scrubbed four times since the first failed attempt over a month ago, due to hydrogen leaks and the Floridian weather (thunderstorms and space shuttles are not a winning combination). But the delays made the sixteen-day mission overlap with the anniversary of Apollo 11, launched from the same pad in Cape Canaveral forty years ago. Here’s the story so far, with some help from the New York Times, other news sources, and NASA’s mission news feed.

Although it’s unlikely to cause a problem, the launch was not entirely free of hitches. The shuttle lifts off in tandem with a large external fuel tank, covered in insulating foam. During the launch, about a dozen pieces of foam broke off, and a few hit the shuttle’s nose, resurrecting bad memories of the 2003 Columbia tragedy. A twenty-inch piece of foam had smacked the shuttle Columbia’s left wing during launch, compromising the heat-insulation tiling and causing the craft to explode in the 3000-degree-fahrenheit inferno of reentry.
Luckily, an inspection with a laser scan and mirror showed nothing worse than a few scuff marks on Endeavor. After a day-long orbital chase, the shuttle performed a backflip as it docked with the International Space Station so ISS crew members could snap hundreds of high-res photos of the belly for analysis back at Mission Control; so far NASA is saying no damage has been done, and apparently the pitch maneouvre is standard procedure.
But like a dorm on move-in day, just as the shuttle and station crews were celebrating a record population in orbit (thirteen), the station’s $19-million-dollar toilet broke down. The shuttle crew are at the station to install a 4.1-ton outboard “porch” for space experiments (and its accompanying scientific equipment) onto Kibo, the 38-foot-long Japanese facility, a dramatic feat involving five spacewalks. But the mundane plumbing task stole the limelight from the installation of the porch, known officially as the Exposed Facility, on Sunday.

Inside Kibo

Artist’s rendition of Kibo with its porch, for conducting experiments that are constantly exposed.

JAXA patches for the Kibo installation missions. The third shows the outboard porch.

The astronauts are still adding scientific equipment to the porch. Today NASA TV viewers were treated to a live feed of astronauts Dave Wolf and Chris Cassidy changing some of the batteries on the station’s power channel and readying the new equipment for installation. We’ve got two space walks left to enjoy, so don’t miss the action!

Tom Marshburn on his first spacewalk
I like to keep NASA TV on in the background and watch the intermittent space noises confuse my coworkers, but if you’re looking for a way to keep up with the mission while at work that’s a bit more discreet and convenient, follow mission commander Mark Polansky on Twitter. @Astro_127 has over 37,000 followers and counting.

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