March 15, 2009 at 23:43:44 UT – On the third attempt, NASA successfully launched the space shuttle Discovery on its 36th ride into space. The STS-119 mission will last 13 days and include 3 spacewalks (EVA’s). The shuttle will deliver to the International Space Station (ISS) the final set of solar arrays extending its electricity generation to support an extended crew of six. 24/7 coverage of the STS-119 is available on NASA TV. Follow Discovery and ISS in real time here. Also, a friend of mine pointed me to these wonderful pictures of her friends who took a sky dive during the shuttle launch.
Every mission carries out Detailed Test Objectives (DTO’s). STS-119 has 6 planned DTO’s. One will involve measuring pressure vibration during solid rocket boosts. Three are related to the International Space Station (such as measuring the effects of orbiter docking on the structure), the 5th will focus on research how could computer displays be made more readable during the launch, and the 6th is research on Boundary Layer Transitions.
Boundary Layer Transition is a process occurring during the shuttle re-entry as the smooth air flow along the shuttle’s heat shield becomes turbulent. The experiment will measure the heat difference between the air flow using sensors (thermometers) installed in particular tiles on the shield. A protuberance tile with a quarter inch (0.635cm) “speed bump” has been installed on Discovery’s heat shield. The tile will intentionally disrupt the smooth air flow. Several other tiles have been placed strategically on the shield to monitor the air flow before and after it hits the protuberance. The re-entry will also be captured by an infrared camera aboard US-Navy’s NP-3D Orion aircraft flying below the shuttle. This experiment will be continued during future missions with a varied height of the bump on the protuberance tile.
Below is a short summary of today events with commentary for frame shots from NASA TV:
At 16:30 UT the external tank’s liquid hydrogen section has reached the point where a leak was detected on Wednesday. No leak was apparent today. Despite all efforts and tests carried out, NASA could not be 100% sure that the issue was fixed until the tank was refilled.
Earlier in the day a minor issue was discovered with the pressure valve that feeds helium into the “gap” area between the external tank and shuttle. This area, where liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen lines run from the tank to the shuttle, is purged with helium to prevent the formation of ice and the accumulation of gaseous hydrogen and oxygen. Roughly at 11:45 UT, the “red team” of technicians reported that the issue with helium pressure was successfully resolved.
A few minutes after 20:00 UT the STS-119 astronauts departed the Kennedy Space Center’s Operations and Checkout Building. They boarded the Astrovan which took them to the launch pad 39A a few minutes away.
At this point, astronaut are already wearing their pressure suites. Since the suites are closed to outside environment astronauts own body heat can warm up the insides pretty fast. The Astrovan is equipped with AC and other cooling systems to provide some comfort.
The Astrovan makes a stop at the Launch Control Center to let out flight managers accompanying the crew on its way to the launch pad. Also chief astronaut Steve Lindsey leaves to conduct a weather recon mission for the launch as well as for emergency situations in which the shuttle would have to return.
In the image above, the Astrovan and its escort are just a few minutes away from the launch pad 39A. The wide road strips on the left are used by the Crawler Transporter to bring the shuttle to the pad.
The mission’s pilot Pilot Dominic Antonelli is being strapped into parachute harness in the White Room. The actual parachute is already in the seat aboard the shuttle. All astronaut are wearing a parachute in case the orbiter cannot reach a stable orbit and they need to abandon the shuttle.
At 21:48 UT the Closeout Crew got a “go” to close Discovery’s side hatch. Meanwhile the astronauts finished air-ground voice-checks and the shuttle’s weather officer Kathy Winters updated the chances of good weather from 80% to 100% for tonight’s launch (which means that there is no chance of weather prohibiting launch).
At 22:28 UT the countdown entered a 10 minute planned hold at T-20 minute mark. Discovery’s hatch is closed and latched and cabin leak checks are under way. Launch teams are not working on any issues that would interfere with launch.
At 22:49 UT the countdown entered a 45-minute planned hold at the T-9 minute mark, during which the Mission Management Team, and Launch Control team conducted polls to make final “go” – “no go” decisions for launch.
At 23:32:30 UT Discovery was given an official “go” for the launch.
At 23:34:44 UT the countdown resumed at the T-9 minute mark.
At 23:38:44 UT the Auxiliary Power Units started at the T-5 minute mark.
At 23:43:44 UT the Discovery space shuttle launched on the STS-119 mission.
At 23:52:07 UT The Main Engine Cut Off (MECO). The MECO sequence began about 10 seconds before cutoff. About three seconds later, the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) throttled back by 10%/second until they reach 65% rated thrust, called the Minimum P. Minimum power was maintained for seven seconds, then the SSMEs shuts down.
The shuttle is now on a two day long chase to catch the ISS, which it will dock on Tuesday. Meanwhile, teams of experts will be looking at launch imagery for any debris that might have come off and hit the orbiter during launch. The next space shuttle lunch will be the STS-125 mission of Space Shuttle Atlantis to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) with launch scheduled on May 12, 2009.
Update #1: At 00:50 UT During the post-launch news conference NASA managers said that there were no obvious debris strikes on Discovery. The crew debris report will follow in hours after the launch. The designated team will be meticulously analysing the launch imagery and videos in the days to come.
Update #2: NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier expressed his thanks to the teams from the NASA centers that resolved the technical issues which delayed the launch. Mission Management Chairman Mike Moses remarked how smooth the launch countdown went and gave special thanks to the reusable solid rocket motor team celebrating their 100th launch since the Challenger redesign. NASA Launch Director Mike Leinbach said that this was the most visually beautiful launch he’s ever seen.