Sunday, June 22, 2008

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions ("Home in Space")

The Discovery Channel has been airing a series in three 2-hour parts, “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions.”

Tonight Discovery aired the last segment “Home in Space”. The segment traces the later history of the Columbia space shuttle, if the International space station, and the Hubble telescope.

The early part of the documentary summarizes the Challenger explosion in January 1986. The film maintains that the crew members were alive during free fall until they hit the ocean water. I recall that a project leader came by everyone’s cubicle and told everyone at my computer programming job in Dallas then. The film documents the need for NASA to make itself “credible” again. It touches rather briefly on the O-ring controversy.

The film spends a lot of time on the Hubble, the only telescope actually serviced in space by astronauts. They had to do a daring repair to save it when their oxygen supply was limited. The film shows a lot of the living conditions and quarters. The astronauts are wearing wires and electrodes at times, and it seems amazing that they can stay on.

The early part of the film reviews some later footage from the final moon visits.

The film then documents how the ISS (International Space Station) is serviced by Russian (Soyuz and Progress) and US shuttles.

The last part of the film covers the final 16 day mission of the Columbia in January 2003. During the re-entry, the guidance mission control crew on the ground realized in about a minute that it did not have expected transmission just before its expected landing in Florida. Staff members say that the Challenger immediately came to mind. A streaking image of a piece of the Columbia was seen over North Texas, as it broke apart and crashed in pieces over several states on February 1, 2003. Seven crew members died. Apparently, a hole had been punctured in one of the carbon wings by a loose piece of insulating foam from a fuel tank during take off. The crew was doomed.

The photography of Mission Control is interesting. There is an incredible variety of computers and monitors and various devices. The staff is still well dressed (in tie) in the film, even in modern times.

I recall an "Understanding Convention" in Arizona in 1976 called "Man in Space." The work required to build a home in space is the most intricate cooperative venture man has ever had to work on. The ISS is the most expensive object man has ever made.

The film showed some of the underwater training given to astronauts. In 1989, I visited the Huntsville AL facility and saw the tank myself. On June 23, the NBC Today show demonstrated the training given to fight attendants (at Delta), some of which they must pass to be even be hired; only 2% are hired. Some of this includes water training, since planes can down in water.

I would like to see a Discovery Program (or IMAX movie) about what we think the surfaces of Titan (for which we have some Huygens photographs) , Europa, Io, and Triton would look like (with advanced animation). It would be interesting to simulate in animation what one would “see” if one could survive a plunge through Jupiter’s atmosphere all the way to the metallic hydrogen layer.

Update: 6/29

"The Explorers" is an earlier episode of the series. The title was also used for one of the movements of Ralph Vaughn Williams's "Sea Symphony." The metaphor applies, as the documentary traces the history of the moon exploration, ending with transmissions from the last moon visit. The Apollo 13 near-tragedy (subject of a 1995 Ron Howard film) is summarized, and the men are shown on the life rafts. One astronaut describes getting sea sick in a raft.

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