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Space Shuttle: No iPad, but Still Awesome


Just a few hours ago NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery sprang from its launch pad on legs of fire, bound for space—for the very final time at night. It's a mark of the end of an era in space discovery...and it'll sadly go unnoticed by many.

This is Shuttle mission number STS131, and Discovery's 6:21 a.m. departure from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is essentially a ferrying trip, hauling tons of cargo up to sustain the operations in the International Space Station and delivering a new, recently showered change-over crew. There are actually 13 people in space right now, which is among the highest number ever, and there are four women aloft—a record that seems shockingly late in coming.

As far as Shuttle launches go, this one is ticking along like a well-oiled machine: It was the first launch attempt, so no issues inside the vehicle or with the weather got in the way. There were a few minor issues noted during ascent, but nothing disastrous...and with the Space Shuttle system being the most complex machine ever made, this is actually normal. The chair of the Mission Management Team, Mike Moses, noted that it was a "picture perfect countdown" leading to a "spectacular launch." The photos bear this out.

Thus far, it's fitting that the Shuttle's space mission has gone so flawlessly. It's incredibly easy to forget what a monster the Shuttle system really is, and how many thousands of people have to work in perfect synchronicity to get one off the ground and into orbit. Check out the stats:

  • The solid rocket boosters deliver 12.5 mega Newtons of thrust each. In comparison the SR71 Blackbird's massive jets pushed it with just 145 kN each—about a hundred times less.
  • The Space Shuttle Main Engines add a total of 5.45 MN to the take-off thrust, and drain enough fuel through their massive turbopumps to empty an average swimming pool in seconds
  • Until 2009, the Space Shuttle program had cost $170 billion, roughly $1.5 billion per flight
  • Estimates as to how much the Iraq war is costing the U.S. vary, but figures upwards of $3 trillion are often mentioned. That's 2,000 times as much as much as the Shuttle's cost.
  • The Shuttle was among the first flying vehicles to use fly-by-wire electronics. And there are over 230 miles of wire in each one.
  • Each Shuttle is composed of over 2.5 million parts, not counting the transistors in its mass of computers and circuits

The fleet is, of course, being retired this year for a number of reasons, the most depressing of which is financial. Lack of planning will leave the U.S. without a dedicated human-capable rocket system for many years, forcing reliance on the aging, but reliable, Russian rocket systems. But enabling NASA to focus on different goals, which may turn out to be loftier.

The retirement of the Shuttle is a melancholic thought though, with this beautiful night launch being one poignant instant in what'll be a long list. It also represents the end of one era of discovering new frontiers, which is slightly confusing—isn't this the big, shiny New Millennium after all? Of course there are other revolutions going on at the moment too, completely exciting in different ways, and a Google search for "iPad" brings up over 46 million hits right now, compared to just over 5 million for "space shuttle discovery." But spare a thought for the innovative, record-setting, incredible Shuttle as you read so much news about Apple's wondertablet, and savor moments like this launch: They're special. 

Images: AFP, Reuters. Tip: Use NASA's schedule, and see if you can see Discovery in the night sky.

To keep up with this news and more like it (even from space... Hello, astronauts!) follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take you to my Twitter feed too.