Reaching the Utmost Limits

(Another in the continuing “Monday Morning Insight” series of quotes to start the week.)

Twenty-seven years ago today, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-31. I worked that mission as part of the Air Force Flight Test Center recovery crew: I stood alert on the flightline during the launch on the 24th, ready for the possibility of an “abort once around,” then greeted the vehicle on the lakebed when it landed on the 29th. In between, of course, the famed telescope was deployed.


STS-31 mission patch. “Bolden” refers to USMC MajGen Charles Bolden, who eventually became NASA administrator. (Image from Wikimedia Commons.)

(I know, I know: This post is supposed to be about a quote, so get to the quote!)

You probably know that the telescope’s namesake, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), was an influential astronomer. He demonstrated that other galaxies exist beyond the Milky Way — showing that the universe was even more enormous than we thought until then — and also correlated the redshift (the degree to which light is shifted toward the red end of the spectrum) with distance to show that the universe is still expanding.

So here’s the quote to start this week: in 1936, Hubble wrote,

Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our telescopes. There, we measure shadows and search among ghostly errors of measurement for landmarks that are scarcely more substantial.

That quote brings two things to mind for me.

First, that the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us that far more exists at “the utmost limits” than most of us ever imagined or perhaps even can imagine. It turns out that besides our own vast galaxy there may be anywhere from 200 billion to as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, each with billions of stars. Even as we build more and more powerful instruments to probe the depths of space, I feel sure that we won’t reach “the utmost limits” of what’s out there in many lifetimes.

But the second thing I thought of when reading that quote is that it could apply not only to telescopes and understanding the universe but also to thought. I imagine a similar sentiment describing all knowledge, not just astronomical knowledge: Eventually, we reach the utmost limits of our reasoning. There, we study shadows and search among ghostly errors of imagination for truths that are scarcely more substantial.

And if we reach those utmost limits, what then do we do?

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Space Station Makeover

Five years ago today — November 15, 2008 — the Space Shuttle Endeavour launched from Kennedy Space Center carrying equipment and materials for the International Space Station.


(View from inside Endeavour of part of an ISS truss solar panel against the backdrop of Earth. Thanksgiving eve, 2008. NASA image.)

The STS-126 crew — Christopher J. Ferguson, Eric A. Boe, Sandra H. Magnus, Stephen G. Bowen, Donald R. Pettit, Robert S. (Shane) Kimbrough and Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper — spent over 2 weeks in space making modifications to the ISS. By the time they undocked to head back to Earth, leaving Magnus on the ISS and bringing Gregory E. Chamitoff home with them, they had installed an additional bathroom and waste processing system in order for the station to support six residents at a time. They also took part in four spacewalks, primarily to repair joints on the ISS solar arrays.

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Cruising to Venus, and a Space History Update

First, a little space history that I didn’t catch the first time around: 35 years ago this week, the Soviet Union sent two missions to Venus from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.


(Venera lander, or “descent craft.” Image from the National Space Science Data Center.)

The first of the two, Venera 11, consisted of a flyby platform and a lander (“descent craft”), and launched on September 9, 1978. The second, Venera 12, also consisted of a flyby platform and a lander, and launched on September 14th. Venera 12’s course got it to Venus four days ahead of Venera 11: the Venera 12 lander reached the surface of Venus on December 21, 1978, and the Venera 11 lander followed on Christmas day.

And to follow up on one of my earliest space history posts which noted the launch, 20 years ago today, of the Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-51: 5 years ago when I wrote that entry, I had no idea that a little over a year later I would meet one of the STS-51 astronauts, Frank L. Culbertson, Jr., at a NASA Industry-Education Forum. He was a very pleasant fellow, and well met.

Life can be weird and wonderful.

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First Spacehab Flight

Twenty years ago today — June 21, 1993 — the Space Shuttle Endeavour launched from the Kennedy Space Center carrying the Spacehab module for the first time.


(STS-57 astronauts took this shot of the Nile River delta and the eastern Mediterranean Sea. NASA image.)

Astronauts Ronald J. Grabe, Brian Duffy, G. David Low, Nancy J. Sherlock, Peter J. Wisoff, and Janice E. Voss spent a little over 9 days in space on mission STS-57. They conducted nearly two dozen experiments in the Spacehab, “a pressurized laboratory designed to more than double pressurized workspace for crew-tended experiments.”

In addition, the crew retrieved the European Retrievable Carrier (EURECA), which had been deployed on STS-46. The retrieval was complicated when the spacecraft’s antennas had to be manually folded during an EVA.

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Sally Ride’s Historic Spaceflight

Thirty years ago today — June 18, 1983 — the Space Shuttle Challenger launched from the Kennedy Space Center on an historic mission for the U.S. astronaut corps.


(Sally Ride on the shuttle flightdeck. NASA image.)

The STS-7 crew consisted of Robert L. Crippen, Frederick B. Hauck, John M. Fabian, Norman E. Thagard, and Sally K. Ride, who became the first female U.S. astronaut to fly into space.

The shuttle crew launched the Anik C-2 and Palapa B-1 communication satellites, launched and retrieved the Shuttle Pallet Satellite with its ten experiments, and performed other experiments. They spent a little over 6 days in space, and traveled about 2.5 million miles.

It’s interesting to note that the first U.S. woman in space flew only 20 years and 2 days after the first female cosmonaut. As a patriotic American, I’m more inclined to attribute that to USSR propaganda purposes than nefarious motives in our space program, but do with it what you will.

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Last Shuttle-Mir Flight, and Two Planetary Missions

Fifteen years ago today — June 2, 1988 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center on the final Shuttle/Mir mission.


(STS-91 rolling out to the launch complex. NASA image.)

STS-91 astronauts Charles J. Precourt, Dominic L. Pudwill Gorie, Wendy B. Lawrence, Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, and Janet L. Kavandi, along with Russian cosmonaut Valery Victorovitch Ryumin, docked with the Mir space station on June 4th, marking the ninth time a shuttle had docked with the Russian station (but the first for Discovery). They transferred water and other supplies to the station, conducted a series of experiments, and returned astronaut Andrew Thomas to Earth after he spent 130 days on Mir.

In other space history …

On this date 30 years ago, the Venera 15 radar mapping spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton K rocket. Its sister ship, Venera 16, launched a few days later. Venera 15 entered orbit around Venus on October 10, 1983, and operated until July 1984.

And 10 years ago today, the European Space Agency launched the Mars Express mission on a Soyuz-Fregat rocket out of Baikonur. The spacecraft arrived at Mars in December 2003 and released the “Beagle 2” lander, which unfortunately was lost. Mars Express itself continues to study the red planet from orbit.

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For anyone who cares, today’s space history post was delayed because the National Space Science Data Center’s catalog of spacecraft data has been balky lately.

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Construction and Plumbing, in Space

Five years ago today — June 1, 2008 — the Space Shuttle Discovery was in orbit on a mission to the International Space Station, having launched from the Kennedy Space Center 5 years ago yesterday.*


(The Kibo module, adjacent to one of the ISS trusses. NASA image.)

The STS-124 crew — US astronauts Mark E. Kelly, Kenneth T. Ham, Karen L. Nyberg, Ronald J. Garan, Michael E. Fossum, Gregory E. Chamitoff, and Garrett E. Reisman, and Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide — spent almost two weeks in space, primarily installing the second segment of Japan’s “Kibo” laboratory module. In addition, they also repaired the toilet in the Zvezda module … for which, I’m sure, the ISS crew was grateful.

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*Sorry, I was traveling and busy at the convention yesterday.

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Shuttle, Soyuz, and Space-Based Navigation

Twenty years ago today — April 26, 1993 — the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center on an international Spacelab mission.


(Spacelab D-2 in the shuttle payload bay. Note the lightning flashes in the clouds below. NASA image.)

The STS-55 crew consisted of U.S. astronauts Steven R. Nagel, Terence T. Henricks, Jerry L. Ross, Charles J. Precourt, Bernard A. Harris Jr., and Ulrich Walter, plus German astronaut Hans W. Schlegel. The shuttle carried the second of the German-built reusable Spacelab modules, and the crew spent 9 days in space conducting a variety of experiments in the laboratory. One highlight of the mission was the first IV established in orbit, in which Dr. Harris “inject[ed] Schlegel with saline as part of study to replace body fluids lost during adaptation to weightlessness.”

Then, on this date 10 years ago, astronaut Edward T. Lu launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on mission Soyuz TMA-2, making him the first U.S. astronaut to serve as the Flight Engineer of a Soyuz spacecraft. The spacecraft commander was cosmonaut Yuri I. Malenchenko, and their destination was the International Space Station where they became the Expedition 7 crew.

Finally, 5 years ago today — April 26, 2008 — a Soyuz-Fregat rocket launched from Baikonur carrying GIOVE-B (Galileo In-Orbit Validation Element-B), the second of two test spacecraft for the European Union’s own fleet of navigational satellites.

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Neurolab, the Last Spacelab Mission

Fifteen years ago today — April 17, 1998 — the Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a unique scientific mission.


(The Spacelab module in the Shuttle cargo bay during mission STS-90. NASA image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The STS-90 crew — Richard A. Searfoss, Scott D. Altman, Richard M. Linnehan, Dafydd Rhys Williams, Kathryn P. Hire, Jay C. Buckey, and James A. Pawelczyk — spent just over 2 weeks in space, operating the “Neurolab” which

targeted one of the most complex and least understood parts of the human body — the nervous system. The primary goals were to conduct basic research in neurosciences and expand understanding of how the nervous system develops and functions in space. Test subjects were crew members and rats, mice, crickets, snails and two kinds of fish.

The crew conducted most of the experiments in the European Space Agency’s pressurized Spacelab module, which flew for the last time on this mission.

The mission might have ended a week early because of a problem with the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System, but ground-based engineers guided the crew through bypassing a “suspect valve” to enable them to stay on orbit.

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Atmospheric Science and Two Space Firsts

On this date, 15 years apart, two trailblazing (so to speak) female astronauts made historic space flights.


(Charlotte, North Carolina, photographed at night from STS-56. NASA image.)

Twenty years ago today — April 8, 1993 — the Space Shuttle Discovery launched from Kennedy Space Center carrying two science payloads. The STS-56 crew consisted of astronauts Kenneth D. Cameron, Stephen S. Oswald, C. Michael Foale, Kenneth D. Cockrell, and the first Hispanic woman to fly in space, Ellen Ochoa. The primary payload was the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science (ATLAS, in its second iteration, ATLAS-2), which was “designed to collect data on [the] relationship between [the] sun’s energy output and Earth’s middle atmosphere and how these factors affect ozone layer.” The crew also deployed and recovered the SPARTAN-201 free-flying science package, which examined the sun’s corona and the solar wind.

Also on this date, in 2008, Soyuz TMA-12 launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, carrying cosmonauts Sergei A Volokov and Oleg D. Kononenko, plus South Korean Yi So-Yeon, to the International Space Station. Yi was South Korea’s first astronaut, having been selected from 36,000 applicants. Volokov and Kononenko stayed aboard the ISS when Yi and the former ISS crew returned to Earth on April 19th.

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