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We Choose the Moon

Posted on July 14th 2009 by Arthur in Illinois, Space, Websites & Tools

July 16th will mark the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, culminating in Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to step foot on the moon on July 20th in 1969. To commemorate this historic event, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum has set up an incredibly cool online experience which allows you to track the Apollo 11 mission from pre-launch to lunar touchdown. You can visit the website at where you can see that the pre-launch is already underway:

Screenshot of We Choose the

As part of the Apollo 11 celebration, former NASA astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell will be at Northwestern University in Chicago on July 22nd for an evening discussion reflecting on their careers in space. We got two tickets for this event, which you can order here. Buzz Aldrin, of course, was the second man to set foot on the moon on Apollo 11, and Jim Lovell became most famous as the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which suffered an explosion on its way to the moon but was brought back safely to Earth. It’ll be interesting and exciting to see these two legendary astronauts in real life next week. Aldrin will also be signing copies of his new book, Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon.

Our midnight adventure at Kennedy Space Center for the failed launch attempt of STS-127

Posted on June 23rd 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We’ve been back since last Friday from our trip to Florida to see the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour for its STS-127 mission. A week ago at this time, on Tuesday night, we were getting ready to leave for Kennedy Space Center. Fueling of the external tank was supposed to start at 8pm that evening, but there was a tremendous thunder storm over central Florida that delayed the activities. Nevertheless, we left our hotel in Kissimmee at 9pm to head for Kennedy Space Center in a torrential downpour.

It was by far the worst thunder storm I had ever seen, with lightning every few seconds. It was about a 90 minute drive and we saw hundreds of huge bolts of lightning that spanned large parts of the sky. It was quite something to watch, but meanwhile fueling had still not started. At 10:30pm we arrived at Kennedy Space Center and were surprised that we could just drive right into the parking lot without getting our vehicle placard checked. The information we had received with our Launch Transportation Tickets to see the shuttle launch from the NASA causeway made it sound like the placard was the most important thing, or you wouldn’t be able to enter the grounds. It turned out that we were there just before the place was locked down, and hundreds of cars were already at the parking lot. Most of them were people without Launch Transportation Tickets and vehicle placards wanting to view the launch from Kennedy Space Center, which is the closest place to watch a launch after the NASA causeway, albeit it being an obstructed view.

Most of the cars had sleeping people in them. Some people in trucks had mattresses in the back with sleeping children. We parked our car and walked to the entrance to see what was going on. There a couple of hundred people were sitting and standing in line for the park to open at 11pm, but it was still lightning and it was now almost 3 hours after fueling was supposed to start. At a few minutes before 11pm the storm stopped and people cheered as we learned that fueling operations had begun, but still 6-and-a-half hours before lift-off from that point. We headed back to our car as the entrance to KSC opened and people started buying tickets. Many more cars were arriving and touring buses too. We tried to sleep in our car for a few hours, until shortly before 1am when the bad news came.

I received a tweet on my phone from SpaceflightNow at about 12:57am that said: “A leak has reoccurred in the gaseous hydrogen venting system between the launch pad and space shuttle Endeavour, NASA confirms.”


We left our car and headed for the KSC to find out if it was true. People were still pouring inside with their folding chairs and huge bags full of stuff to watch the launch (many people were getting inside with large backpacks too, even though backpacks of any size are supposed to be strictly forbidden). I asked one of the security guys if the launch had been scrubbed, but he had not heard of a leak. We walked across the central plaza which was packed with people walking around to see the exhibits and having ice cream and drinks. It was a bit surreal to be there in the middle of the night with everything open as if it’s normal. It was clear that most people there had not heard of the new leak yet. We walked to the Launch Status Center in the back of the park to see if there was anyone there, and sure enough it was packed with people and someone from NASA was just finishing the 1am mission status briefing.

Kennedy Space Center
Photo by papillion_1 (from another launch)

These briefings are really great. We had attended one the day before when visiting Kennedy Space Center and were told all about the shuttle launch and the upcoming launch of LRO and LCROSS as they showed live feeds from security cameras from places like the launch pad, inside the Vehicle Assembly Building and even inside the shuttle bay of Discovery, which was being prepared for STS-128.

People were just leaving the briefing as we arrived and I asked someone if they had talked about the leak. The man didn’t know what I was talking about, but suddenly a NASA guy came in and told everyone about the leak, but the launch had not been scrubbed at this time. We sat down on a bench to await further information as we watched NASA TV on two large screens with live views of the launch pad.

STS-126 Space Shuttle Endeavour Launch
Photo by astronomicalfamily

We sat there for about an hour, while the guy that had done the 1am briefing stayed to explain things we saw on the screen and answer any questions from people. I had read a lot of tips online about viewing a launch but I hadn’t read about this great briefing area.

At 1:56am the bad news came that the launch had actually been scrubbed, so no launch for us. We walked back to the entrance, but there were still a lot of people walking around the attractions and the plaza oblivious of the fact that they were there for nothing as the launched had just been scrubbed. I thought it was a bit weird that they didn’t announce these sort of things throughout the park to the thousands of people there. When we got to our car a lot of people were leaving, so many had obviously heard the news by then. I wonder how many people were still unaware sleeping in their car.

It wasn’t too bad leaving the space coast and driving back to Orlando. We were only in a short jam getting from the 405 onto the 407. We were of course very disappointed about not seeing the launch, but I still thought it was a great experience to be at Kennedy Space Center in the middle of the night. We drove back to Chicago the next day.

The next launch attempt for STS-127 will be on July 11th.

Ready for Lift-off

Posted on June 15th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We’re ready for the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is now scheduled for Wednesday morning at 5:40am. We spent today at Kennedy Space Center and had a great time. It was one of the bus drivers who told us this afternoon that they just decided to give the shuttle another try on Wednesday. The Atlas 5 rocket with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been pushed back to Thursday.

Our new arrival time at KSC, which is the absolute latest that we are allowed to be there, is 12:30am! We asked at Guest Services how long we should allow for driving from Orlando and she informed us 4 hours as roads will be packed with people coming to see the launch, even that early in the morning! OMG, so we’ll be leaving our hotel some time around 8:30 in the evening!

Space Shuttle Explorer
Me in front of Space Shuttle Explorer, a full-scale replica of an orbiter at KSC

No Launch For You

Posted on June 13th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We got up at 12:30am this morning to head to Kennedy Space Center for the scheduled launch of STS-127. Right after getting up I checked my phone for any tweets from SpaceflightNow for the last updates and it all looked good; the last one said that fueling was going smoothly and the clock continued counting down toward a liftoff at 7:17am. I proceeded to brush my teeth when all of a sudden a new message came in:

NASA has just called a scrub for today. A leak has developed while fueling space shuttle Endeavour. A news conference is planned overnight.

So no launch today. 🙁

Space Shuttle Endeavour on Launch Pad 39A © NASA

We stayed up to see the press conference at 1:45. It took more than a half hour for any news media to pick up the cancelled launch. Even the homepage of wasn’t updated for an hour with the news. Thanks to Twitter we knew about the cancellation before we got in our car and headed for the space center. Thank you Twitter! 🙂

I had read that Endeavour had a window of only 3 days (June 13th through 15th) because of the Atlas 5 rocket that was to launch on June 17th to bring two new satellites to the moon. In the overnight press conference they said that it will take at least 4 days to fix the leak, so we thought that’s it; no shuttle launch this month. But then, to our surprise, they mentioned in the press conference the possibility of delaying the Atlas 5 mission and letting Endeavour go first. They even said that if the Atlas 5 rocket goes first, and it launches on the 17th, then Endeavour’s still has one chance on the 20th (it takes 2 days to reset equipment between launches). Mission managers are now planning to meet tomorrow at 2pm to examine the repair plans and determine the new launch date.

We spent the day birding at the Space Coast and then drove to Orlando. We’re going to wait for the results of tomorrow’s meeting and then decide what to do. If Endeavour’s next launch attempt is on Wednesday then we will wait for that. But if the moon mission goes first and they still want to try the shuttle on Saturday June 20th then we may not wait for that and drive back. Or maybe we’ll stay and watch the Atlas 5 launch, although we don’t have tickets for that launch so it would be from far away.

We’re disappointed about the scrubbed launch but we knew this could happen. There are still 7 more shuttle missions planned until the end of next year so if we don’t see this one go up we have a few more chances. At least we had a great taste of summer, with 90+oF here every day. Whatever happens we plan to spend the day at Kennedy Space Center on Monday and use part of our launch viewing tickets that way. I’m really looking forward to that. 🙂

On the Road to see the Shuttle Launch

Posted on June 10th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

We left this morning at 6:00 and have been driving all day from Chicago toward Florida to see the shuttle launch of STS-127 on Saturday morning. It became gradually warmer as we drove south until it was about 34oC / 92oF this afternoon. That is quite different from the cooler weather we’ve been having in Illinois lately. We’re about 8 1/2 hours away from Kennedy Space Center and are looking forward to the launch on Saturday.

I read something disconcerting about the cancellation policy of our launch viewing tickets. It says everywhere that our tickets are for the launch and not for the day. That makes sense, so that if the launch gets delayed to the next day or next month then our tickets will still be valid. But there’s a catch to that. Apparently, if the launch gets scrubbed after you have boarded the bus at the visitor center to the launch viewing area (which is about a 15 minute ride) you have ‘used’ your tickets and that’s it. You then have to buy new tickets if you are lucky enough to obtain them. I just don’t understand this policy. What difference does it make whether you have boarded the bus or are still waiting to board the bus?

It even says the following in the paperwork:

All new sales of Launch Transportation Tickets will be on a first come, first serve basis. Priority will not be given to previous ticket holders.

So what I understand is that if we’re already sitting there on our folding chairs on the causeway at 4:00 in the morning and they announce that the launch has been canceled, we have to race back to the ticket office to stand in line for next day’s tickets at about $50 per person each. But if we’ve been slow and are one of the last ones to get on a bus we may be lucky and keep our tickets for next day’s launch attempt. That’s just weird.

We’re now wondering if we should try to get on the bus as late as possible, if we even have a choice. I’ve signed up to get text messages from the Spaceflight Now Twitter feed about the latest news about the launch, so if we’re standing in line for the bus and we get a message that there’s something wrong we can still jump out and keep our tickets.

There’s generally about a 50% chance that a launch happens, and the weather forecast for Saturday is favorable for a 80% chance. I hope the weather will be fine and there will be no technical problems so we can see a beautiful launch on Saturday. 🙂

Received our Tickets for STS-127

Posted on May 31st 2009 by Arthur in Space, Travel

Whoo-hoo … yesterday we received our package from NASA in the mail with our tickets for the shuttle launch on June 13th. Being at a shuttle launch is one of those things I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. In ten days we’ll drive down to Florida, which will take us about 20 hours over two days. Launch time is targeted at 7:19 AM on the 13th and I knew that we’d get a specific time slot to be there. Well, we now know our time and it is shocking:

STS 127 arrival time sticker

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Hubble Mission at The Big Picture

Posted on May 19th 2009 by Arthur in Photos, Space

The Big Picture has a great set of photos from NASA’s final Hubble Servicing Mission. As we speak Space Shuttle Atlantis is leaving the telescope and preparing for a return back to Earth. This picture shows astronaut John Grunsfeld holding onto a handrail of the Hubble Telescope a few days ago. Head on over to The Big Picture to see more awesome pictures.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld at Hubble Space Telescope

Tickets for STS-127

Posted on May 13th 2009 by Arthur in Space

For a long time I’ve wanted to go to Kennedy Space Center in Florida to see a shuttle launch, but from the Netherlands this was never practical as launches often get delayed. Since we’re living in Illinois I’ve tried to get tickets for the last couple of launches but was too late each time as tickets sell out fast. There are only eight missions left in the shuttle program (which ends in 2010), so time is running out to see a launch.

The closest and best place to view a launch is from the NASA Causeway just 6 miles from the launch pad. Today tickets for the causeway went on sale at 7:00 ET, so I refreshed the page right at 7 and quickly went through the ordering process. Within 30 minutes they were all sold out, so good thing I got them when I did; I am now the proud owner of two tickets for the launch of STS-127 on June 13th at 7:19am. 😀

Endeavour STS-118 Blastoff
Photo by jurvetson

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Pluto is a Planet Again … in Illinois

Posted on March 7th 2009 by Arthur in Illinois, Space

Despite the State of Illinois’ deficit of nearly $9 Billion and a recession with record unemployment, the Illinois Senate has apparently plenty of spare time to vote on trivial issues such as whether or not to make Pluto a full planet again. A bill that was unanimously-approved by the ninety-sixth general assembly of the state of Illinois declares that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois’ night skies (whatever that means?!), it be reestablished with full planetary status.

Uh, shouldn’t they leave this sort of astronomy stuff to the astronomers? Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet in 2006 after the International Astronomical Union defined the term “planet” for the first time and reclassified Pluto as a member of the new category of dwarf planets along with Eris and Ceres.

Solar System
Source: IAU

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Tour of the ISS

Posted on January 25th 2009 by Arthur in Space, Videos

Astronaut Michael Fincke, current commander of Expedition 18, gives a 4-part tour of the International Space Station with his hand-held camera. He arrived at the station aboard the Soyuz on October 14th, 2008 together with Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov. What strikes me most about this video is the size of the place, it is larger than I thought it was, and the amount of stuff everywhere. There are wires, laptops, equipment, bags, tools and all kinds of stuff hanging all over the place. Astronaut Mike gives a great 35-minute tour of all the different areas of the space station. Very cool stuff.

You can find the other three parts here, here and here.