Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Imagined Images and Reality

So, you may already heard this (curse my sudden lack of free time!), but the STS-134/International Space Station images are finally in. The image NASA's been promoting the heck out of (and rightfully so, I think) is below, showing the station from the port side, with the shuttle and the station's truss and modules both very visible.

Click image for mondo big version
For those interested, many others from the same astounding  set can be found on the site here. Personally, I think I have enough new backgrounds to last for months if not years. (Also see the video here, for some more amazing content.).

This is truly an amazing and historic moment, but looking at it and thinking about why it is, it reminded me of an image I posted a while back here on Engineer in Progress. No, not Kieth McNeills's amazing model images of what an STS-133 flyaround might have looked like (now with side-by-side comparisons with the real thing on NASAspaceflight's forums here). Something earlier.

Is it the STS-71 Mir image, taken in a similar fashion to the ISS imagery sequence?

No, it's not. It comes from even slightly before that. See below:

That's not the ISS there. That's an artist's conception of the American Space Station Freedom, from the mid-80s to the early-90s, the station which morphed into the core of the American portion of the station. So the Shuttle-docking-to-station image has legs. Why? Because this is what the Shuttle was about, about building and servicing a large space outpost, where various types of science could be performed, from life sciences, materials experiments, astronomy (early SSF proposals included an attached telescope observatory), and technology demonstrations for revolutionary new space hardware (in it's day, they were looking at stuff like solar thermal power generation).

Basically, only in the last few years has the ISS has actually started to do that. The AMS-02 instrument is amazing, but it's only now at the end that it's finally flown. Proposals are circulating to test BEO technologies like VASIMR, inflatible habitats or closed-cycle life support systems on ISS (the ISS water-recycling system is sort of part of that, and that's been going for a few years now, I guess.). And now, finally, after almost 20 years, it's finally happening. That's what I see when I look at the images of Endeavor docked to ISS: the culmination of a 20-year dream.

What's next? Where does spaceflight go from here? I wish I knew. I wish anyone knew--the whole situation with the SLS (Space Launch System, a congressionally-mandated new heavy lift vehicle) is so convoluted, politically-and-emotionally-charged and multi-polar I don't think I can adequately state what the situation is, but it's there. There are also the multitude of dreams offered up by Bigelow, SpaceX, XCOR, Armadillo, Masten, Altius, and many other commercial space companies. In 20 years, which of these dreams will be a reality, and will it take all 20 to make it happen? I wish for as many of the former as possible, and hope not the latter on any. But we'll just have to see. I just wish the space program of the next decade could amaze me and my generation in ways the space program of the last 50 occasionally has amazed past generations, and continues to amaze those of us who care to research it. That's all I want to say, just go back up and enjoy all the links.

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