Staffer Covers Last Shuttle Mission
July 8 marked the beginning of the end for America’s storied three-decades-long space shuttle program.
That day, the space shuttle Atlantis embarked on its final 13-day mission with a picture-perfect launch witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people gathered at and around NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Millions more were glued to live TV and web broadcasts around the world.
Among the thousands of media photographers and journalists gathered at the NASA press site was Edwin Aguirre, the science and technology writer in UMass Lowell’s Public Affairs Office.
“There were some tense moments that week as thunderstorms and a last-minute hardware glitch threatened to cancel the launch,” says Aguirre, who covered the historic event with his wife, Imelda Joson.
“We had watched four shuttle landings at Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave, Calif., back in the late 1980s, but we have never seen nor experienced an actual shuttle launch until now. The closest we ever came was last November, during Discovery’s STS-133 mission,” he says.
The couple stayed for a week in Florida, but a series of weather and technical problems kept delaying Discovery’s liftoff
until ground controllers finally decided to scrub the mission and move the launch date to February of this year.
“We were heartbroken, especially after we had driven from Boston for 24 hours and more than 1,500 miles,” he says. “So we decided to fly down for Atlantis’s STS-135 mission. We told ourselves: it’s now or never!”
Smartphones for Robots
Atlantis’s primary objective is to deliver the shuttle payload to the crew of the orbiting International Space Station (ISS). The cargo includes a logistics module filled with spare parts and nearly five tons of supplies for the space station, as well as a pair of Android smartphones
that a UMass Lowell alumnus helped develop.
Mark Micire, who received his doctorate in computer science last year, says the smartphones are designed to control a trio of miniature free-flying robots residing in the ISS. Called the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES, the robots were created by engineers at MIT to test automated rendezvous and formation flying in zero-gravity.
“The smartphones will provide the robots with the sensing, navigation and planning needed for remote operation from the ground,” says Micire, who joined Carnegie Mellon University as a research scientist after graduation and is now working with the Intelligent Robotics Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
He says the SPHERES robots will help assist in human-robot activities aboard the ISS.
A Sound-Activated Remote Camera
In addition to their regular photographic gear, Aguirre and Joson brought a homemade remote camera to document the launch of Atlantis.
“This setup was designed to automatically take close-up shots of the shuttle leaving the launch pad, better than we could ever hope to capture from the media press site three miles away,” says Aguirre. “The camera has a sound-activated trigger that fired the camera’s shutter continuously once it picked up the roar from the shuttle’s main engines.”
Asst. Prof. Joel Therrien of UMass Lowell’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department collaborated on the project by volunteering to help design and build the electronic circuit for the sound trigger.
“The trigger had to be robust enough to withstand the shock wave from the shuttle’s combined 6.5 million pounds of thrust, but not too sensitive that it would produce false triggers from thunderclaps or passing cars,” says Therrien, who plans to use the project for his upcoming class in circuit design.
“We finished testing the remote camera on the day of our flight to Orlando,” says Aguirre. “That night, we disassembled the setup and hastily packed everything into a single suitcase. Fortunately, it made it through airport security — despite the trigger’s wires, transistors and battery holders — and on the night before the launch, we carefully positioned the camera just a few hundred feet from the launch pad. All this time we had to endure swarms of hungry mosquitoes and be wary of alligators and snakes lurking in the surrounding marshes.”
A Spectacular View
“We had watched dozens of shuttle launches on TV and in YouTube, but nothing beats the real thing,” says Aguirre.
As the Kennedy Space Center's giant countdown clock reached the zero mark at 11:29 a.m., smoke billowed above the treetops and Atlantis began its slow, majestic rise.
“We felt a rush of adrenaline going through our veins,” he says. “This was followed by a wave of pulsating pressure on our chest as the shuttle’s acoustic energy reached our viewing site.”
As the shuttle climbed higher and faster, they were struck by how brilliant and magnificent the reddish orange plumes from the shuttle’s twin solid rocket boosters were.
“They were like blowtorches searing the hazy, humid morning sky. And it was hard to imagine that four brave souls, whom we had just seen board the NASA van earlier that day, were actually riding atop this immense pillar of fire,” he says.
With cameras trained on the shuttle, everyone frantically fired off several shots per second until Atlantis disappeared behind a low-lying deck of clouds. Forty seconds after it left the launch pad for the final time, Atlantis was gone, but spectators could still hear the shuttle’s rattling sound and follow the dark, curving shadow cast by its smoke trail on the cloud tops.
“Squinting our eyes and craning our necks, we tried to catch one last glimpse of Atlantis in flight,” Aguirre says. “Soon afterward, people cheered, hugged, shook hands and high-fived. Everyone had a big smile — Atlantis had just put on the most spectacular July fireworks of the year, and we had a ringside seat!”
A couple of hours later, after NASA determined that no rocket-exhaust fumes were left and it was safe to let people back in to the pad, Aguirre and Joson retrieved the remote camera and excitedly played back the camera’s memory card.
“And there it was, in 63 frames the camera had captured the launch in all its raw power and glory — from main engine start to the time Atlantis cleared the tower and moved out of the camera’s field of view. The sound trigger had worked flawlessly. We were ecstatic!” says Aguirre.
“The final launch of Atlantis for us was profoundly bittersweet — it marked our first successful shuttle launch, but we also realized that it signaled the end for NASA’s shuttle program, a program that was marked by technological triumphs as well as tragic disasters,” he says. “But for 40 seconds that hazy Friday morning, Atlantis was a sight to behold. It was a moment seared into our memory, and one that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. Farewell, Atlantis!”