Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Discovery Docks with ISS

This afternoon, shuttle Discovery was flown up into the station's orbit, then maneuvered close to perform the RPM (Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver).  I managed to get some screenshots of the NASA broadcast during the procedure.

In the picture above you can see Discovery some distance (about a half mile) from ISS; its shuttle bay is open and the elements of the solar power truss section are visible.  Discovery moved closer little bit by little bit; this was no speedy operation.

There's a camera in the docking mechanism onboard Discovery, here we see a view of the ISS as Discovery moves ever so much closer. ISS looks a little asymmetrical; it's missing the solar panels that are carried in the shuttle bay.

At a certain safe distance, Discovery holds its approach to perform the RPM. This maneuver will flip the orbiter 360ยบ while cameras onboard the ISS take highly detailed pictures of the heatshields to compare with Discovery's own inspections, later. From time to time, the picture angle of Discovery from ISS rotated as well.

Above we see Discovery beginning its pitch up manuever.  The images being shown over the internet seemed a bit fuzzier than what I could get on the large screen TV, but watching either one was fascinating.  I couldn't help but be reminded by those amazing special effects scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the Pan Am clipper docks with the rotating wheel-like station.  Naturally, my iPod was playing the same music from the soundtrack while I watched: The Blue Danube.

Discovery pointed right at the ISS camera.  The entire maneuver took about 9 minutes.

The bottom of the Discovery clearly visible. So far, no damage has been found to any of the tiles making up the heatshields.

The maneuver is almost complete. The entire procedure is a beautiful ballet of motion set against the backdrop of the spinning Earth below. Absolutely fantastic to watch.

After the RPM was completed, Discovery pitched up again and moved position to the front of the ISS. From there, it slowly inched forward toward the docking module. I noticed that NASA has got some graphics I hadn't seen them use before; certainly their computer graphics have been improving.

Here's Discovery's view of the station dock as they move closer and closer. As the pair moved into the dark side of their orbit, navigation lights would show and there were light reflections and low light camera views.  Discovery docked nearly perfectly; no special operations were needed.

Once the airlocks were secured, and air pressures equalized, the hatches were open. As the Discovery crew came into the station, Expedition 18 commander Mike Fincke rang the bell. This is a navy tradition, transfered to space operations, to give boarding honors to the crew as they come aboard.  The crew has lots of room in the airlock area, great for crew photos.

As I watched the crew come on board, I realized that the history being made here would not be repeated many more times. With the cancellation of the shuttle flights scheduled for 2010, we won't be seeing scenes like this much more. It feels a bit sad.  I will be looking forward to the Constellation program activities, of course, but the shuttle flights have been amazing and historic, and I for one will miss them.

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