It was a nice summer afternoon in Monterey when a Navy Captain strolled into my office to return to me a bit of paper I'd printed off the printer on my desk and mailed to him six months earlier. In the months since I'd seen it, it had traveled 3.9 million miles lapping the Earth 165 times aboard space shuttle Columbia.
The Captain was Scott Altman, who I'd first met in Houston a few years and space missions before. On STS-109, the last Hubble Telescope servicing mission, he agreed to take a little promotional sign I'd made into space with him to promote the school I worked for and he graduated from. Altman was the last person to successfully land the Columbia and brought the sign back along with a photo of it in space to hang in my office.
He became something of a Hubble expert commanding that flight and was tapped to command the final servicing mission to the space telescope as well and launched into space aboard Atlantis today. Ironically, the loss of his last ship, Columbia, caused him a wait of seven years to return to space today.
After Columbia was destroyed by a damaged thermal protection system, NASA decided that all shuttle missions had to be able to use the ISS as a safe haven to keep the crew if an orbiter were damaged on launch again. But shuttles don't have enough rocket power to move from the Hubble's orbit to that of the ISS. So the last Hubble servicing mission was canceled as too dangerous.
But the telescope is popular and very important to science. The mission, long delayed, was restored to the flight list as being worth the risk to the crew.
This year, the mission became even riskier when two satellites collided strewing low Earth orbit with debris. NASA calculates there is about a 1:250 chance this mission could meet with a lethal impact from this debris. To mitigate the risk, for the first time in NASA history a second shuttle is on the pad ready to be a rescue vehicle if needed.
Scary stuff. And the mission itself is one of the most difficult and complex attempted in Shuttle history. Long odds for success, high risk of disaster, and a national treasure along with seven lives (maybe nine if the rescue vehicle failed) are all at stake. High adventure. My best intentions are with Scott and his crew this week.
My guess is this will be his last space flight by choice. It must be odd knowing you are doing the last really amazing thing you will ever do in your life. Makes me wonder if I already did myself? It's not so easy to tell when you aren't an astronaut.
And in another high adventure going on in the Himalaya, I thought I'd give you a quick update of my old friends at Alpine Ascents as they progress on Mt. Everest this year. The Sherpa have got supplies all the way up to 26K ft. at Camp IV and the Sahibs have all climbed as high as 23k ft. at Camp III for an overnight acclimatization trip. That came after many progressively higher trips out of Base Camp over the past month.
The team have gone low into the Khumbu Valley, home of the Sherpa, for a few days to breath thick air, heal their injuries and seared lungs, and maybe store a little food in their bodies - all things your body won't do above Base Camp. They say the weather is appalling up high right now, so they'll wait a few more days before begining their summit attempt.
All this reporting on other people's adventures makes me want to go on one of my own again. The last was to London three months ago. I feel the need.
Current Location: Seattle
Current Mood: Anticipation