Isaac Newton’s apple tree travels in space shuttle Atlantis - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 15 May 2010

Isaac Newton’s apple tree travels in space shuttle Atlantis

My view of the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis from the Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Friday.

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th May 2010
Kennedy Space Centre, Florida

At 2.20 p.m. on Friday, exactly as planned, the space shuttle Atlantis thundered off its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Centre and set off on its 32nd --- and, perhaps, its last --- flight, carrying several tonnes of equipment to the International Space Centre (ISS). The space shuttle programme shuts down later this year.

We watched dry-mouthed from the viewing station as the countdown went, 3… 2… 1… 0… and, suddenly, the shuttle was bracketed in white smoke. Then, with a prolonged roar that hit thrillingly in the gut, the shuttle’s mammoth rockets lifted it off the launch pad, the blazing plume of exhaust gases dwarfing the afternoon sun.

“Shuttle launches must be experienced in person”, avow locals in Florida’s Cape Canaveral. “TV just doesn’t capture the earth shaking, the sound, the held-back breathes.”

As the shuttle ascended trailing a thick white plume, the spectacle overshadowed the technological wizardry that drove it. Powering the Atlantis were two enormous Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), strapped alongside a giant fuel tank. Each second the SRBs burnt ten tonnes of solid fuel, converting that into gas at almost the temperature of the sun. Surging from the nozzles at 10,000 kilometers a second, these jets drove the Atlantis with as much power as 4 lakh mid-sized cars.

In just two minutes, the still-visible Atlantis was 40 kilometers high and clapping broke out as the strap-on SRBs were jettisoned; now its own main engines were propelling the Atlantis, gulping cryogenic fuel --- liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen at hundreds of degrees below zero. Nine minutes after launch, the shuttle was in space, hurtling at over 28,000 kmph towards its destination, the ISS.

Only then did the NASA and Boeing officials (who play a prime role in integrating the space shuttle) start breathing normally again. Nobody has forgotten that chilly morning in 1986 when the Challenger exploded seconds after lift-off from this very launch pad.

“You keep your fingers crossed because space flight is inherently dangerous”, says Kevin Hoshstrasser, Site Director, Florida Operations, Boeing Defence, Space & Security. “The shuttle today is as safe as it can get; but it still works at such extremes of pressure, temperature and speed that things can go spectacularly wrong very, very quickly.”

After twelve days in space, the Atlantis will return to the Kennedy Space Centre and be readied as a backup ship in case there is an emergency during the remaining two shuttle flights by the Discovery in September; and the Endeavour in November 2010. The scrapping of the shuttle programme has evoked strong sentiments within the team that runs it, evident from a radio exchange just prior to launch.

Launch director, Mike Leinbach, to the strapped-in astronauts, minutes before launch: “I'd like to wish you all good luck and Godspeed and have some fun out there.”

Atlantis commander, Ken Ham’s response: “Thank you to the thousands of folks out there who have taken care of this bird for a long time…. If it's okay with you, we're going to take her out of the barn and take her for a few more laps around the planet.”

Another piece of history associated with the Atlantis is a sliver of wood, provided by the UK’s Royal Society, being carried by British-born astronaut Piers Sellers. This is from the apple tree under which Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have sat when a falling apple inspired him to conceive the law of gravity.

In an interview before the launch, Sellers noted, “While it’s up there, it will be experiencing no gravity, so if it had an apple on it, the apple wouldn’t fall. I’m pretty sure that Sir Isaac would have loved to see this, assuming he wasn’t spacesick, as it would have proved his first law of motion to be correct.”

Watching the launch live from viewing areas around the Kennedy Space Centre were an estimated 400,000 spectators, most of them ordinary Americans from across the country. Sitting next to me amidst camp chairs, rugs and the ubiquitous ice-box was 73-year-old Hal Kasprowicz who had driven more than a thousand kilometres from Pennsylvania. With him for the occasion were his son and grandson who had driven some 3000 kilometers from mid-west America.

“The space shuttle is all about America. This is an opportunity for all of us to have a family reunion and be a part of this event”, said Kasprowicz.

Also attending the launch were the usual slew of VIPs: US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Russian Deputy PM Sergei Ivanov, talk show host David Letterman, TV star Lisa Edelstein and a host of US senators.


  1. I am a regular reader of your blog. I must say that your writing has improved a lot compared to that of about 2 years ago. Nowadays, when I read I could feel what you might have felt? Good work.

  2. If i may be so bold as to suggest a visit to Tyuratam, Kazakhstan. That would also make a good story and slightly more relevant to India's current space posture.

  3. Nice change. give us more.

  4. "Each second the SRBs gulped ten tonnes of cryogenic fuel --- liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, at hundreds of degrees below zero --- converting that into gas at almost the temperature of the sun."

    This is incorrect.
    The SRBs are what they stand for" SOLID Rocket Booster" meaning the propellant used is solid. SRBs use Composite Ammonium Perchlorate as the solid fuel & oxidiser.
    Perhaps you meant SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engines) instead of SRBs.

  5. Anonymous 14:12:

    You are incorrect. There are no solid fuel rockets in the shuttle, only cryogenic ones.

    The main strap-on rockets are called Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs), but they consume the same cryogenic fuel (liquid hydrogen + liquid oxygen) that the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs) consume.

    Don't know where on earth (or low-earth orbit) you've gotten that misinformation about ammonium perchlorate fuel.


  6. Booster rockets had always been of only solid fuels, may be an odd exception exists, but not in this case.
    SRB, by its very name should be using a solid fuel.
    There is no inlet into the SRB from the main fuel tanks, for any fuel flow, solid or liquid.
    SRB is a self contained rocket using a separate and independent Ammonium Perchlorate +Poly Butadiene+aluminum powder fuel, all solids, cast into shape.
    The SRBs separate and fall into the sea and are recovered for later use( may not be in this launch, since this is the last launch)
    The main engines, which are altogether separate entities use the cryogenic fuel.

  7. From here Ajai:


    SRB Stats

    Thrust at lift-off:
    2,650,000 pounds
    Propellant Properties:
    16% Atomized aluminum powder (fuel)
    69.8% Ammonium perchlorate (oxidizer)
    .2% Iron oxide powder (catalyst )
    12% Polybutadiene acrylic acid acrylonite (binder)
    2% Epoxy curing agent
    Empty: 193,000 pounds
    1,107,000 pounds
    Gross: 1,300,000 pounds"

    I rest my case here.

  8. You make a good case. Let me check from Boeing!

  9. Dear sir,

    I just had a lecture form a former NASA Scientist. The SRB'S are solid.
    They are as solid as they get, Plus they float.

  10. SRBs are solid boosters. You can check with whooever you like.

    SSME OTOH uses cryogenic fuel and oxidiser.

  11. I bow to superior wisdom! The changes have been made in the article.



  12. Nice article. I find all your articles interesting. I came across your article from Col Hariharan's blog. He had done a good job in recommending your blog.


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