National Geographic

Countdown to Shuttle Launch


On the 225-foot level of Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the STS-126 crew poses for a group photo.

—Image courtesy NASA

What an exciting week! This is Susan Poulton sitting in for Victoria Jaggard who is hopefully loving every minute of her trip to Egypt. I’m very excited to be blogging about one of my favorite topics—space. I’m a proud space geek and 1988 graduate of Space Camp (I even have my flight suit hanging on the back of my office door).

Since attending my first space shuttle launch for Return to Flight in the summer of 2005, I’ve tried to make it to every launch since. I’ve only missed two! This week I’ll share with you some of the excitement of attending a launch (or attempting to attend, more on that later), and all the events happening in the week leading up to liftoff.

The countdown for the launch of STS-126, the 124th space shuttle flight, has begun with NASA recently confirming that they are go for launch on Friday, November 14th at 7:55pm EST. This mission is a servicing mission for the International Space Station, with Endeavour carrying life support systems that will transform the station from a residence for three astronauts, to a residence for six astronauts.

The seven-person crew will conduct four spacewalks to install various components and will exchange a crew member, Sandra Magnus, who will become the flight engineer aboard the space station replacing Gregory Chamitoff who will return home.

An interesting fact around the exchange of crew members is the point at which the transition becomes official. Each space station crew member has a molded seat made to fit their body for insertion into the Soyuz capsule that would be used for an emergency evacuation from the station. After the shuttle docks and the hatches are opened, the crew replaces the seat mold in the capsule with the one for the arriving crew member and the transition becomes official at that time.

Today I begin a long week of carefully watching the weather reports for Cape Canaveral before committing to purchase my ticket. Starting tomorrow, the weather squadron will issue a percentage chance that weather may prohibit launch. Anything less than a 60% chance of launch, and I pass on making the trip. I’ve spent many launch days driving to the press center, only to have the launch scrubbed and have to turn around and head back to the airport!