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The highest-flying Yorkshireman is 'go for launch'

Jonathan Amos | 09:50 UK time, Friday, 5 February 2010

I've just landed in Florida ready for the weekend's shuttle launch. It's an opportune moment to be here.

President Obama and Nasa chief Charlie Bolden unveiled a new vision for US human spaceflight this week, and it's going to be fascinating to talk with the people most affected by the changes that are coming - not just those inside the space business but also individuals who work in the wider economy here along the Space Coast.

Nicholas PatrickIt's a chance also to catch one last launch before the orbiter fleet is retired.

There are now just five shuttle missions left before the museums beckon. And this launch is expected to be the very last time we witness this remarkable vehicle lift-off in darkness; the remaining launches will all be conducted in daylight hours.

Endeavour's mission will deliver two European-built modules to the International Space Station (ISS) that will essentially complete the Western part of the outpost.

Being a Brit, I also have the special interest of following the activities of UK-born astronaut Nicholas Patrick who takes a leading role in the 13-day venture.

Nicholas is now holed up with the rest of the Endeavour crew at the Kennedy Space Center, sleeping funny hours to time-shift his internal clock so that he'll be wide awake during the hours in which he'll be needed to make three spacewalks.

During those EVAs (Extra-Vehicular Activity), he'll help plug in the new connecting Node 3, and install the "window on the world" - the Cupola. I'll dwell more on the Cupola in my next post; suffice to say this is probably the one module the astronauts really want to see on orbit.

Its primary function is to serve as a control room to direct robotic operations across the space station, but its seven windows will also afford the astronauts an amazing view of their home planet.

When I spoke to Nicholas a few days ago, he couldn't hide his enthusiasm for the Cupola.

"We can't wait because the space station has very few, small windows. They look mostly down, some look sideways; but from none of those can you really look along underneath the space station and actually see what's going on.
 
"With this set of windows, you'll be able to look all around. And, for example, if a visiting vehicle is arriving, you'll be able to see it; and if you have to grab the vehicle with a robot arm to lock it to the space station, you'll be able do that with a direct view out of the window, which is very important - like driving a car by looking through a windshield rather than using a television view. So, it'll be fun, but also very useful."

Nicholas flies as an American, of course. He wears the Stars and Stripes on his spacesuit, not the Union Flag. He may have emigrated after university and spent much of his life in the US, but when you hear him talk he still comes across very much as a Brit.

Cupola artist's impressionThe accent, for one thing, is unmistakable.

He tells a lovely story about his childhood in Yorkshire and walking the moors and seeing the statue erected to James Cook - and how that fired his imagination and desire to explore.

If you love symmetry, you'll recall that Cook made his historic voyages in HMB Endeavour - the very ship after which Nasa named its shuttle and which this 21st-Century Yorkshireman will now ride to orbit to undertake his own adventures.

"My life is very much in America now; and as a Nasa astronaut, of course it has to be. But I think back to England a lot. Almost all of my education was over there until graduate school. I remember looking down at England from orbit and being able to see the area of the coast of North Yorkshire where I was born; and London where I lived a lot. I look forward to coming back after the flight."

HMB EndeavourHis first, and only mission to date, was in 2006 when shuttle astronauts fitted a truss, or backbone segment, to the ISS.

Nicholas's duties this time, though, are much more centre-stage.

While a robot arm is used to unload modules from a visiting shuttle and position them on the station, it is the spacewalkers who must plug in all the "services" - the electrical, cooling and communications lines, and so on.

The EVAs are gruelling affairs that start long before the astronauts step out of the airlock. The night before the spacewalks, Nicholas and his co-walker Robert Behnken will camp out in the airlock. The practice is used to purge nitrogen from their bodies and prevent decompression sickness, also known as "the bends".

Once outside the platform in their spacesuits, it's a full-on day's work - seven or so hours with no sitdown, coffee break or afternoon nap.

Nicholas PatrickIn many ways, the job must be very similar to that of the deep divers who work on ocean drilling rigs.

Nicholas says his goal after this mission is to try to get selected for a long-duration mission on the space station. With the shuttle due to stop flying at the end of the year, the opportunities to go into orbit will be drastically reduced.

From 2011 onwards, for a few years at least, the only way into space for humans will be on board Russian Soyuz rockets, and they only seat three individuals compared with the shuttle's seven.

Savour the final five launches of the space shuttle. Nicholas Patrick intends to:

"You're flat on your back and you're strapped in really tightly so you can't move. You watch the clock tick down inexorably towards zero; and you realise that the closer it gets to zero, the less likely it is that something will go wrong and stop the launch - that you're really going to be flying in space in just a few minutes' time.
 
"That's an amazing thought. It's hard to comprehend how you could go from sitting on the ground to being in orbit at 17-and-a-half-thousand miles an hour in just a few minutes."

You can follow Nicholas through his Twitter profile. And if you go to the ISS tracking websites here and here, you can work out when the ISS, with Nicholas on board, is likely to come over your horizon. The best time to catch the fast moving "star" is just before dawn or just after sunset.

You can look up and think, "there's a Yorkshireman up there".

Comments

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  • 1. At 10:40am on 05 Feb 2010, me wrote:

    "The best time to catch the fast moving "star" is just after sunset."

    No, for the U.K., the ISS will be visible just before dawn.
    If you want evening passes, you will have to wait until early March,
    by which time the "Yorkshireman" should have returned to Earth.

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  • 2. At 11:04am on 05 Feb 2010, Jonathan Amos wrote:

    Indeed, xpdnc. Good point. For the UK, this is certainly the case. Much appreciated.

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  • 3. At 11:43am on 05 Feb 2010, TheyCallMeTheWonderer wrote:

    Inspirational stuff!

    As a Yorkshireman myself it is fantastic to know that this is even possible. It's just such a shame that a Yorkshireman needs to leave his home and country to achieve dreams of space.

    Now that the shuttle fleet is retiring is it not time that ESA developed their own crew system? Perhaps bring back the Hermes mini-shuttle, or refine the ATV for human crews. That way we could put all the Yorkshiremen we fancy into orbit.

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  • 4. At 11:49am on 05 Feb 2010, Technicalfault wrote:

    Interesting blog post. You can't doubt Nicholas' achievement, though it's important to point out that he's not just any Yorkshireman. His NASA profile reminds us that he studied at Harrow School, followed by Cambridge.

    Undoubtedly a high-achiever, but one who had a very lucky start in life. Britain needs to inspire a new generation of thought-leaders and Nicholas can help do that, but until we are able to give every young person a strong start in life, then it's going to be difficult for us to keep playing our part on the world (and beyond-world) stage.

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  • 5. At 11:54am on 05 Feb 2010, cliffhuxtable wrote:

    Isn't 'yorkshireman' a bit tenuous? He's an American now, just as Michael Foal is American. We can try and catch the reflected glory all we want but it doesn't make it so, does it?

    And also quite depressing that returning to the moon has been shelved under the Obama administration. I always thought that spaceflight was inspirational and its benefits were always slightly intangible but nonetheless real - hope, inspiration, vision, all these have been shelved in favour of adding to the wallets of those on Wall Street as part of the bank bail-out. (sigh).

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  • 6. At 12:13pm on 05 Feb 2010, nkkingston wrote:

    If it's the Union Flag on land, and the Union Jack at sea, what is it in space?

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  • 7. At 12:19pm on 05 Feb 2010, cliffhuxtable wrote:

    We'll get that answer circa 2560 when a british spacecraft finally makes it into orbit...

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  • 8. At 12:20pm on 05 Feb 2010, Poster_Number5 wrote:

    "it's a full-on day's work - seven or so hours with no sitdown, coffee break or afternoon nap".

    Sitdown??? - you do know their weightless right?

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  • 9. At 12:49pm on 05 Feb 2010, Pendlemac wrote:

    cliffhuxtable - You might want to Google 'Prospero X-3'. That's a British satellite launched on a British rocket in October 1971 and still in orbit.

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  • 10. At 1:16pm on 05 Feb 2010, cliffhuxtable wrote:

    Pendlemac, I should have said 'manned' British spacecraft, shouldn't I?

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  • 11. At 2:07pm on 05 Feb 2010, Stephen Ashworth wrote:

    Jonathan, you wrote: "While a robot arm is used to unload modules from a visiting shuttle and position them on the station, it is the spacewalkers who must plug in all the "services" - the electrical, cooling and communications lines, and so on."

    Can you please explain why this has to be done by spacewalkers? One would have thought that any reasonable design would have these connections made internally, next to the hatchway between modules.

    I cannot shake off the impression that the ISS has been designed to be as difficult as possible to assemble and to rearrange or replace modules.

    Stephen

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  • 12. At 2:28pm on 05 Feb 2010, grahamwookie wrote:

    I would like to see an empty bottle of Black Sheep Ale float past the screen when on live feed to NASA, being a true Yakshire man

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  • 13. At 2:53pm on 05 Feb 2010, HAL9000 wrote:

    I'm fortunate enough to have been in Florida for 5 shuttle launches, the most recent one STS-129 last November and I'd fly out tomorrow if I could to be there for Sunday's launch. There's no substitute for being there!
    I read Buzz Aldrins response to the Obama administration changes to the space program and whilst he sees them as a change for the better I'm not so sure. It would have been nice to see man on the moon again.
    And the UK would never waste money on space exploration; not whilst there's a duck pond that needs attention....

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  • 14. At 2:55pm on 05 Feb 2010, kevin moore wrote:


    Good luck to Nicholas Patrick and all the crews of all the shuttle and other missions,,G-ds speed and safe returns.

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  • 15. At 4:21pm on 05 Feb 2010, Robert Lucien wrote:

    Why not buy and build the old Sea Dragon design, that way we could really take people into orbit. Sea Dragon was big and cheap and basically reusable, and could be easily brought up to date. With a 500 ton to orbit payload it could even give us a real destination up there to.
    Before anyone complains about it being 'anti green', the bigger a rocket is the more efficient it tends to be (hand-waving at the mathematics). The original design called for fueling using seawater catalyzed by power from a nuclear aircraft carrier, but we could use solar power...

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  • 16. At 4:38pm on 05 Feb 2010, curiousman wrote:

    Ever had a dream to walk with a lady astronaut across a deserted beach somewhere? I did just that with Helen Sharman. Remember her? She worked for Mars (the confectioners) and went to Russia to train as a cosmonaut before going into space. She wrote a book called 'Sieze the Moment'. The beach was at John o'Groats, northern Scotland. Funny how life is, isn't it?

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  • 17. At 6:20pm on 06 Feb 2010, trotterus wrote:

    Funnily enough there's a recorded interview with Nicholas Patrick on NASA TV as I read this article.

    Being a Brit who's lived in the US for the past 16 years, for personal/emotional reasons I've never taken on US citizenship. I find it unfortunate that the 'Brits' who have gone into space as NASA astronauts have had to 'give up' their British citizenship (although the UK recognizes dual & multi citizenship, the US does not, therefore you must denounce all other allegiances to become a US citizen)

    Personally I find this a great commitment to achieve ones goal of space travel, congratulations to all that have overcome this additional hurdle to reach the stars.

    BTW - Nicholas sounds like no Yorkshireman I've ever met, not one "By 'eck!" ;-)

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  • 18. At 1:31pm on 07 Feb 2010, Stargazer wrote:

    For London, at least, there are exceptional passes (as bright as Venus when at superior junction) before dawn every morning from Feb 10th except the 11th when the ISS is "only" magnitude -3.0. The Shuttle looks like a quite dim star alongside it now, despite being negative magnitude itself.

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