Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Nation’s Capitol Salutes Space Shuttle Discovery on Retirement

Space shuttle Discovery seen from the National Mall, Washington, D.C.

Enjoy this splendid view of something you will not see again — the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery, April 17, 2012, gracefully riding atop a special Boeing 747 around Washington, D.C., on the last leg of her voyage into well-deserved retirement at the National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia.

The photo was taken from the National Mall during one of Discovery’s three low and slow victory laps around the city by John Grant, Manager of Federal & State Government Affairs at SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. Many thanks to him for this great image.

Discovery landed at Dulles International Airport soon after this. Should you be wondering why her final flight gathered the attention of tens of thousands, here’s some of what NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said after the Dulles landing: “Discovery was the longest-serving veteran of NASA’s space shuttle fleet. Her maiden voyage was in 1984. She flew 39 missions, spent 365 days in space, orbited Earth 5,830 times and traveled 148,221,675 miles.”

Discovery at work, earth far below, cargo doors open to dock with the International Space Station.

Maybe you can, but I find it impossible to grasp the idea of traveling 148 million miles. Discovery, however, has taken it in stride. Yes, she shows her mileage; her side panels are scuffed and streaked with dark lines, and her thermal shield tiles would have needed replacement if she took another trip. But what counts is, she got the job done — every single time.

Gerzon had a message for those who were thinking this marked the end of an era. “While it is wonderful to reminisce about the past,” she said, “NASA continues to focus on the future. Vehicles with names like Orion, Dragon and Dreamchaser are being built all across the country today. They will continue and expand on the space shuttle’s many accomplishments.”

A visit to the NASA website supports what Gerzon says, especially when you find the conceptual views and discussions of the future technology that will take astronauts to an asteroid, and to Mars. Ultimately, Discovery may be best remembered as an outstanding part of a great beginning.

Why We Celebrate the Space Shuttle Here

The In The Hopper blog comes from SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association. The people of the plastics industry can take pride in the role plastics play in the space shuttle program and all of NASA’s space exploration. From internal wire and cable coatings to electronic circuitry and many other components, plastics have enabled space exploration vehicles to do their work.

Plastic components of astronauts' helmet

A plastic visor thin-coated with gold protects the plastic bubble around the astronaut’s head inside the helmet’s plastic shell.

The EMU—Extravehicular Mobility Unit—or what we earthbound types call a space suit has used several polymer materials in the body coverings, EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) for the gloves, and glass-fiber-reinforced plastic for the hard upper torso (HUT) multi-function component inside the suit. The outer shell of the helmet, the clear bubble covering the astronaut’s head, and the outer visor assembly protecting spacewalkers from extreme temperatures and small objects are all plastic.

Just as NASA’s space program is not a thing of the past, neither is its use of plastics. A 2005 article on the NASA website entitled “Plastics Spaceships” describes how a “designer material” may be the answer to protecting astronauts from dangerous deep-space radiation when they leave the protective bubble of earth’s magnetic field on their way to Mars. Called RXF1, the material has three times the tensile strength of aluminum, yet is 2.6 times lighter.

The exact composition of the material is secret, but NASA says it is a molecular variation of polyethylene (PE), the workhorse material used to make shopping bags, trash can liners, and hundreds of other everyday objects. Scientists know that, compared with aluminum, PE is 50% better at shielding solar flares and 15% better against cosmic rays, so hypothetically, RXF1 could adequately shield astronauts during a 30-month mission to Mars.

Astronaut's helmet in space

Plastics…don’t leave home without them.

Since rocket scientists recognize the value of the material used to make shopping bags, maybe we can hope other people will — without having it beamed to them from Mars.







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