Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Launch Confirmation

Forty years ago this month, Apollo 17 began the last ("most recent") human mission to the moon with a nighttime launch from Cape Kennedy.

Apollo 17 launches from Kennedy Space Center, December 7, 1972, 12:33 AM.  Photo courtesy NASA.

Purdue alumnus Gene Cernan was on board, and helped further reinforce Purdue's place in aerospace history as the last man to walk on the moon.   It would be great fun to just talk about that, but let me focus a bit more on the launch part.  Why was the launch scheduled for just after midnight?  Was it the brilliant illumination opportunities?  Hitting a particular news cycle?  No.  It's orbital mechanics.  In order to get the mission to the moon with the fuel and communications and life support and other technologies available, engineers have to calculate very precisely when you *must go* for launch.  We call it the "launch window".  Miss the window, and you don't go.  Very simple.

We've had a few launch windows here at INSGC the past couple of weeks, the most recent regarding two major grant proposal activities.  Both proposals were in response to the NASA Space Grant Innovative STEM Pilot call--one for undergraduate student retention, and one for pre-service teacher training.  Both projects are two year, $500,000 awards, and NASA insisted on projects that involved a strong cohort of students that remained involved throughout the two-year project period.  The proposals were due on Friday, December 14 (after a "slip" from December 7).  Miss that window, and we lose the opportunity to compete for those funds.  (I apologize to all those friends whom I forgot to wish a Happy Hannukah--things got kind of busy that week.)

I want to express my appreciation for the enthusiastic and active participation of the the INSGC affiliates as we worked on both proposals (nicknamed "SKATE" for the pre-service teachers, and "SURE" for the undergraduate retention).  We have solicited, and continue to receive, input from an overwhelming majority of our academic and outreach affiliates--these are truly statewide, collaborative initiatives reflecting the strengths and unique capabilities of the Indiana Space Grant Consortium.  I remain excited and grateful for the supportive offerings and ongoing enthusiasm for the projects.  In some ways, INSGC is working from a sense of service to the consortium as a whole--very little of the funding stays at our Purdue Space Grant Central offices for administration, but instead will be going to support K-12 programs, junior and senior education students, and frosh and sophomore STEM majors. (This is not unlike the weight ratio of an Apollo Saturn V rocket.  Very little of the launch weight is actually the lunar module, command module, or astronauts--it's mostly fuel to attach lunar injection velocities.)

I'm thrilled to say that we met our launch windows--the two proposals were submitted at 5:00 on Friday afternoon.  (Not quite as dark skies, not quite as brilliant launch flames, but still a sense of excitement, relief, and triumph.)  I am glad for the commitment of both Angie Verissimo and Dr. Dawn Whitaker--assisting in bringing the pieces together when anyone else *would have been home in bed, sick* (actually, they had been home sick earlier that week, but roused themselves enough to complete the launch sequence on Thursday and Friday).    With a team like that, the thrill of a successful launch is even more sweet.  Let's hope for a great funding return next Spring.

At this point, it's time for a holiday break.  We at the Indiana Space Grant Consortium office thank you for your participation, support, and unfailing enthusiasm for our STEM Engagement mission.  We strive to be a vibrant Face of NASA in Indiana.  But, time now for some well-deserved rest and recovery.  So, we'll be closed for the end-of-year holidays, starting at 6:12 AM EST on Friday (The December Solstice, of course).  We'll be back on January 3.  Until then, a peaceful and quiet and enjoyable season to you all.

--Barrett Caldwell