Thoughts on STS-132

I’ve been thinking about what I learned from attending the STS-132 Atlantis launch on May 14th.

1. I learned that if I rent or borrow equipment, I should read the manual before I need to use the equipment. During the launch, when I was using the Canon 100-400mm, I did not set the correct focus length switch. This meant that when the camera needed to refocus, it would hunt for focus over the entire focal length. If I had set the switch correctly, it would have only used the longer focus lengths and should have focused faster.

2. Next, reviewing the photos later, I realized I should have borrowed or bought a UV lens filter, to cut down on the haze. All the launch photos have a bluish tinge.

3. Always remember to bring the lens hood if you have one. When I visited the Kennedy Visitors Complex, I forgot to bring the lens hood for the Canon 10-22mm. It didn’t greatly impact any photos but it could have – always be prepared.

4. Now, about the launch itself. As many people on the Internet have noted, it is very hard to both experience a launch and take pictures. I did my best to do both, as I only had one opportunity. If I had more chances to see a launch, I would go once to experience it, and once to try capturing the experience with my camera.

I was able to watch Atlantis as it was nearly at the official definition of outer space (roughly 100km), which was after the 4 minute point of the ascent to orbit. And as I looked up at the vehicle, two thoughts came to mind.

5. First, the planned height of the SpaceShip Two flights of Virgin Galactic will be about that height. It’s only a third of the height of the typical orbit of the International Space Station. And it doesn’t really seem very high, when you can see the shuttle attaining that in such a short period of time. You can see still the shuttle as it passes that height.

Graph of Altitudes
Graph of altitudes

6. Secondly, it absolutely stunning how thin the atmosphere of the Earth really is. As noted above, the official edge of space is 100km. All of the air that is used by every human being and every animal and every plant that ever lived on this good planet, all used that thin veneer of air. Just 100km of air, spread across the face of the Earth. That’s all there is.

And that’s where all of the air pollution goes. It’s not a limitless sky. It’s very very finite. To a single person, it seems incomprehensibly unending, but when you think about the output from 6.8 billion people, it seems very limited. All the cars of the world, all the planes, ships and lawn mowers and leaf blowers and electric generation plants – they all empty into that fragile sheet of air.

I worry about air pollution (and water pollution) and global warming. Even if a person, against all evidence, does not believe that man is contributing to the problem of global warming, certainly they cannot deny that air pollution is a problem that is created by man.

And I think about the entire trip. I flew down to Florida, which directly contributed to air pollution. I watched the shuttle, which uses aluminum-based material in the Solid Rocket Boosters. The Shuttle Main Engines (SSME) burn hydrogen and oxygen and do not pollute directly, but it took a lot of energy to create that volume of liquid hydrogen and oxygen, and another big electrical bill to cool those liquids and keep them cool. There are the transportation costs of moving everything around – the solid booster segments come from Utah, the external tank comes from Louisiana.

I’m scared sometimes that we have already passed the point of keeping our planet useful to future generations. I worry that the air pollution, global warming, pollution of our water, dispersion of all the man-man chemicals (in pesticides, medicines, leeching buried plastics, huge oil spills, garbage dumps, etc) has already put enough of our junk into the biosphere that the Earth will become uninhabitable in some distant future.

I do what I can to reduce my personal impact, but I know I am not doing enough.

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