NASA’s final space shuttle flight is due to lift off this Friday, 8 July, weather permitting. It will mark the end of a 30-year programme involving the world’s first reusable spacecraft. So what are the Irish connections?
1. The Dublin connection
The space shuttle Atlantis will be delivering supplies and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS), including CETSOL cartridges.
CETSOL stands for “Columnar to Equiaxed Transition in SOLidification processing”, and these cartridges will be used for onboard experiments into how gravity (or the lack of it) affects how materials solidify.
Dr David Browne leads a research team at University College Dublin’s School of Electrical, Electronic and Mechanical Engineering who are involved in the European Space Agency’s CETSOL research project. They will compare the results from the experiments in space with experiments on Earth to isolate the effects of gravity on alloy solidification.
“So there will be an Irish and UCD scientific connection with this historic last space shuttle mission by NASA,” Dr Browne explains.
2. The Limerick connections
The final countdown in Florida will be a sad moment for the 9,000 workers who have been involved in the shuttle programme. “It really is like a stage of grieving,” Gary Stutte, a scientist who has spent nearly two decades at the Kennedy Space Center, told the local Miami newspaper.
And that’s another Irish connection: last month Professor Stutte accepted an invitation from Limerick Institute of Technology to take up a research post as EU Marie Curie Fellow. The college and the European Space Agency will tap into his expertise at growing plants in microgravity.
A student from Corbally in County Limerick will also be at the NASA Kennedy Space Centre for the lift-off – the space shuttle mission has his science project on board.
Gerard Newsham (24), a postgraduate student at Limerick Institute of Technology, is currently working at the Space Life Science Lab in Florida. He is working on a project entitled “Symbiotic Nodulation in a Reduced Gravity Environment (SyNRGE)” – it will be looking at how plants and bacteria work together in space.
3. The Cork connection
Jane Egan, who comes from Kinsale, is married to Dan Tani, who has flown two shuttle missions and spent 120 days aboard the International Space Station.
Dan has visited schools in West Cork to talk about his work as an astronaut, and he celebrated his 47th birthday in orbit with a live link-up to his family and friends in Cork’s Blackrock Castle Observatory.
Last Friday Dan returned to the observatory to celebrate the final shuttle flight – and he brought along some exclusive video footage from the spaceship.
4. The diaspora connections
Many of the scientists in NASA’s space programme have Irish roots. On St Patrick’s Day earlier this year astronaut Cady Coleman even marked the occasion in the ISS by playing a solo on a 100-year-old Irish flute, borrowed from Matt Molloy of the Chieftains, and a tune on a tin whistle from Paddy Moloney.
“St Patrick’s Day is a day when people all over the Earth recognise their Irish heritage,” Cady said at the time. “And now we’re doing that from space as well.”
5. Other connections
The Irish space industry has many other connections to the ISS and the shuttle programme. The industry is currently worth over €20 million to the Irish economy, and about 70 Irish companies have participated in European Space Agency programmes since 2000.
For example, when Atlantis delivered the European Space Agency’s Columbus lab to the ISS in 2007, it also carried core software designed by Dublin company Skytek.
Find out how to track the International Space Station on Astronomy Ireland’s website.
Read about Ireland’s space industry in facts and figures.
Check out resources from ESERO Ireland (the European Space Education Resource Office) for using space as a theme in teaching STEM subjects.