STS-132: The First Last Flight of Atlantis

From Peter Merlin

On May 14, I sat beside a blue lagoon beneath cloudless skies just three miles from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and felt a growing sense of “launch fever.” It had set in the day before as I stood at the edge of the launch pad – the same from which humans first journeyed to the moon – and watched the Rotating Service Structure roll back to reveal space shuttle Atlantis stacked on its external fuel tank and twin solid-propellant rocket boosters. As I stood there, it occurred to me that river gravel that comprised the roadbed beneath my feet had been crushed by the combined weight of the shuttle stack atop its Mobile Launch Platform and Crawler Transporter, weighing roughly 17 million pounds – the weight of history.

NASA Dryden contract historian/archivist Peter Merlin stands in front of Launch Complex 39A following rollback of the Rotating Service Structure on the evening prior to launch of space shuttle Atlantis for STS-132.

This rare opportunity arose from my work as a contract historian/archivist at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center where I maintain a collection of historical reference material and share Dryden’s accomplishments through various publications, exhibits, and presentations. I was visiting Florida because KSC was selected to host the annual NASA History Division meeting and training event in order to coincide with the launch of shuttle mission STS-132. It was a chance for historians from each of the NASA centers to witness history being made and share in one of the most visible accomplishments of the agency.

With only three remaining missions planned before retirement of the shuttle fleet, STS-132 is the final scheduled flight of Atlantis. Mission commander Ken Ham, however, said his crew jokingly referred it as the “first last flight of Atlantis” because the orbiter will be prepared for a launch-on-need contingency rescue mission should something go wrong with the final scheduled mission, currently slated for November. NASA managers have also discussed the possible addition of another Atlantis mission, STS-135, to fly at end of the shuttle manifest in early- to mid-2011, but this has yet to be approved or funded.

On the morning of the launch, I joined a small crowd of well-wishers to cheer and wave as Ham and his five crewmembers departed the Operations and Checkout Building in their bright orange space suits. “See you in two weeks,” shouted Ham just before boarding the Astrovan, a modified 1983 Airstream Excella motorhome.

Later, by the water’s edge, I sat beside a 10-foot-high digital clock that ticked off the final minutes and seconds to liftoff. Looking around, I saw hundreds of news media representatives, students, and other invited guests, and I knew thousands more waited on the causeway between KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was a marked contrast to when I sat in this same spot nearly 25 years earlier to witness the maiden flight of Atlantis. Since it had been a classified mission for the Department of Defense, guest passes were not issued to the public and even the exact time of liftoff was not announced in advance.

For Atlantis’ swan song, however, NASA made an effort to accommodate as many visitors as possible, including about 150 “tweeters” sending out live electronic updates via Twitter.

During the last few hours of the countdown I met with David Alexander, the Digital Learning Network coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s program at the Aerospace Education Research and Operations, or AERO, Institute in Palmdale, Calif., and a member of the Dryden Education Office. Together, we produced some prelaunch video commentary for possible application to Dryden’s web site or the DLN, an interactive learning program for students and educators that allows students to interact directly with NASA experts, engineers and researchers to gain new appreciation for the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Soon, the final seconds of the countdown were upon us. Two white plumes of steam issued from concrete flame trenches at the base of the launch pad as the shuttle’s three main engines fired, instantly evaporating most of the 300,000 gallons of water that had been dumped in just 10 seconds earlier. The spectacle was oddly silent, at first, because it took a while for the sound to reach the viewing area. A flash of orange signaled the ignition of the boosters, each producing 3.3 million pounds of thrust. Liftoff!

A distant crackling sound quickly built to a pulsing roar as Atlantis thundered toward space on twin pillars of fire. The flames were unbelievably bright and seemed to display a rainbow of colors as the vehicle gracefully rotated, ascending toward orbit while arcing away toward the distant horizon. Within a few minutes the vehicle was out of sight and the winds soon dispersed the clouds of smoke and steam rising from the launch pad.

At Dryden I have had the opportunity to witness more than 20 shuttle landings. They have a special grace and beauty but nothing can rival the awesome power of a launch and the opportunity to see humans journey into the frontier beyond our atmosphere that we have only begun to explore.

Peter Merlin of Tybrin Corp. is a historian at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

A Little Background on Dryden

Dryden Flight Research Center is NASA’s primary center for atmospheric flight research and operations. Dryden is critical in carrying out the agency’s missions of space exploration, space operations, scientific discovery, and aeronautical research and development (R&D).The Dryden Blog will be a collaborative effort featuring many center staff offering unique personal insights.   

Dryden is located on Edwards Air Force Base in the western Mojave Desert, a few hours outside of Los Angeles. We are uniquely situated to take advantage of the excellent year-round flying weather, remote area, and visibility to test some of the nation’s most exciting air vehicles.

Dryden is the primary alternate landing site for the Space Shuttle and orbital support for the International Space Station.

In support of scientific discovery, we manage the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program – a flying telescope aboard a Boeing 747 aircraft – in partnership with the Ames Research Center and the German Aerospace Center.

In support of aeronautical R&D, we are involved in many aspects of the Fundamental Aeronautics and Aviation Safety programs, including the X-48 Blended Wing Body and Ikhana (Predator B) in support of subsonics and Adaptive Flight Controls in support of the Aviation Safety Program.

For 60 years, Projects at Dryden have led to major advancements in the design and capabilities of many state-of-the-art civilian and military aircraft. The newest, the fastest, the highest – all have made their debut in the vast, clear desert skies over Dryden.

Dryden Flight Research Center plays a vital role in advancing technology and science through flight. This blog will provide interesting perspectives on how we continue to push the envelope to revolutionize aviation and pioneer aerospace technology. Bookmark this site and check back soon to start learning more from our project representatives.

For more details on Dryden, please visit our website

Kevin Rohrer

Public Affairs Director

NASA Dryden Flight Research Center


Soil-moisture Research From the Air – Don't Rain on My Parade!

The NASA Gulfstream III aircraft is currently in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada participating in an 18-day science campaign studying soil moisture.  The campaign, known as Canadian Experiment for Soil Moisture in 2010, is a partnership between NASA and multiple Canadian government agencies and universities.

The NASA G-III carries an active L-band synthetic aperture radar, or UAVSAR, that is capable of measuring soil moisture up to 50 mm beneath the surface while flying at approximately 40,000 feet altitude.    Environment Canada, which is responsible for renewable resources, weather  forecasting, and other functions, is our host while in Canada and they are flying a Twin Otter at about 10,000 feet altitude carrying a passive L-band radiometer.

Multiple teams of scientists and graduate students are doing field sampling in the test regions.      In addition to the ground-based and airborne assets, the work is being coordinated with overpasses from a number of internationally operated satellites.   Airborne remote sensing obtains much better resolution data than the satellites, although over a much smaller region.    For example, science flights are scheduled to coincide with the European Space Agency developed Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite. The CanEx test region, which covers an area of 33 km x 71 km on the ground, covers only two pixels of the SMOS image, while the G-III pixel resolution is 3 m x 3 m.

Hydrologists use accurate knowledge of soil moisture for modeling weather, predicting flooding and estimating crop yields. Accurate models can be very beneficial to nations and farmers in decision making, such as in deciding which crops to plant and when to irrigate or apply fertilizers.  It can also be useful for fighting diseases such as malaria.

The Soil Moisture Active Passive web site ( is an excellent site for learning more about the applications of soil-moisture research. NASA plans to launch the SMAP satellite in 2014.  NASA’s participation in the CanEx campaign is funded by the SMAP project because the combination of the two aircraft (active and passive sensing) will provide critical information for the purpose of developing algorithms for the SMAP mission.

Saskatoon is known as the “city of bridges” in Saskatchewan which has the state motto “Land of the Living Skies”. It is actually quite pretty along the banks of the Saskatchewan River where our hotel is located. The region is very flat and primarily farmland.

It turns out that years of drought are being broken during this science campaign – they have more soil moisture than they bargained for. The Land of Living Skies has lived up to its name also – not only has it been a problem for the science objectives, but it is a real problem for the local farmers, who have a shorter growing season than in the U.S. and have been unable to plant the majority of their crops due to multiple lakes and mud sitting on their fields. Uncharacteristically,  the G-II has been grounded multiple times due to the weather.  

The G-III is an all-weather aircraft and the UAVSAR sensor that it carries can see through clouds and rain. Typically, weather does not stop us. However, this is a soil moisture science campaign and observations must be coordinated with concurrent ground-truth. It is extremely difficult to instantaneously characterize the ground condition, or to have people plodding through mud, when it is raining.

The ideal soil moisture study would be a strong rain followed by remote sensing flights on multiple days without rain to observe the drying cycle. So far, we haven’t been so lucky.     We have completed four science missions since our arrival here on June 1, squeezed in between days of rain. It is looking promising for a two- or three-day drying cycle starting this weekend and we are ready to support. We’re expecting to complete four more science flights before we head back to California on June 18, and are hoping that the weather will cooperate to enable us to obtain the data needed to support soil-moisture research and its broad-ranging applications for the benefit of all.

By Tim Moes

G-III UAVSAR project manager

Welcome to the Dryden Blog

As center director, let me be the first to welcome you to the Dryden blog site. This is an exciting new Web feature we are embarking on to provide you with additional perspectives on our many projects. 

As an engineer, I find myself in a constant struggle to convey information in a technically accurate manner while at the same time keeping it in terms understandable by non-engineers. On the flip side, I am often troubled with the responsibility of explaining the vagaries of federal government management, planning, and budgeting to an engineering community that expects exact answers. The great thing about a blog is that you have the opportunity to help guide the level of detail being provided.As we share information on our projects, I would like to encourage you to leave comments and tell us what you think! 

Through this blog site, we hope to introduce the human perspective to the technical work we do and the technical considerations inherent in managing complex engineering projects. I am inviting people from throughout the Dryden organization to post updates on their work and share the challenges and accomplishments they face in their daily activities. Over time, I expect that topics covered in this forum will reflect the diversity of our workforce both in terms of expertise and the projects we support. 

If there is a particular topic or item you would like to learn more about, leave us a comment and we will do our best to post the information.  Thank you for taking time to visit the Dryden Blog. 

David McBride


NASA Dryden Flight Research Center

NASA Aids in Capturing Video of Historic X-51 Flight


Every now and then, due to the unique capabilities of our aircraft and our personnel, NASA gets called upon to assist the Air Force in one of its missions. In this instance we were asked to help by providing video documentation and airborne safety chase for a high-altitude first release of the X-51 hypersonic test vehicle. You can read more about this test flight on the Edwards Air Force Base Web site here: .


Normally, the Air Force would use its own chase F-16 aircraft. However, launch conditions were too slow for an F-16 at the planned altitude of 50,000 feet. NASA Dryden operates a fleet of four chase and support F/A-18 aircraft, and the high altitude and slow speed is something our aircraft could handle. NASA Dryden also has a unique cadre of truly talented airborne videographers and photographers. Taking videos and pictures requires a skill only learned through years of experience and this is routinely demonstrated in the NASA photo/video team’s superb products.


For this mission we conducted numerous briefings and several dress rehearsals so all participants, both in the air and on the ground, would be ready for their roles. The flight included the U.S. Air Force B-52, with the test vehicle tucked under the port wing and inboard of the engines, and two NASA F/A-18s. One F/A-18 was a single-seat aircraft with a primary mission of safety chase. It was there to allow the pilot to watch the takeoff and climb to altitude, ensuring the vehicle remained intact with no leaks or apparent anomalies in condition. The second F/A-18, a 2-seater I was flying, had the videographer in the aft seat. Our mission was to capture the X-51 as it separated from the B-52 and the rocket booster ignited, accelerating it into the record books. We took off about 15 minutes after the bomber and chase. We climbed to altitude in trail but were flying faster so as to catch them en route. We needed to be in position close to the B-52’s left wing when the flight reached the test area off the California coast. 


After a trial run down the launch path, the flight circled back to point west again. This time the X-51 launch system was readied and clearance was received. The range was “green,” meaning the X-51 could be safely released.


As we got close to the desired launch point the appropriate calls were made:  “30 seconds to release,” then “10 seconds,” followed by a tense delay until the hypersonic aircraft dropped free of the bomber. 


In the video chase F/A-18, I was striving to be in exactly the right position, not too close but never too far away. At this high altitude the aircraft is not nearly as responsive as it would be down lower. Also, we were flying much slower for this launch, making the flight controls even more sluggish. One false flight control or throttle input, and we could easily fall way below or way behind the B-52 and then be unable to catch it in time to capture the video. The camera operator needed a clear view of the release but also needed to have it in sight as it dropped away before the rocket motor ignited. The X-51 was going to drop up to 1,000 feet below the B-52, so we had to be ready to go lower with it. This sequence all went without a single hitch and the X-51 booster rocket motor ignited in a beautiful, sharp plume. The vehicle rapidly accelerated away before climbing smoothly into the planned trajectory. 


It was visually as flawless a launch as I have ever witnessed and truly an awesome sight. After the X-51 disappeared from view, which took about 45 seconds after being dropped from the bomber, we turned toward home. Now we could see the white contrail the X-51 had left in the sky. It was no longer arrow-straight, but wavy and kinked by the high-altitude winds. The flight home would take another 25 minutes, but it was a relaxing 25 minutes borne by the exhilaration of success.


To view the amazing video, follow this link.


The Air Force Research Lab’s X-51 project office said they were absolutely thrilled by NASA’s “superb safety and video chase support.”  It was a privilege to participate with the team to help capture this video and make it available to a global audience. 


Dick Ewers

NASA Research Test Pilot