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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Space Shuttle Endeavour Returns

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA's shuttle Endeavour and its seven-astronaut crew returned to Earth Tuesday, landing one day early due to earlier concerns that Hurricane Dean could disrupt Mission Control operations in Texas.

Endeavour swooped down out of the Florida sky to loose two sonorous sonic booms before making a 12:32 p.m. EDT (1632 GMT) touchdown at NASA's Shuttle Landing Facility here at the Kennedy Space Center.

"Although it's been a short two weeks, we've accomplished a lot," shuttle commander Scott Kelly told Mission Control this morning. "We still look very much forward to coming home today."

Kelly and his STS-118 crew, which includes teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan, delivered more than two tons of cargo to the ISS, where they replaced a broken gyroscope and installed a new starboard-side piece of the outpost's main truss.

"I think the shuttle program gets an A-plus," said Morgan, who served as NASA's backup to Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe for the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, during the spaceflight. "Once we don't have the shuttle anymore, I think it's going to be something we look back at with great nostalgia and we're really, really going to miss it."

NASA chief Michael Griffin told reporters after landing that Morgan was in good health after her first spaceflight, but required more time to readapt to Earth's gravity after spending almost two weeks in weightlessness.

Endeavour's landing completed a 5.3 million-mile (8.5 million-kilometer) flight for the orbiter, its first in nearly five years following a major systems overhaul. The shuttle orbited the Earth about 201 times and landed with small, but deep, gouge in the heat-resistant tiles lining the orbiter's underbelly, but mission managers found it posed no risk to the spacecraft's reentry.

NASA video of the gouged tiles showed some signs of additional damage, but not the extensive surface tunneling depicted in ground tests last week. NASA launch and entry flight director Steve Stich said Monday that he did not anticipate any extra tile damage would hinder preparations for Endeavour's next flight in February.

"This flight has been extraordinarily productive," said NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale. "Endeavour, in fact, has performed nearly flawlessly."

Returning to Earth aboard Endeavour with Kelly and Morgan were shuttle pilot Charlie Hobaugh along with mission specialists Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Alvin Drew, Jr. and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Dave Williams.

Initially slated for a Wednesday return, Endeavour's landing was pushed up one day due to concerns that Hurricane Dean could prompt an evacuation of NASA's Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Those worries fell away over the last few days as the massive storm headed instead towards central Mexico.

Home again

During their 13-day mission, Endeavour's astronaut crew performed four spacewalks to outfit the station with a new, $11 million Starboard 5 (S5) truss. The small spacer segment primes the station for the deliver of its fourth and final set of U.S. solar arrays on a future shuttle flight.

"I think the best lesson is that this is truly a marvelous place to be," Morgan said of the ISS. "The station is incredible. It is a work in progress."

Williams set a new record for the most spacewalks and spacewalking time by a Canadian astronaut, and soaked up the views of his home planet during his three construction sessions of the STS-118 flight.

"The view is very hard to describe," Williams told reporters during the mission. "All around you, you've got this panoramic view of Earth around you. It's absolutely spectacular."

Endeavour's crew also installed a new spare parts platform outside the ISS. The shuttle cast off from the ISS early Sunday, leaving behind the space station's three-astronaut crew of Expedition 15.

"Have a good trip home, and a very safe trip," the station's Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin told Endeavour's crew. "We are with you."

More work ahead

During their flight, Endeavour's crew primed the orbital laboratory's mast-like Port 6 (P6) truss for relocation to its port-most edge later this year. The astronauts also topped off the station's nitrogen tanks, delivered some 77 pounds (35 kilograms) of oxygen and left the station's Expedition 15 crew with 1,000 pounds (453 kilograms) of extra water.

Yurchikin and his Expedition 15 crewmates, during the STS-118 flight, successfully replaced a faulty electronics box and corroded cables responsible for a major computer crash in June.

"From our perspective, we're completely satisfied with the mission," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's ISS program manager, of STS-118. "It met every objective that we needed to continue on with assembly."

Some of that work begins next week on Aug. 30, when the space station's Expedition 15 crew will move a conical docking port on the station's Unity connecting node to make way for a new module later this year.

NASA plans at least 11 more shuttle flights to complete construction of the ISS by September 2010, when the space agency plans to retire its three-orbiter fleet. Two flights are slated to fly later this year: The shuttle Discovery is scheduled to launch the new Harmony connecting node on Oct. 23, and Atlantis is set to haul the European Columbus laboratory to the ISS on Dec. 6.

Tuesday's landing completed NASA's 119th shuttle flight -- the 22nd bound for the ISS -- and the 20th spaceflight for Endeavour. NASA will now begin priming the shuttle for its next flight, STS-123 in February 2008, to deliver the first component of Japan's Kibo laboratory to the space station.

NEW VIDEO: STS-118: Coming Home
VIDEO: Teaching the Future: Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan
Complete Space Shuttle Mission Coverage

Crew Excited About Endeavour's Success

A couple hours after landing back at Kennedy Space Center, the crew of STS-118 spoke enthusiastically about their 13 days in orbit and work on the International Space Station.

"It was a great experience and the space station is really, I think, a stepping stone to going back to the moon and on to Mars some day," commander Scott Kelly said.

Teacher-turned-astronaut Barbara Morgan said she is still getting used to gravity again, but that spaceflight was a great experience that she hopes more teachers get to share in.

"The flight was absolutely wonderful," she said. "I felt like I was upside-down the whole first day."

Canadian astronaut Dave Williams said the thrill never gets dull.

"It's truly the ride of a lifetime," Williams said of the launch Aug. 8. "Look over your shoulder and you can see Hurricane Dean."

The flight delivered a new segment to the International Space Station, along with 5,800 pounds of supplies and equipment.

As far as the ding in a couple of heat shield tiles, Kelly said it did not bother him much.

"I was a little bit underwhelmed by the size of the gouge," he said. "To see it, it looked rather small."

Photos of Tile Damage
+ View Hi-Res Image of Tile Damage
+ View Hi-Res Image of Tile Taken in Space

Mission Information
+ STS-118 Mission Overview
+ STS-118 Fact Sheet (900 Kb PDF)
+ STS-118 NASA TV Schedule

MIT's 'clutter detector' could cut confusion

The danger of clutter--especially on a visual screen--is that it causes confusion that affects how well we perform tasks. To that end, visual clutter is a challenge for fighter pilots picking out a target, for people seeking important information in a user interface, and for web site and map designers, among others.
Now, a team of MIT scientists has identified a way to measure visual clutter. Their research, published Aug. 16 in the Journal of Vision, could lead to more user-friendly displays and maps, as well as tips for designers seeking to add an attention-grabbing element to a display.
"We lack a clear understanding of what clutter is, what features, attributes and factors are relevant, why it presents a problem and how to identify it," said Ruth Rosenholtz, principal research scientist in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the paper's lead author.
The fact that one person's clutter is the next person's organized workspace makes it hard to come up with a universal measure of clutter. Rosenholtz and colleagues modeled what makes items in a display harder or easier to pick out. They used this model, which incorporates data on color, contrast and orientation, to come up with a software tool to measure visual clutter.
To be useful, such a tool has to capture the effect of clutter on performance. In their paper, Rosenholtz and her colleagues-- MIT BCS graduate student Yuanzhen Li and BCS undergraduate Lisa Nakano--tested the influence of clutter on searching for a symbol in a map, like an arrow indicating "you are here." They found good correlation between the time it takes to find a symbol in a map and the amount of clutter according to their measure.
In earlier work they also showed that their clutter detector correlates well with human subjective judgments of clutter. In that case, the team asked 20 people to rank 25 maps of the United States and San Francisco in order from most cluttered to least cluttered. The maps ranged from a gray and green map of the 50 states to a San Francisco Bay area map overlaid with lines, words and colors.
Although there was a fair bit of disagreement among the people being tested about what constituted clutter, when the researchers compared results from their clutter measure to those of their human subjects, they found a good correlation.
Rosenholtz next plans to offer this visual clutter tool, as well as other tools developed in her lab, to designers as part of a user study. She hopes to learn what insights designers get from knowledge of how a user will likely perceive their designs, and how best to present this information to the designers.
Rosenholtz provides free software written in MATLAB to anyone interested in generating color and contrast "clutter maps" to gauge the clutter level of a display. The tool is available at
This work was supported by the Office of Naval Research and by the National Science Foundation.

Doctoral candidate Jhingran is public speaking champion

An MIT doctoral candidate in mechanical and ocean engineering from India has won first place in the Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking with a speech about finding himself through meditation - and about getting into MIT, the graduate school of his dreams.
Vikas Jhingran, 34, presented "The Swami's Question" to an audience of 2,000 at the Marriott Desert Ridge Resort in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 18th.
He compared the contest to a rock concert, with its 30-foot wide stage, two huge TV screens, audience in formal attire, and National Public Radio interviews of the contestants.
"It's a big deal - two thousand people in a huge ballroom, most of them in formals. The energy was fantastic!" he said.
Toastmasters, which operates public speaking clubs throughout the world, sponsors the annual contest, known to insiders as the "Olympics of public speaking." This year's competition featured 10 finalists, each of whom presented a seven-minute original speech to a panel of judges.
Contestants were judged on content, speech organization, voice quality, gestures and delivery.
Jhingran used only one prop - the envelope from MIT that was going to change his life. He held it up as he began his speech, asking the audience the question he had asked himself: Would the letter begin with "Congratulations" or "You've got to be kidding"?
Jhingran had no idea he'd won the Toastmasters trophy until the announcement was made, he said.
"I got the sense that my speech went well and was very well received. I really connected with the audience. The time just flew by!" he said.
Jhingran wrote and prepared "The Swami" in five weeks, and he was still making small changes right up to the night before the finals, he said.
A Toastmasters member for the past four years, Jhingran knew to practice persistently and yet avoid too much tweaking before the championship, he said.
"Major changes stopped three days before the event so that I had time to absorb the speech. In my experience, you have to know it so well that you can recite it in the middle of the night. At this level, the performance has to be almost flawless," he said.
Like any star, a championship public speaker thrives with that audience connection Jhingran felt during his performance and with plenty of support behind the scenes.
Jhingran's wife was with him at the Phoenix event, and people at MIT and in local Toastmasters clubs supported his championship journey with their encouragement, ideas, comments and critiques, he said.
He had only one regret about his Toastmasters championship journey.
When he finished "The Swami's Question" to eager applause, his wife was sure he had done well enough to win, Jhingran recalled. "She kept asking me to think about my acceptance speech. I wish I had listened to her," he said.
As world champion, Jhingran may not compete again in the contest.
A native of Morabadad, India, Jhingran is a specialist in offshore drilling and oil and gas production; he came to MIT in 2004. Since then, he has been steadily involved with leadership and communication programs, and he is an advocate of establishing communications courses as part of the MIT engineering curriculum.
Jhingran has served co-president of the Sloan Leadership Club; he co-chaired the 2006 Sloan Leadership Conference, and he taught an IAP course, "The Charismatic Speaker" in 2006 and 2007.

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