Green Flags for Shuttle Launch Today


Is this the sportiest shuttle mission ever?

When the Shuttle Atlantis lifts off from Kennedy Space Center today at 4:30 pm, its payload and crew will give two nods to the history of sports.

The first nod is courtesy of the Daytona International Speedway, with a small addition to the payload:

In conjunction with the historic 50th running of the Daytona 500 scheduled for Feb. 17, 2008, and the 50th anniversary of NASA in 2008, the orbiter will carry three green flags into space to celebrate the two milestones.

“We’re excited to be able to partner with NASA on this exciting project,” said Speedway President Robin Braig. “Stay tuned as we’ll have other exciting things to announce in the coming weeks.”

The flags will travel more than a million miles at 17,500 mph during the 12-day mission to deliver Columbus, a science research module to the International Space Station. The shuttle is scheduled to lift off at 4:31 p.m. EST.

Once back on earth, the winner of February’s Daytona 500 will take home a flag; one will hang in the Daytona 500 Experience and the final one will go to NASA.

(Want to relive the 49th annual Daytona 500? Check out the last 2 laps of the 2007 race, with a spotter talking to a driver, in this YouTube video.)

The second nod to sports is actually a member of the Atlantis crew: Leland Melvin, the former University of Richmond football star who was drafted as a wide receiver by the Detroit Lions in 1986. In 1988, while trying out for the Dallas Cowboys, a hamstring injury on the practice fields ended his football career — but began his career toward becoming an astronaut:

Melvin credits football for helping him train for the trip he’s about to take.

"I can remember with sports, there were times when my coach (at Richmond), Dal Shealy, would come into our room the night before the game and tell me to close my eyes," Melvin remembers. " ‘Leland, you are in the end zone, pulling the ball in, pulling it to your body for a catch to win the game.’ … You’re going through the mechanics of what you’re doing, and when you visualize it and sleep on it, when you wake up the next day, you’ve already done it. So doing it is really second nature to you. It’s in your subconscious."

The repetition, the visualization are all part of the training for Melvin’s primary job, which is operating the 58-foot robotic arm on Atlantis that will deliver the 22-foot-long, 13-ton Columbus Laboratory to the International Space Station on Day 4 of the 11-day mission. The procedure will take about 2 1⁄2 hours and will include carrying German astronaut Hans Schlegal on the mission’s first spacewalk. The time and distance are exact, and are calibrated in minutes and centimeters.

Live coverage of the mission launch should begin at 11:30 am EST on the STS-122 Launch Blog. NASA TV will also carry the launch via live webstream — or you can catch it in HDTV on HDNet beginning at 3:30.