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June 1, 2023 · 18 min read

Season 4, Ep. 4 – TWiTH: Space Shuttle Discovery docks with the ISS, with

While it may seem like the International Space Station has been around since the beginnings of space exploration, it was actually just a little over 24 years ago that it was built. And on This Week in Tech history, Abbey and Chris talk about the Space Shuttle Discovery’s trip to the ISS, making it the first shuttle to dock there on May 29, 1999.


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Abbey (00:05):

You outside?

Chris (00:06):

I am. Hopefully the wind isn’t…

Abbey (00:08):

I can’t hear it. I was working from the front porch earlier, and they were doing some sort of detection with the construction side across the street, where it was just like, beeping nonstop for an hour and a half. (Chris: Great.) How’s the weather out there?

Chris (00:23):

It’s like, rainy this entire week.

Abbey (00:26):

Really? It’s just been cloudy out here. No rain. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES OUT)

Chris (00:29):

It was supposed to rain all week, but it’s been cloudy all week, and today it’s rainy. Whatever. I’ll take it. The plants love it. The bees hate it, but you know, the bees will like it when all the flowers bloom. So our wild flowers are finally blooming. I mean, it’s not impressive. At all.

Abbey (00:48):

I went to go buy dirt yesterday for the flower bed, for the garden beds, and the guy was like, “You should just wait until this weekend when we can get you stuff you fill in there.” He said he doesn’t even plan his garden for another like, week or two.

Chris (01:03):

Oh, really?

Abbey (01:04):

I was like, that’s crazy. My friend on the coast is already like, getting food off of his plants.

Chris (01:09):

That’s wild. What did he mean, “Wait till this weekend?” So he can…

Abbey (01:13):

It was to get like, expandable cocoa blocks (Chris: Okay.) that you put in the bottom of a garden bed to keep them from, or to have them like, take up space.

Chris (01:25):

Oh, okay.

Abbey (01:27):

All right. Well, Chris, (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC PLAYS) today, we are talking about the Space Shuttle Discovery. The Space Shuttle Discovery was the first shuttle to dock on the International Space Station on May 29th, 1999.

CNN anchor, via 1999 news report (01:42):

(NEWS REPORT AUDIO FADES IN)…is scheduled to dock with a new International Space Station. CNN correspondent, Miles O’Brien, joins us live to discuss this landmark rendezvous in space. 

Miles O’Brian (01:53):

Mike, 41 hours, 18 minutes, after the Space Shuttle Discovery lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center. It has found the needle in the haystack and is about 30 feet away from that fledgling International Space Station. Let’s take a look at some still images…(NEWS REPORT AUDIO FADES OUT)

Abbey (02:05):

(RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC RESUMES) First of all, I don’t feel like 1999 was far enough away. I feel like this happened way, way, way before that, but I guess the Internet only sometimes lies. Not about this. On May 27th, 1999, less than a year after the first two modules of the International Space Station, called Zarya and Unity, were connected. The Space Shuttle Discovery launched on Mission STS-96. It became the first shuttle to dock with the International Space Station on May 29th. It was a logistics and resupply mission to deliver supplies to the newly assembled parts of the ISS. They also had like, a bunch of stuff to, like, a space crane. I’m interested. I don’t really know what I would do with it, but a space crane sounds cool. So they delivered one of those. It launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida and returned to Kennedy nine days later on June 6th. It was originally scheduled to leave on the 20th and had to be postponed because of hail damage. It was determined that the tank’s foam insulation couldn’t be reached for repairs while it was on the pad, so they pulled the whole shuttle off, which is probably more of a hassle than it could possibly sound like to us laypeople. Inspections revealed more than 650 divots in the tank’s outer foam. They repaired 460 critical ones and said, “That’s good enough.”

Chris (03:34):

Just let it ride.

Abbey (03:35):

It’s still like, almost 200 divots in a space shuttle. (Chris: <Laugh>.) Seems significant. I dunno.

Chris (03:41):

Just ride her ‘til she dies, you know?

Abbey (03:46):

Right <laugh>? ‘Til the wheels fall off, man. (Chris: <Laugh>.) Crew of the mission was Commander Kent Rominger, Pilot Rick Husband, EVA Specialist One Daniel Berry, Flight Engineer Ellen Ochoa, EVA Specialist Two Tamara E. Jernigan, IV/RMS Julie Payette, and Mission Specialist Valeri Tokarev. So the space walk that the EVA specialists did, Daniel Berry and Tamara Jernigan, was the 45th space walk. It lasted seven hours and 55 minutes. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC ENDS)

Chris (04:21):

That’s wild.

Abbey (04:23):

That’s an entire workday spent working in literal space. Sounds crazy. It was the second longest space walk to ever happen. Mission was completed successfully. Everything went as planned. They delivered all their food, clothes, sleeping bags, water, cranes.

Chris (04:41):

So were the like, sleeping bags and like, food, was that like, actually outside in space? Like, why did that have to go through space to get inside? Was it in another capsule (Abbey: Yeah.) that had to be taken from one to the other?

Abbey (04:57):

There was a capsule. I’d have to look at the Wikipedia page again. It was called like, Star Lab or something like that. There was a company that built capsules specifically to go in the space shuttles, and those capsules would get loaded with stuff to get taken to the ISS. (Chris: Gotcha.) But I think at this point there was like, basically nobody up there. They only had like, the first, they had like the pods for it. So one came from the U.S. and one came from Russia. Yeah. But it said the thing I read said that the pod for this one was like 3,600 pounds of stuff.

Chris (05:31):

That’s a lot of stuff.

Abbey (05:32):

I mean, I guess it still weighs that much in space. It just doesn’t have gravity doing anything about it.

Chris (05:38):

So I find the first thing that I thought of is that like, astronauts apparently report…so like, space is a vacuum, right? But astronauts report that space has a really weird smell that’s kinda like, they describe it as a mix of gunpowder, seared steak, raspberries, and rum, which is very specific. (Abbey: Wow. Very.) But imagine getting into your sleeping bag that just went through space, and just smells like, you know, seared steak, raspberries,  gunpowder, and rum.

Abbey (06:16):

Do you think when the sleeping bag gets to the space station, it smells like it’s been in a plastic bin in your basement for a few months? I feel like you’d relish that smell.

Chris (06:25):

Oh, it smells like mothballs for sure.

Abbey (06:28):


Chris (06:29):

Yeah. So maybe space is an improvement on mothballs?

Abbey (06:34):

I mean, steak and raspberries sounds nice, but I dunno if I’d wanna do it all the time.

Chris (06:38):

So, you know, now that I think of this, when we originally talked about this episode, there was the conversation that the Space Station has just always existed and has been in space forever, because Y2K was forever ago, and you know, the ‘90s was forever ago. But now that I think back to it, I was living in Canada in 1999, and the Canadarm 2 too was like Canada’s big…their big project on the space station, which is one of the coolest parts of the Space Station, to me. It’s not the arm, itself, but that was like, that was a very big deal in Canada and people, like…there’s a huge point of national pride. But this idea of international cooperation on the Space Station and like, even throughout times of political differences, like, even now, right, with (Abbey: Yeah.) conflict in Russia and Ukraine, and like, Russia recommitting to the Space Station. It’s been one of those kinda like, last bastions of unity is this like, support of safety of astronauts, and the pursuit of science is always the thing that I thought was the coolest part about it.

Abbey (08:19):

And I think, like I don’t, it almost seems like, I wonder if part of it is, because like, you can’t own space the way that humans feel like we can own everything on earth. We can take it under our control. Like, how do you own the infinite abyss? The only way to go about it is to like, work together.

Chris (08:42):

I mean, not yet, right? (Abbey: Right. Well…<laugh>.) And I think like, unfortunately, and not to sound like, pessimistic, but I think part of the reason that we like, currently see that like, there was this whole talk last year about Russia dropping out of the Space Station and building their own Space Station, and then recently they recommitted to the ISS. And so there’s obviously this want and this need to be there and to be a part of the science that’s happening. And like, I for one, am excited for the like, future like, “wild west” time of space.

Abbey (09:35):

I feel like there are elements of that already. You know, like, is there any limit to the number of Starlink satellites that are gonna end up in space? You know, there’s no way to regulate that, and you know, if you have a private company and you have the money, who’s stopping you?

Chris (09:51):

Yeah. I mean, let me clarify. The like, radical environmentalist in me like, very much wants there to be like, restrictions and like, (Abbey: <Laugh>.) wants us to do this responsibly, but you know, I think there’s going to be really crazy stories of like, space cowboy mining asteroids and like, manufacturing in like, microgravity environments in space. And like, I think that’s not too far off, and I think it’ll be absolutely fascinating. Do I think that we’ll like, handle it well? I’m not hopeful, but (Abbey: <Laugh>.) you know, I think eventually, hopefully, we’ll get there.

Abbey (10:45):

Hopeful, but realistic <laugh>.

Chris (10:46):

Yeah, yeah, exactly. (Abbey: Yeah.) I keep thinking of like, Kevin Costner in space. Like, an asteroid, you know? Like, was it Armageddon? Was that the (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) was that the movie then? (Abbey: Yeah.) Like, where they’ve gotta go like, blow up the the asteroid? (Abbey: Yeah.) But you know, like that but like, mining. (Abbey: Yeah.) Just a bunch of greasy miners up there.

Abbey (11:12):

I would love it.

Chris (11:15):

Yeah <laugh>. Yeah. It sounds great.

Abbey (11:17):

You think you’d get the “two weeks on, two weeks off” schedule that you get when you’re like an offshore (Chris: Yeah.) rig worker? I was in high school when this happened, which is like, definitely dating myself now, but here we are. I feel like this should have been a more seminal moment in my like, high school memory, because that was, (Chris: Yeah.) I mean, this only happened a year after the ISS came into existence to begin with. So maybe it’s just sort of that like, the Mandela effect, where you’re like, no, the ISS must have been there since the ‘60s.

Chris (11:51):

You know, when I was really little like, what kid didn’t wanna go to space camp? You know, like that was the thing. Like, you know, I didn’t know anybody that got to go, but like, everybody wanted to.

Abbey (12:06):

Closest you got was like, the Gravitron at the fair.

Chris (12:09):

Yeah. Like, space was like, the cool thing. So it would make sense that like, the first ship docking there, and then like, it eventually becoming populated, would be like a huge deal, but there’s no flashbulb moment like, flashbulb memory that I have of that happening whatsoever.

Abbey (12:35):

No, no.

Abbey (12:36):

I mean there was, aside from the Canadarm one of the women, Tamara Jernigan was Canadian. So this was her like, fifth and final flight that she did was this mission. Maybe there were more memories surrounding that in Canada than here. We’re like, “Oh, we always have astronauts. It’s no big deal.”

Chris (13:05):

I think I have more memories of…my best friend’s uncle was an engineer for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Royal Canadian Air Force is, yeah, not like, great, but he like, has his name on the like, ejection seat patent, and like, (Abbey: Whoa!) his job at one point was to launch frozen turkeys into jet engines to test bird strikes against geese, like, jet engines against like, goose strikes, ‘cause it’s Canada, naturally. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. So that occupies a lot of my engineering mind.

Abbey (13:49):

As a kid, is there any better future job than like…<laugh>. (Chris: <Laugh>.) I get to chuck frozen turkeys into jet engines just to see what happens.

Chris (13:59):

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Abbey (14:01):

Sounds awesome. (Chris: Yeah.) I wonder if they’re still hiring, that’ll be my postretirement job. I can gun for that in (Chris: Yeah <laugh>.) 20 years. Do you think, would you take like a private…would you do a private company trip to space?

Chris (14:20):

This is an interesting question, because there are, I think there’s a lot of different parts to it. I mean, there’s part of me that is like, I mean, absolutely. Like, I would wanna go to space, and I think that it would be one of the coolest things ever. Like, from the time that I was a child, like, going into space was always like, the pinnacle of like, exploration, right? (Abbey: Yeah.) And I would love to do so. I think at like, a mass scale, there’s obviously huge issues with the environmental impact of it. Like, look at, (Abbey: Yeah.) like, just look at the like, last launch of the like, Falcon Heavy rocket and like, what that did to the launchpad in Galveston and the surrounding area. So like, scaling that up is gonna be like, somewhat catastrophic. If like, all things’ equal, like, if I had the opportunity like, it would be awesome. (Abbey: Yeah.) I can’t deny that. William Shatner loved it.

Abbey (15:26):

<Laugh> William Shatner did. I remember they did some like, in the early 2000s, and I went to this like, turbo hippie college before I moved to Colorado, and it was one of those colleges where like, everyone’s a hippie kid, but it was a lot of like, wealthy kids who went to school for adventure education, and one of the guys there was…

Chris (15:54):

The classic trustafarian crowd..

Abbey (15:56):

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, we both lived in Boulder. You know exactly what one of those is.

Chris (16:01):

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Abbey (16:04):

I went to school with a kid whose dad like, paid to be on one of the first private space tours. I feel like being the guinea pig would not be my deal. Like, I wanna go after it’s been well tested. (Chris: <Laugh>.) Maybe just a low orbit trip. I don’t need to like, I don’t need to go to Mars.

Chris (16:23):

I mean, what about the jets that have been, like, the jetliners that have been modified to like, decrease altitude at like, 9.8 meters per second to mimic zero-G? Like, that even would be really sweet. (Abbey: Yeah.) I’d be into that.

Abbey (16:48):

I feel like one of the biggest things everybody wants to know about space is what it feels like to be truly weightless. (Chris: Yeah.) You know, like you just wanna float around.

Chris (16:58):

That’s a good middle ground.

Abbey (16:59):

I almost said Jet Blue, and then I was like, that’s not right. I meant Blue Origin.

Chris (17:03):

Oh yeah <laugh>.

Abbey (17:06):

<Laugh>. I’m not sure I’d trust a bargain airline trip to space.

Chris (17:13):

Not yet. Might be…

Abbey (17:15):

Like I said, I needed something more tried and tested, and then sign me up, ’cause I love a good deal.

Chris (17:22):

<Laugh>. Yeah. Your bags will end up on Mars, but it’s fine.

Abbey (17:28):

You’re like, “I’m over here on Venus. When are they coming back?” So something I found out when I was researching this is that every space mission since Apollo 15 has had like a…NASA plays a wake up song for them every morning. So they compile a playlist, based on like, songs that are meaningful to the people who are on the shuttle or to their family and stuff like that. Okay, so this is, here’s the list they had, and then I want to know what your, ’cause this would be like the ultimate walkout song. It’s like, way better than a single baseball game. It’s like, what was your walkout song to space? Okay. We’ve got “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas, “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins. Amazing.

Chris (18:21):

It had to be there.

Abbey (18:23):

It had to be there. The themes from Star Wars by the Space Center Intermediate Band. Also just like, obviously how many of Mos Eisley references can you make in one space trip? “Morning Colors” by the U.S. Coast Guard Band, “Amarillo by Morning”, which that one’s by George Strait, and I feel like that should have been maybe closer to the end, because the next morning they woke up to “Exsultate, Jubilate” by Mozart. They were not, in fact, in Amarillo. And then they wrapped up the nine day trip with “Free Bird”.

Chris (19:01):

<Laugh>. I think it’s great. (Abbey: Yeah.) <Laugh>. I love “Free Bird” at the end.

Abbey (19:09):

It’s what they’ve been yelling for the whole concert. “‘Free Bird’!” Okay, so what would your ultimate walkout song be?

Chris (19:18):

I might have misunderstood the question a little bit and thought that these were the songs that they wake up to every morning on the Space Station.

Abbey (19:29):

Just for this trip.

Chris (19:30):

But just for this trip. Okay. (Abbey: Yeah.) I’ve got a few songs that I thought would be really great songs to wake up to, if you were on the Space Station. (Abbey: Okay.) But there’s some that could be applicable, too.

Abbey (19:51):

Let’s hear ‘em.

Chris (19:51):

I mean, one that’s applicable to the trip itself is “Where Eagles Dare” by The Misfits. I think that’s great. There’s a few that are great if you’re, while you’re on the Space Station. “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash. (Abbey: <Laugh>.) I mean that’s like, as you’re getting ready to like, wrap up, you know? (Abbey: Yeah.) “Don’t You Forget About Me” by Simple Minds, (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) also, don’t forget me up here, you know? (Abbey: <Laugh>.) “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones, “Dancing With Myself” by Billy Idol, “Waiting Room” by Fugazi, “Friday, I’m in Love” by The Cure, just, if you’re like, for those days that you’re like, really lonely up there, and you’re just like, you wanna wake up sad, you know?

Abbey (20:49):

<Laugh>. That’s what The Cure for.

Chris (20:51):

<Laugh>. You know, that was good. And then “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag. That was…

Abbey (20:57):

That is a good list.

Chris (21:02):

I really went like, thematic, being like, stuck on the Space Station. Like, out in the middle of nowhere.

Abbey (21:06):

We didn’t even get to <singing> “This is ground control to Major Tom.”

Chris (21:11):

Trust me, I thought about, I mean, David Bowie is sleeping right over there.

Abbey (21:19):

<Laugh>. I mean, man, I only picked one song, and I don’t know how I also didn’t think about David Bowie, prior to this, but it would be, I think “C.R.E.A.M.” by Wutang.

Chris (21:32):

Nice. Yeah.

Abbey (21:33):

Think about how much money you’re sitting inside.

Chris (21:36):

Yeah. (Abbey: Yeah.) That’s great. They like it a lot. Yeah,

Abbey (21:40):

NASA’s like, “Yeah, we did spend a lot of money on this.”

Chris (21:42):

Just, all of it. The limitless money. (Abbey: Yeah.) Until they ran out that one time. But, you know, no big deal.

Abbey (21:49):

It’s fine. It’s fine. They held a bake sale, (Chris: Yeah.) they cut back on avocado toast. Look where we’re now. What else? Anything else about space? I think you told me one time you can see some of the launches from where you are?

Chris (22:04):

Yeah, so we’re on, I mean, you know this, but we’re on Carolina Beach, the like, fairly southern part of North Carolina. And when they launch, when SpaceX launches from Florida, we can like, very clearly see the shuttle launches and see the boosters separate. (Abbey: Oh, wow!) You can see like, where they separate, and then see ’em start to like, a little bit, like, basically above the tree line, you can see the boosters separate and then start to go back down, and then the shuttle just goes like, off over the ocean. It’s really wild to just see, it just keeps going, and going, and going <laugh>.

Abbey (22:56):

You’re like, it’s not stopping.

Chris (22:59):

It’s just not gonna stop. And it’s odd, because there’s no, it creates such a giant like, plume of steam behind it, but there’s not like a real like, sense of scale, right? Because it’s obviously hundreds of miles away and hundreds of miles in the sky, but it is obviously going so fast. It’s (Abbey: Yeah.) really wild. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. So it’s pretty mind blowing.

Abbey (23:38):

Especially when like, really the only frame of reference is gonna be like, an airplane, which (Chris: Yeah.) obviously doesn’t get fast enough to exit the stratosphere.

Chris (23:49):

Yeah. And I mean like, we live by like, Camp Lejeune is not far from here, so there’s a marine base, so there’s jets and, oh god, what are they, the planes with the like, tilt rotors, but there like, are jets flying by all the time, (Abbey: Yeah.) and it’s just such a different, like, it’s just another league. It’s crazy.

Abbey (24:16):

Yeah. I think the closest I’ve gotten is we, I worked at a summer camp in California, and it was just down, I can’t remember the name of the installation that was there. It was Air Force, but they would do…I think it was around Oxnard. They would do flights that broke the sound barrier over the ocean, (Chris: That’s cool.) and you could sometimes hear it and see it. So they would do it at like, the right time of night, create these crazy clouds, make this insane sound. Yeah, that’s as close as I’ve gotten. I’ll have to come out there sometime.

Chris (24:55):

Scare the hell outta the kids.

Abbey (24:57):

Yeah, yep <laugh>.

Chris (24:59):

Nice <laugh>.

Abbey (25:01):

Yeah. Give all the counselors a little laugh. Like, “It’s the world ending!” <Laugh>.

Chris (25:05):

<Laugh>. Better be quiet. They’re coming for you.

Abbey (25:11):

<Laugh>. Well we should talk to Teja about maybe sponsoring, (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) maybe that could be our next offsite for the team. (Chris: Yeah.) It’s just an “off the earth” offsite.

Chris (25:24):

Or at least like, an adult summer camp, or a space camp situation.

Abbey (25:30):

Yeah. I mean, if we can even get one of those zero gravity flights, we’ll see if it’s in the budget.

Chris (25:38):

Cool. Yeah.

Faith, via previous recording (25:40):

Thanks for listening to the Frontier Podcast, powered by We drop two episodes per week, so if you like this episode, be sure to subscribe on your platform of choice, and come hang out with us again next week, and bring all your internet friends. If you have questions or recommendations, just shoot us a Twitter DM @theFrontierPod, and we’ll see you next week.