How to: To Boldly Go – A History of the Space Shuttle


makingof

Hi all,

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. DA DA DA, DA DA DA DA DAAAAAAAAA!

Now I’m no Trekkie, but I do love a bit of space action. And I remember rushing home from school early as a misty-eyed 9-year-old to watch the first launch of the Space Shuttle.

space-shuttle-atlantis_1223_600x450The Space Shuttle programme should rank as one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements. Over 130 missions across 20 years, to the point where a launch was completely routine and barely a newsworthy item. Incredible. And even more so when you look at the technology itself. Old and creaky by the time the programme ended, but it still worked.

I was pretty sad when the programme came to an end a couple of years ago. So I thought I’d relive the excitement by vizzing up some of the mission data.

And here it is!

shuttleviz

So how’d I do this?

1. Data

wikiI got the data from 2 sources. First off was a nice list of all the missions, dates and other data from Wikipedia. Columnar, consistent and easy to chuck into Excel.

The only issue with this data was that there were surely a load more measures of interest for each mission. Duration of mission was interesting and would make a good measure to viz, but what else could I find?

nasapdfThat brings me to the second data source. This excellent pdf from NASA details all the shuttle missions and crucially adds a couple more cool measures – namely distance travelled in miles and total orbits of the Earth.

Problem was that this was pdf and I couldn’t get to the text easily. To get around that issue I used this Mac automator guide to extract the raw text from the pdf into a text file. Then I used a quick bash script to return just the 2 measures I was interested in, in a columnar format that I could paste into excel alongside the existing measures from Wikipedia. I could have used Alteryx for that also.

So how’d I do this?

2. Viz design

Timeline – I wanted to show a year on year timeline of the mission launches, broken down by shuttle and also to have one of the measures on there as well so I could pull some trends. That was easy enough, and I wanted to use a shuttle shape to act as one of the points.

shuttlelcipI had to download a simple shape and then make the background transparent so that I could further differentiate using colour. The end result looks a bit cluttered when all missions/years/shuttles are selected, but is still okay for analysis. 

E.g. I can see from the timeline how missions started short, then gradually got longer as the programme progressed. You can also see the gaps in the programme after the 2 shuttle crashes in 1986 & 2003. You can also see how each Shuttle had a different usage profile, something that I expanded on with the box & whisker plot.

Images – Yet again I followed Shawn Wallwork’s tip for dynamically assigning images. I downloaded each mission patch image and then assigned it to the appropriate point on the timeline. The image is then displayed when the user hovers the mouse over the shuttle shape. Took me ages to assign them all so you’d better appreciate it.

Shuttle Stats – Simple bar chart view of the key measures. I’ve used the average of the values to colour the bars.

shuttlestatsYou can see from this that although Discovery and Atlantis got the most missions, Endeavour and Colombia did more miles per mission on average than the others.

Box & Whisker Plot – First time I’ve used one of these. Seems to work nicely, giving an indication of the different usage profiles of each shuttle and the spread of mission distances. You can see how Endeavour was used primarily as a long haul shuttle, whereas Columbia’s mission distance spread is much greater, being used as a total all-rounder. A really effective view. Let me know what you think.

Look and Feel – Now I really wanted this to look Nasa-esque, and I managed to find the NASA font for download. Here it is. 

I’m sure you agree it makes the viz look good. But there’s a problem. For anyone to get the same effect they need to install the font or it will default to one of the regular fonts and the effect will be lost. To get around this all the titles in this viz are actually small images. A bit of a pain to do but I can see that technique becoming something I’ll use a lot.

3. Final Thoughts

Hope you like this viz. I had a lot of fun doing it, in particular browsing through the NASA catalogue of images from various missions. Some spectacular photos out there.

But we all know that all this progress wasn’t without pain. So I’d like to end with the following dedication.

This viz is dedicated to the astronauts that lost their lives during the Space Shuttle programme.

STS-151-L – 28th Jan 1986
Greg Jarvis,, Christa MCauliffe, Ronald Mcnair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee

Challenger_flight_51-l_crew

STS-107 – 1st Feb 2003

Rick D. Husband, William MCcool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon

030201-F-9999G-001

Regards, Paul

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One Response to How to: To Boldly Go – A History of the Space Shuttle

  1. KK says:

    Paul:

    Awesome Viz and I like the detailed explanation.
    ..kk

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