As the space shuttle crew arrived at Kennedy Space Center for Thursday’s scheduled launch of the STS-132 mission, already on board space shuttle Atlantis is a piece of physicist Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree. A 4-inch-long wood sample from the original tree that supposedly inspired Newton’s theory of gravity, along with a picture of Newton, will be taken into orbit by British-born astronaut Piers Sellers, a member of the crew for this next mission to the International Space Station. The wood is part of the collection of the Royal Society archives in London, and will be returned there following the flight. “We’re delighted to take this piece of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree to orbit,” said Sellers in an article from AFP. “While it’s up there, it will be experiencing no gravity, so if it had an apple on it, the apple wouldn’t fall.”
*Of course, that is not quite correct.
The piece of Newton’s tree is will still be experiencing gravity, and in fact, will be falling the entire time it is in orbit. It will be in free fall along with the shuttle and space station as it orbits the Earth. A free-falling object falls under the sole influence of gravity, and in the case of the shuttle (or any object in orbit), its orbital motion keeps it moving fast enough that it doesn’t fall back to Earth — unless its acceleration changes.
“We are both pleased and proud that such an extraordinary part of scientific history and important element of the Royal Society’s archive collection can make this historic trip into space,” said Lord Rees, the current president of the Royal Society. “Upon their return the piece of tree and picture of Newton will form part of the History of the Royal Society exhibition that the Society will be holding later this year and will then be held as a permanent exhibit at the Society.”
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The Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary. Newton was president of the Society from 1703 until his death in 1727.
“I’m pretty sure that Sir Isaac would have loved to see this, assuming he wasn’t spacesick, as it would have proved his first law of motion to be correct,” Sellers said.
Launch is targeted for 2:20 p.m. EDT on May 14. This is the last scheduled flight for Atlantis before the shuttle program ends.
Just as the astronauts arrived at KSC at about 7 pm EDT, over at Launch Pad 39A, technicians were performing vertical closeouts for Atlantis and its payload which includes — besides the piece of the tree — an Integrated Cargo Carrier and a Russian-built Mini Research Module, to be delivered to the International Space Station during the 12-day mission.
At 4 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 11, countdown clocks across the launch site will begin ticking away the hours leading to liftoff. The countdown will begin at the T-43 hour mark following the traditional call-to-stations for launch controllers.
In addition to Sellers, the crew includes Commander Ken Ham, Mission Specialists Garrett Reisman, Steve Bowen and Michael Good, and Pilot Tony Antonelli.
*thanks to Dave Chapman and others for the addition/correction to the article.