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Endeavour Docks With International Space Station After Flawless Launch

By | November 17, 2008

      Space Shuttle Endeavour thundered to the heavens and docked with the International Space Station to begin a major makeover of the orbiting laboratory.

      While the blazing, on-time launch at 7:55 p.m. ET Friday was a nighttime liftoff, it nonetheless was a lit launch — moon-lit, that is, with a full-sized orb shining down on the scene, giving earthlings a shining view of the Earth’s nearest neighbor, the destination for the successor spaceship to the shuttles, Orion-Ares.

      Endeavour then docked with the space station yesterday, with hatches opened and shuttle and station crew members greeting each other.

      The STS-126 Mission liftoff was the first shuttle launch in months, partly because Space Shuttle Atlantis was ready to lift off last month for a rescue mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, only to be sidelined because the Hubble developed a last-minute glitch. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Oct. 20, 2008.)

      Atlantis had to be rolled back from the launch pad, awaiting a liftoff next year, perhaps in May. A decision may be made next month, and there is a pretty high chance of making a May launch for Atlantis, briefers said.

      As for the current Endeavour mission, it has mostly been a smooth operation.

      "It was a great launch," NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said, in a post-launch news conference Friday night.

      While it was "disappointing" to see Atlantis roll back, it was rewarding to see Endeavour blast off, Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, said.

      Endeavour was packed with home improvement items that will transform the space station from a maximum three-person crew asset into a six-person home aloft where scientific experiments can be performed in a weightless environment.

      It is fitting that this major advance for the station comes as it is celebrating its 10th anniversary, Gerstenmaier said.

      The launch showed "flawless execution," said LeRoy Cain, launch integration manager.

      There were no problems in the countdown to liftoff until about 15 minutes before launch, said Michael Leinbach, shuttle launch director. Then, it was discovered a pin was missing from a door in the area of the white room. A worker at the site came forward and took responsibility for having "left a pin out." NASA officials reviewed the situation, and decided the shuttle still was safe to fly, which turned out to be correct.

      Ever since the Space Shuttle Columbia orbiter was hit with a chunk of foam insulation from its external fuel tank, punching a hole in a leading edge of an orbiter wing, NASA has watched closely for any further foam problems during shuttle launches. The Columbia damage incurred during ascent to orbit later caused loss of the ship and crew when Columbia attempted to return to Earth.

      NASA officials didn’t see any debris problems in the Endeavour launch and ascent Friday, but experts will check videos, Gerstenmaier said.

      What was noticeable was the absence of a problem: ice. Thanks to substituting better-insulating titanium brackets on exterior lines on the external fuel tank, there was no ice, even though problematical pre-launch weather would have cause ice to form on the old-style aluminum brackets.

      The Mission

      Endeavour carried about 32,000 pounds of payload, which includes supplies and equipment necessary to double the crew size from three to six members by next spring. The new station cargo includes additional sleeping quarters, a second toilet, a water reclamation system and a resistance exercise device. That payload was crammed into an Italian cargo container called Leonardo.

      That water reclamation system, assuming it works as expected, will take urine from space station crew members and purify it into drinking water that has a slight taste of iodine. The system will be operated and checked, with water samples taken during the Endeavour visit, so that the space shuttle can bring those samples back to Earth for laboratory analysis to ensure that water produced in the system is potable (drinkable).

      Station crew members will need the urine recycling system, because President Bush ordered space shuttle flights to halt in 2010, so the station at that point won’t any longer receive fresh water from the shuttles.

      "I’m pretty confident overall we’ll get it up and running," Gerstenmaier said of the urine recycling system. Even if there are problems getting a working recycling system on station, he said that water from the shuttles still could be used until they cease flying, and there also is a high inventory of water on the station now.

      Aside from the home improvements on the inside of the space station, astronauts will have plenty of work to do outdoors in spacewalks, hanging onto the station as it zips about 200 miles above planet Earth at 17,500 miles an hour.

      The mission’s four planned spacewalks primarily will focus on servicing the station’s two Solar Alpha Rotary Joints, which allow solar arrays to track the sun. The starboard SARJ has had limited use since September last year.

      Each SARJ is supposed to keep a giant solar array pointed toward the sun, to ensure maximum electrical power generation for the space station.

      One SARJ has had debris, perhaps metal filings, on it that have impeded its movement. Spacewalkers will attempt to clean and lubricate the mechanism.

      Asked how confident he is that the SARJ fix will work, Gerstenmaier said that the crew members will "go do the best we can," and then make an assessment of how well the SARJ works with the servicing.

      Shortly before launch, Commander Chris Ferguson thanked the teams that helped make the launch possible.

      Joining Ferguson are Pilot Eric Boe and Mission Specialists Donald Pettit, Steve Bowen, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Shane Kimbrough and Sandra Magnus. Magnus will replace current station crew member Greg Chamitoff, who has lived on the outpost since June. She will return to Earth on Space Shuttle Discovery, in the STS-119 Mission targeted for February. (Please see launch schedule in this issue.)

      Stefanyshyn-Piper and Bowen didn’t have much time to relax after reaching the space station.

      At press time, Stefanyshyn-Piper and Bowen had stepped outdoors in the first of four spacewalks during this mission. They are replacing a nitrogen tank assembly, and performing station assembly tasks. As well, they are beginning to clean and lubricate the starboard SARJ.

      Inside the station, Pettit and Magnus are operating the station’s robotic arm, and Kimbrough is the intravehicular officer, or spacewalk coordinator.

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