Space Shuttle Discovery Lands, Space Shuttle Atlantis Goes To Pad, Soyuz Docks With Space Station To Deliver Fresh Crew

Discovery Orbiter Vehicle Looks Clean, Few Dings Seen

In an intricate orbital dance, Space Shuttle Discovery undocked from the International Space Station and made a landing at Kennedy Space Center as beautiful and point-perfect as its liftoff a lucky 13 days earlier atop a pink plume of exhaust vapor.

That silky Saturday afternoon landing was delayed slightly to await better Florida weather. The landing came just hours after a Russian Soyuz space vehicle had docked at the space station to deliver a fresh crew for the high-flying laboratory, but before Space Shuttle Atlantis tomorrow rolls out to Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center for the STS- 125 Mission that will launch May 12.

There is no rest for the weary, shuttle program ground crews are discovering. NASA is moving rapidly to complete its eight or nine remaining missions, before the space shuttle fleet hits a mandated retirement next year that will leave the largest space agency in the world with no manned space flight vehicles for half a decade.

Both the Discovery and Atlantis shuttle flights involve epochal attainments: Discovery in its 5.3 million-mile STS-119 Mission took the final huge S6 structural component to the space station, bringing the artificial moon to full electrical power with the unfurling of immense 240-foot solar arrays.

Atlantis, on the other hand, will repair and refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope to keep it functioning until the James Webb Space Telescope begins operations in the next decade. That Atlantis mission was to have lifted off last year from Launch Pad 39A, but was delayed by malfunctioning components in the Hubble. That glitch will be fixed by preparing new telescope system components for Atlantis crew members to install in that universe-scanning eye.

While Atlantis is aloft, Space Shuttle Endeavour will be poised at Launch Pad 39B to rush to the rescue if Atlantis develops a problem. That’s because Atlantis is going to the Hubble instead of to the space station, which can be used as a life raft if a shuttle experiences a problem. Assuming that Atlantis suffers no problems on its 11-day, five- spacewalks telescope repair flight, Endeavour then will launch from Pad 39A to the space station on the STS-127 Mission to the station, part of the unrelenting pace in the closing months of the space shuttle program.

Discovery also took to the station something much more prosaic, but absolutely vital if the station is to achieve its promise as a six-person fully functioning laboratory: the shuttle crew installed a system that processes station crew members’ urine and other bodily moisture into drinking water.

This is perhaps unappetizing, but unavoidable, because there is no way that sufficient water could be hauled to the station to supply a crew of six, double the previous crew size. Further, recycling is imperative on missions later in this century, such as trips to Mars lasting more than two years.

The STS-119 Discovery flight was commanded by Lee Archambault, joined by Pilot Tony Antonelli and Mission Specialists Joseph Acaba, Steve Swanson, Richard Arnold, John Phillips and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata. Wakata arrived at the space station March 17, and remained aboard the station, replacing Flight Engineer Sandra Magnus, who returned to Earth on Discovery after more than four months on the station.

Acaba and Arnold are former science teachers who are now fully-trained NASA astronauts. They made their first journey into orbit and conducted critical spacewalking tasks on this flight. STS-119 was the 125th space shuttle mission, the 36th flight for Discovery and the 28th shuttle visit to the station.

As for the Soyuz mission, it transported the 19th crew to live and work aboard the space station. The Soyuz had launched into orbit Thursday morning from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Aboard the Soyuz were NASA astronaut Michael Barratt, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, and space tourist and U.S. software engineer Charles Simonyi. Simonyi is making his second trip to the station, the first space tourist to make two spaceflights. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Feb. 16, 2009.)

Padalka will serve as commander of Expeditions 19 and 20 aboard the station. Barratt will serve as a flight engineer for those two missions.

Simonyi, flying to the station under a commercial agreement with the Russian Federal Space Agency, previously visited the complex in April 2007. He is the first spaceflight participant to make a second flight to the station and will spend 10 days aboard. Simonyi will return to Earth April 7 with Expedition 18 Commander Michael Fincke and Flight Engineer Yury Lonchakov, who have been on the station since October 2008.

The Expedition 19 crew will continue science investigations and prepare for the arrival of the rest of the station’s first six-person contingent. Roman Romanenko of the Russian Federal Space Agency, Frank De Winne of the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency astronaut Bob Thirsk will launch from Baikonur on May 27, arriving at the station on May 29. After all the astronauts are aboard, the Expedition 20 will begin, ushering in an era of six-person station crews. This mission also will be the first time the crew members represent all five International Space Station partners.

Post-Landing Assessment

After the landing, NASA experts said Discovery looked clean, with no major damage seen to its protective heat tiles.

While problems with fuel system flow control valves delayed the Discovery launch by weeks, as experts checked for possible cracks or breaking in the valves, there was no evidence of any valve problem during the mission.

NASA has been highly focused on possible heat tile damage since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, when a large chunk of foam insulation ripped off the external fuel tank and smashed into the leading edge of wing, punching a hole through it. Later, as Columbia attempted to return to Earth, the searing hot gases of reentry rushed into the wing and heated it to the point of structural failure. The ship and crew of seven were lost.

Since then, meticulous and repeated inspections of heat tiles and the nose cone, including tiles on the underside of the shuttle orbiter vehicle, have become routine on every mission.

Discovery also was equipped with a very special heat tile designed to see how well it functioned at abnormally high heat during reentry.

That served as a test of a thermal protective material that may be used on the heat shield of the next-generation U.S. spaceship, Orion, which is to have its first manned flight in 2015. The heat shield on Orion will cover the bottom of the space capsule, much like heat shields on the similar-looking Apollo space capsules.

Mike Leinbach, space shuttle launch director, walked around beneath Discovery after it landed, and later said in a post-landing news conference Saturday evening that there were "very few dings to the tiles" on the spacecraft. "She looks great," he said. Aside from concerns about foam insulation breaking loose, there also is the possibility of space junk or micrometeorites hitting the shuttle, or the space station, to cause serious damage.

To show the fast pace of work at Kennedy Space Center, Leinbach said crews already have begun a 101-day flow of work required to send Discovery up to space again, on the STS- 128 Mission to the space station that will launch Aug. 6.

Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, said astronaut Sandy Magnus is in good condition after spending more than four months in space, working in the station. He was told that "she’s doing just great. She’s in great shape, and glad to be back" on Earth.

Every astronaut suffers physically by going to space, especially on long missions.

Although astronauts work out on exercise bikes and the like, during long periods in space they lose muscle mass and strength, and the weightless environment means their skeletons have less work to do, so they lose bone mass, too.

Beyond that, each astronaut is hit by space radiation that comes barreling through the shuttle orbiter vehicle and space station walls. It is unclear what damage this might cause.

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