Space Shuttle Atlantis Cleared For Launch at 4:31 p.m. ET Thursday
European Laboratory Columbus To Be Added To Space Station
Space Shuttle Atlantis is cleared for liftoff at 4:31 p.m. ET Thursday from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for the STS-122 Mission to the International Space Station (ISS), after a flight readiness review in which no major issues were raised, top NASA officials said.
"Atlantis is on the pad, ready to go, no major issues or concerns," Wayne Hale, shuttle program director, told journalists at a briefing after the flight readiness review.
This shuttle mission will include, on Flight Day 4, the 100th spacewalk for building the ISS, an extravehicular activity that will be executed by two astronauts, an American and a European.
That green light from senior NASA managers clears the way for the last stages of launch preparations.
"We have had three outstanding flights this year and we are looking forward to a fourth," Hale said.
Whether Atlantis actually lifts off on schedule, however, is anything but guaranteed, given the famously unpredictable weather in Florida.
Atlantis has had multiple run-ins with Mother Nature.
More than a year ago, for example, Atlantis was being readied for a mission as a thunderstorm loomed. A lightning bolt struck so near Atlantis that technicians had to examine its circuits to see whether any of them were fried by the bolt. Then a hurricane stormed toward the shuttle, only to veer away.
Then, this year, Atlantis was being readied for a mission last spring, but it was delayed for months when a rogue thunderstorm slashed hail onto the external fuel tank.
That hail put thousands of dings in foam insulation on the tank, forcing NASA technicians to make extensive repairs.
But assuming that Atlantis this time lifts off more or less on schedule for the STS-122 Mission, this will be the fourth shuttle excursion to the ISS this year, a singular feat given the months of delay caused by the hailstorm.
Atlantis in the mission this month will take the European Columbus module, a large laboratory, into orbit to be attached to the steadily-growing space station that is now well more than half built.
The mission, nominally 11 days but perhaps longer, will see spacewalking astronauts plug the Columbus lab into the Node 2 module, called "Harmony," that Space Shuttle Discovery hoisted up to the ISS on the recent STS-120 mission.
The Atlantis STS-122 launch countdown begins at 7 p.m. this evening at T-43 hours. The countdown includes 26 hours and 31 minutes of built-in hold time leading to a preferred launch time of 4:31 p.m. Thursday. The launch window extends an additional five minutes.
Earlier today, the schedule had seven Atlantis crew members arriving at KSC at 12:30 p .m. ET. Commander Steve Frick will be accompanied by Pilot Alan Poindexter and mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love and European Space Agency (ESA) astronauts Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts.
Eyharts will replace current station crew member Dan Tani, who has lived on the outpost since October. Eyharts will return to Earth on the Space Shuttle Endeavour STS-123 mission, currently targeted for launch Feb. 14.
This will open a new chapter in space for the European Space Agency, which in the Columbus lab finally will have an orbiting asset to call its own.
These are some of the key points:
- Columbus is cylindrical, 23 feet long and 15 feet in diameter. It has a mass of more than 22,700 pounds and a volume of 2,648 cubic feet. The laboratory will hold 10 racks of experiments, each approximately the size of a phone booth.
- The lab is designed to host experiments examining how humans react to microgravity and the effect of space on various fluids and objects.
- There are two stands bolted to the outside that can be used for research on materials and for unfiltered views of space.
- The ESA also built the Columbus Control Centre in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, to manage research aboard Columbus.
Other key facts:
- Three NASCAR flags will fly in honor of the 50th anniversaries of NASA and the Daytona 500.
- When the International Space Station is complete, it will have a mass of almost 1 million pounds, be larger than a five-bedroom house and measure 361 feet end-to-end.
- The station has been permanently staffed with human occupants since November 2000.
- The station orbits at an average altitude of 220 miles at an inclination of 51.6 degrees to the equator.
- Nearly 17,000 NASA civil servants and contractors across the country contribute to the space shuttle program.
- Each spacewalk will last about 6.5 hours.
- On Flight Day 4, Walheim and Schlegel’s main task will be to prepare the Columbus module for installation on Harmony. They will install the Power Data Grapple Fixture on Columbus, which will allow the space station robotic arm to grab the module and move it from the shuttle payload bay to the Harmony node module. Spacewalkers also will begin work to remove the Nitrogen Tank Assembly (NTA), a part of the ISS thermal control system, from the P1 truss. The assembly needs to be replaced because the nitrogen is running low.
- On Flight Day 6, Walheim and Schlegel will remove the old NTA and temporarily store it on an equipment cart. They will then install the new one. The old NTA will be transferred to the shuttle payload bay for return home.
- On Flight Day 8, Walheim and Love will install two payloads on the European lab exterior: SOLAR, an observatory to monitor the sun; and the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF) that will carry eight different experiments requiring exposure to the space environment. The spacewalkers also will move a failed control moment gyroscope from its storage location on the station to the shuttle payload bay for return to Earth.
- Managers are considering plans for spacewalkers to further inspect the solar array rotary joint, SARJ, on the right side of the station. The station has two SARJs, which are used to rotate the solar arrays to track the sun for electrical power generation. The goal is to search for and return evidence to help understand and correct the vibration caused by debris in the joint. Understanding the cause of the debris seen in previous spacewalk inspections will provide a path for repair.