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Space Shuttle Atlantis Scores Brilliant, Trouble-Free Launch Into Orbit

By | February 11, 2008

      Several Small Foam Insulation Pieces Break Loose From Tank; Small Tear Seen In Heat Shield Blanket; No Major Damage Seen

      Shuttle Mission Extended By One Day To Tuesday, Feb. 19; U.S. Astronaut Love Replaces ESA’s Schlagel On Walk

      Space Shuttle Atlantis, after a jinxed two-month delay, streaks for the heavens in a fiery flight to space. Photo: NASA

      Space Shuttle Atlantis rallied from multiple setbacks and months of resultant delays to streak into the heavens in a sparkling storybook launch, carrying with it a crew of seven astronauts and the hopes of the European Space Agency for a new and leading role in space.

      When Atlantis finally soared from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), it carried the Columbus European laboratory into orbit, where it will become a significant addition to the International Space Station.

      Giving Europe a permanent pied a terre, or rather a une place dans l’espace, a foothold in space, the room-sized (23 feet long by 15 feet wide) addition to the space station costs a bit more than a room added to your home: $1.5 billion to $2 billion, give or take.

      The countdown to Atlantis lifting off was smooth as a custom-machined engine part, with a brief hold, leading to a liftoff that just a day earlier had seemed doubtful. That’s because notoriously fickle Florida weather prompted an early assessment of a mere 30 percent chance Atlantis would fly on schedule Thursday, which improved but slightly as T minus zero approached. But at the last hour, the sun shone, and the shuttle shot for the sky.

      It was a triumphal finish to a long odyssey for Atlantis, which had been scheduled to launch Dec. 6. That almost happened, until fuel gauges called engine cutoff (ECO) sensors malfunctioned when the external fuel tank was being filled.

      It took weeks before NASA sleuths were able to determine that the fault lay not in the sensors, but in the wiring leading from them, at a point where the circuits pass through the side of the fuel tank to the outside and on to the orbiter vehicle.

      NASA leaders thought they found a solution for the glitch, soldering electrical connectors, and they were right. A 100 percent four-out-of-four fuel sensors worked on liftoff day.

      And a problem with a bent radiator hose was solved by inventing a special tool to help fold it gently into place in a box when the Atlantis payload bay doors closed.

      All in all, it was a story of adversity overcome.

      Not only was the Atlantis liftoff delayed, its return to Earth already has been delayed as well, by one day, to Feb. 19. That’s because a spacewalk to install the Columbus module was delayed, because of the brief illness of a European Space Agency astronaut, Hans Schlagel. His place will be taken on the spacewalk by U.S. astronaut Stanley Love.

      Schlegel and Pilot Alan Poindexter will coordinate the spacewalk activities from inside the orbiting complex.

      European Dream Fulfilled

      The deep significance of the Columbus laboratory aloft at last was reflected in the presence at KSC of Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA).

      It means that the European Space Agency routinely will have astronauts going to the space station, and the Astrium-built Columbus lab will have its own mission control center in Germany.

      With Columbus in place, attached to the Harmony Node 2 antechamber (connecting area) installed on the ISS earlier, the European laboratory will be home to many scientific experiments.

      The Atlantis STS-122 Mission was given great gravity by the fact that it involved making the International Space Station truly international, said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, sitting beside Dordain at a post-launch news media briefing.

      "This is one of the more significant shuttle launches we’ll ever have," Griffin said.

      He and Dordain both thanked NASA crews for a brilliant performance in detecting and solving the major problems on Atlantis, and for a superlative launch performance. "I really trust NASA" to get the job done, Dordain said. "That trust is based on 40 years of cooperation."

      While he said it hasn’t always been easy to have cooperation between the American and European space agencies, it nonetheless "is always successful."

      The European dream of placing a permanent laboratory in space has been not years but two decades in the making, Dordain said, a saga marked by "a lot of change … a lot of difficulty," but ultimately ending in success that is "opening a new chapter" for European space efforts. Europe "invested a lot to develop Columbus," Dordain said.

      Yet another new dimension to European space efforts is the impending launch next month of the European Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, Dordain noted, terming it "an important piece of hardware."

      The unmanned drone cargo resupply ship that can carry 7.5 tons of items aloft is to launch sometime around March 8 or 9.

      Until now, Russia has been handling unmanned cargo deliveries to the space station with its Progress ships. (Please see separate Progress mission story in this issue.)

      On March 11, the ISS will move toward becoming even more international when Space Shuttle Endeavour launches on the STS-123 Mission to add a first element of the Japanese laboratory Kibo to the space station.

      The Columbus laboratory is being installed on the space station in that spacewalk by Love and another U.S. astronaut, Rex Walheim.

      The Atlantis space shuttle crew numbers seven personnel: Commander Steve Frick, Pilot Poindexter and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Walheim and Love, and European Space Agency astronauts Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts.

      Eyharts will replace astronaut Dan Tani, who has remained on the space station for months awaiting the arrival of Atlantis. While he has been aloft, his mother died, and he was unable to attend her funeral.

      Relatively Clean Launch

      During ascent, the Atlantis uphill climb was fairly clean, with no major chunks of foam insulation ripping off the external fuel tank and hitting the orbiter vehicle.

      There were just "three foam events" during the ascent, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations.

      One was about a minute and 50 seconds after launch, but another was at T plus seven minutes, likely too late in the ascent to threaten the orbiter vehicle, he said.

      All told, there was "a fairly small foam loss" compared to prior shuttle launches, Gerstenamier said.

      There also was some ice coming off the tank, which will be examined in the post-launch examination of imagery of the ascent, according to LeRoy Cain, launch integration manager.

      This has occurred in prior missions, and "there isn’t anything in the imagery [from this liftoff] that we can’t explain," Cain said.

      No damage was seen to the orbiter vehicle windscreens on the orbiter bridge, according to NASA.

      There also was a small tear in the thermal blanket on the right Orbital Maneuvering System pod of the orbiter vehicle.

      However, no major damage has been spotted.

      NASA is highly sensitive to problems with foam insulation and ice loss. In 2003, a large chunk of foam insulation ripped free from the external fuel tank and punched a hole in the leading edge of a wing on Space Shuttle Columbia during the ascent to the space station. Later, when a return to Earth was attempted, fiery hot gases of reentry rushed into the wing and caused structural failure, so that the ship and crew were lost.

      Following precautions established since then, the Atlantis crew, after attaining orbit, performed the now-routine meticulous inspection of the orbiter vehicle wing leading edges, nose cap and other areas for any signs of damage, using a robotic arm with a sensor and other items, including visual and camera/video surveillance of the orbiter from windows on the space station.

      Shuttles Can Finish Space Station

      The recent problems that Atlantis faced with faulty ECO sensor data feeds and the crimped radiator hose cost NASA a two-month delay in getting off the ground.

      Last year, Atlantis was on the launch pad only to have a hailstorm put myriad dings in the external fuel tank foam insulation, damage that had to be repaired. Again, months were lost.

      Earlier, Atlantis, while indoors under cover, was almost hit by lightning, and technicians had to check to see whether the lightning bolt fried any circuits. And a hurricane rumbled toward Cape Canaveral, only to turn away before hitting Atlantis.

      Much longer delays, amounting to years, followed the loss of Columbia, and the 1986 loss of Space Shuttle Challenger because of failing O-rings on solid rocket boosters that exploded.

      Some critics have said all these delays imperil chances that NASA will finish construction of the space station before the space shuttles face mandatory retirement in October 2010. Only the shuttles have the power and payload capacity to haul huge structural components into orbit for addition to the ISS.

      But Griffin rejected those fears as unfounded.

      "The average [shuttle fleet performance] is four-and-a-half flights a year, including down time" for the Atlantis glitches and the Columbia and Challenger disasters, Griffin said. And NASA has in some years achieved more shuttle missions than that.

      The space station will be completed if NASA personnel "just keep our heads down" and work hard on each mission, he said.

      There is sufficient flex in the dozen or more remaining shuttle flights to complete the ISS, Gerstenmaier said. "We’ve got margin in the plan," he explained, and NASA will now see how remaining shuttle missions go this year. Some five or six liftoffs, including the Atlantis launch last week, are seen in 2008.

      "We feel very good about where we are in the manifest," Cain said, terming NASA "right on track to complete these [scheduled] shuttle missions."

      While Atlantis is set now to retire after a mission to rescue/repair the Hubble Space Telescope in August or September, after which Atlantis would be cannibalized for parts for the remaining Discovery and Endeavour shuttles, NASA officials may decide in a few weeks whether to keep Atlantis flying for perhaps two more missions as an insurance policy, in case there are problems with the other two shuttles.

      Some lawmakers in Congress also are pushing a plan to extend space shuttle operations beyond the mandated 2010 cutoff, providing funds for added missions. As well, they favor providing added funds to accelerate the first mission of the next-generation Orion-Ares U.S. spaceship from the currently expected 2015 to 2013.

      Their concern is that a half-decade gap when the United States won’t have a working spaceship, and thus won’t be able to take even one of its astronauts to low Earth orbit, will mean young people will lose interest in space and won’t wish to join the space program, just as enormous numbers of NASA and contractor personnel are reaching retirement age.

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