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By | March 26, 2007

      NASA Still Undecided On Atlantis Launch Date, Tank Switch

      NASA officials won’t be able to decide for another two weeks whether they can repair and use a hail-damaged external fuel tank on Space Shuttle Atlantis, or whether they will have to swap the badly dinged tank for another.

      And that means NASA at this point can’t say just when the postponed launch of Atlantis will occur.

      The external fuel tank attached to Atlantis was on the launch pad Feb. 26 when a thunderstorm rumbled overhead at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., and hail came slashing down on the spacecraft, putting thousands of dents in the tank and its external foam insulation. Atlantis had to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for inspection and repairs.

      Now, “Managers decided that more testing and analysis are needed to determine whether the tank will be used for the upcoming STS-117 flight or whether the tank will be replaced,” according to NASA.

      Michael Griffin, NASA administrator, said earlier that if another tank is to be swapped for the damaged tank, the new one won’t arrive until May. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, March 19, 2007, page 6.) That might throw the launch into June.

      It will take weeks for NASA to examine the tank now on Atlantis and make key decisions.

      “On April 10, the teams expect to have the necessary data to make that decision and to establish a potential target launch date,” NASA stated.

      Meanwhile, work is proceeding well in assessing and repairing the tank damage.

      “All the hail damage spots on the tank have been mapped out,” according to NASA. “Repair work has been completed on the bottom portion of the tank, the liquid hydrogen section. The damage on the middle part of the tank, or innertank, was superficial and will require little or no repair. There are 2,500 dings, mostly in the top of the tank, that will be reviewed to determine what type of repair technique may be required.”

      When Atlantis eventually soars to space, it will continue the monumental job of constructing the International Space Station, a large building in the vacuum of space, while the structure is moving at 17,500 miles an hour.

      During STS-117, an 11-day mission, the six-member crew will install a new truss segment, retract a set of solar arrays and unfold a new set on the starboard side of the station. Lessons learned from two previous missions will provide the astronauts with new techniques and tools to perform their duties.

      Atlantis Commander Rick Sturckow, Pilot Lee Archambault and Mission Specialists Jim Reilly, Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson and John “Danny” Olivas will continue training at Johnson Space Center in Houston as they await that new target launch date.

      SpaceX Private Rocket Fails In Second Stage

      The vision of private rockets providing transportation to low-Earth orbit achieved a partial success, and a setback as well, last week when a private Falcon 1 rocket lifted off only to fail during its second-stage burn.

      That SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) vehicle launched after repeated postponements and delays, including two delays of roughly an hour each on launch day, as the company said it wished to have every system working well.

      The launch at 9:10 p.m. ET Tuesday from the Kwajalein Army Range (Reagan Test Site) seemed to go well initially, with the first stage working as expected.

      But in the second stage, some excitation occurred, and the asset was lost in space at an altitude of about 200 miles.

      The ascent looked good for some time, including separation of the first stage. But after about four minutes into the flight, a propulsion nozzle gyrating motion is visible. Then, abruptly, just after the clock passes the five-minute mark, telemetry of the video signal halts.

      To view the launch, ascent and problem, please go to on the Web and click on Video Gallery, then click on Falcon 1 DemoFlight 2 Launch- High Quality to start the video roll.

      ‘Pretty Good … Great’

      SpaceX saw the launch as a success, as far as it went, and a major learning experience.

      The company reported it expects to learn a great deal from the flight, and the firm doesn’t expect the loss will cause any delays in scheduled launches later this year.

      “The launch was not perfect, but certainly pretty good,” according to Elon Musk, SpaceX founder. “Given that the primary objectives were demonstrating responsive launch and gathering test data in advance of our first operational satellite launch later this year, the outcome was great.”

      For example, the launch unfolded with system after system working, up to the point the rocket was lost, the company noted.

      And to be sure, this launch and flight went far better than a Falcon 1 test last year that failed shortly after liftoff.

      “Operationally responsive (i.e. fast) launch has become an increasingly important national security objective, so demonstrating rapid loading of propellants and launch in less than an hour, as well as a rapid recycle following the first engine ignition are major accomplishments,” according to Musk. What went right included:

      • First stage ascent past max dynamic pressure
      • Avionics operation in vacuum and under radiation
      • Stage separation
      • Second stage ignition
      • Fairing separation
      • Second stage nozzle/chamber at steady state temperature in a vacuum of space

      The company noted that Falcon flew far beyond the “edge” of space, typically thought of as around 60 miles.

      At the point that the rocket was lost, “Our altitude was approximately 200 miles, which is just 50 miles below the International Space Station,” or ISS, according to Musk.

      NASA faces a gap from 2010, when it has decided to retire the space shuttle fleet, and 2014 or 2015, when the next-generation Orion-Ares replacement space vehicle first launches.

      Therefore, NASA will need to turn to others to meet its transportation needs such as hauling crew members and cargo to the ISS, and that would include not only the Russians with their Soyuz and Progress spaceships, but also, hopefully, private firms as well.

      Just what caused the Falcon 1 failure in the DemoFlight 2 launch isn’t yet known, SpaceX stated.

      “The second stage didn’t achieve full orbital velocity, due to a roll excitation late in the burn, but that should be a comparatively easy fix once we examine the flight data,” according to Musk.

      “Since it is impossible to ground test the second stage under the same conditions it would see in spaceflight, this anomaly was also something that would have been very hard to determine without a test launch.”

      This launch went much farther without failure than a prior SpaceX attempt that failed shortly after liftoff.

      Musk argued that the launch last week proved more than 95 percent of Falcon1 systems, which “bodes really well for our upcoming flights of Falcon 1 and Falcon 9, which uses similar hardware.”

      In saying SpaceX doesn’t expect “any significant delay” in planned future launches “at this point,” Musk said the Department of Defense satellite launch currently is scheduled for late summer and the Malaysian satellite for the fall.

      As for DemoFlight 2 of the Falcon 1 rocket, “This is a big leap forward for commercial spaceflight!” Musk asserted.

      Sea Launch To Use Land Launch To Lift A Satellite

      Sea Launch Co. will work with SES to use the Land Launch vehicle to orbit a yet-unnamed satellite of the SES group.

      The liftoff initially was slated to place in space the AMC-21 communications satellite.

      At this point, liftoff of the unnamed sat is planned in the mid-2009 timeframe.

      “We are pleased to offer this contract flexibility to SES so that we can support their future fleet development requirements,” said Rob Peckham, president and general manager of Sea Launch.

      “We look forward to working with SES on this mission and genuinely appreciate their confidence in us and in our system. Our team is demonstrating continuous progress toward the introduction of the new Land Launch service.”

      Sea Launch saw a failure occur when it attempted to launch an NSS-8 satellite in January and an explosion damaged the sea-going Odyssey launch platform.

      Land Launch will use a Zenit-3SLB vehicle to launch the unnamed medium weight satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit from Baikonur Space Center in Kazakhstan. Both the satellite and the launch vehicle will be integrated and launched from the Zenit processing and launch facilities at Baikonur.

      Based on collaboration of Sea Launch and Space International Services (SIS) of Moscow, Land Launch is designed to meet the launch needs of an emerging market for dedicated commercial launches in the medium spacecraft mass range.

      Sea Launch and SIS provide commercial customers with mission management. SIS also is responsible for hardware production and launch operations.

      EchoStar To Launch Satellite On Proton Breeze M

      EchoStar Communications Corp. [DISH] will launch a satellite in 2008 on a Proton Breeze M vehicle, International Launch Services (ILS) announced.

      So far, ILS-provided launches are batting 1000 for EchoStar, according to ILS.

      The Proton vehicle, built by ILS partner Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Center of Russia, has carried out more than 320 missions for the Russian government and commercial customers for more than 40 years. The Proton launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

      NASA Names STS-124 Crew Members For Japanese Lab Installation

      NASA assigned the crew for Space Shuttle Atlantis mission STS-124, targeted for launch in February.

      The flight will deliver the pressurized module and robotic arm of the Japanese Experiment Module, known as “Kibo” (hope), to the International Space Station.

      Navy Cmdr. Mark E. Kelly will command the space shuttle Atlantis during the mission. Navy Cmdr. Kenneth T. Ham will serve as the pilot. Mission specialists will include NASA astronauts Karen L. Nyberg; Air Force Col. Ronald J. Garan, Jr.; Air Force Reserve Col. Michael E. Fossum; and Navy Cmdr. Stephen G. Bowen. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide also will serve as a mission specialist.

      The STS-124 mission is the second of three flights that will launch components to complete the Kibo laboratory. The mission will include two spacewalks to install the new lab and its remote manipulator system. The lab’s logistics module, which will have been installed in a temporary location during STS-123, will be attached to the new lab.

      The mission will be the third spaceflight for Kelly, the second spaceflight for Fossum and the first spaceflight for Ham, Garan, Nyberg, Bowen and Hoshide.

      Kelly flew as the pilot of STS-108 in 2001 and STS-121 in 2006. He considers West Orange, N.J., to be his hometown. Kelly has a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, King’s Point, N.Y., and a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif. He was selected as an astronaut in 1996.

      Ham was born in Plainfield, N.J. He has a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md., and a master’s degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. He was selected as an astronaut in 1998.

      Fossum performed three spacewalks during STS-121 in 2006. He grew up in McAllen, Texas, and has a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University, College Station, and master’s degrees from the Air Force Institute of Technology, Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and the University of Houston, Clear Lake. He was selected as an astronaut in 1998.

      Garan was born in Yonkers, N.Y. He has a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York College at Oneonta and master’s degrees from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla., and the University of Florida, Gainesville. Garan was selected as an astronaut in 2000.

      Nyberg also was selected as an astronaut in 2000. She considers her hometown to be Vining, Minn. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, and a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin.

      Bowen was born in Cohasset, Mass. He has a bachelor’s from the Naval Academy and master’s from MIT.

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