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Atlantis Launch On June 8, Or In Window, Likely: Griffin

By | May 21, 2007

      Atlantis is likely to launch on schedule at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) June 8, or within the window of June 8 to some point in July, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin indicated.

      Asked by Space & Missile Defense Report how chances are looking for a June 8 launch, Griffin said, “Pretty good.”

      He noted that Atlantis rolled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and was hard down on Launch Pad 39A, and “we should be in good shape for the 8th.

      “I mean, stuff can happen,” Griffin noted, apparently recalling the last time Atlantis rolled out (for a planned March 15 launch) and its external fuel tank was damaged extensively by a violent hail storm.

      But Griffin expects the launch to occur in this window, “unless something bad happens” such as another hail storm.

      Atlantis is headed for the International Space Station (ISS) on an 11-day mission that could possibly be extended to 13 days. With each mission, NASA always wishes to see the greatest amount of work completed on the ISS assembly job.

      The Atlantis payload, consisting of the S3/S4 truss, is being installed into the shuttle payload bay.

      Beginning Wednesday, propellants will be loaded into Atlantis storage tanks. The propellant will be used by the orbital maneuvering system and reaction control system to move the spacecraft while it is in orbit.

      On the Atlantis mission, the six-member crew will install the 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.

      In the most recent shuttle missions, space-walking astronauts have had to contend with attempting to coax long-deployed solar arrays to retract, at times having to use brute force to shake them into a stowed position. NASA crews haven’t yet perfected the art of getting arrays to retract.

      Commanding the 117 crew is Frederick Sturckow, a veteran of two shuttle missions (STS-88, STS-105), while Lee Archambault will be making his first flight as shuttle pilot. Mission Specialists James Reilly (STS-89, STS-104) and Patrick Forrester (STS-105) will be returning to the station. Steven Swanson and John Olivas, both mission specialists, join the crew for their first flight into space, NASA stated.

      Atlantis has experienced difficulties before in the face of bad weather.

      For example, in a previous Atlantis launch attempt, first there was a nearby lightning strike that forced engineers to check the space shuttle electric circuits to see whether they had been fried. Then when Atlantis rolled out, a hurricane headed toward Cape Canaveral, only to veer away before hitting KSC. Finally, Atlantis lifted off at the last possible day in the window, Sept. 9.

      This time, a pre-flight readiness review on May 30 and 31 will decide whether Atlantis is good to go on June 8. The flight readiness review meeting, where the official launch date is scheduled, will be held at Kennedy. For a launch on June 8 at 7:37 p.m., the 43-hour countdown would begin on June 5. And things look optimistic at this point.

      So far, so good. Griffin said a management review last week focused on external tank repairs, where thousands of dings in foam insulation covering the tank caused by the hailstorm have been repaired well.

      “Tank repairs look solid,” he said. And experts have “done a great analysis of what happens if it’s not solid.”

      Foam insulation became a point of concern after Space Shuttle Columbia launched on a mission in 2003. During ascent, a chunk of insulation broke off from the tank and hit the orbiter vehicle on a leading wing edge, punching a hole in the wing that went undetected. Later, when Columbia returned to Earth, fiery hot gases of reentry rushed into the wing, heating it to the point of structural failure. The ship and crew were lost.

      The STS-117 terminal countdown demonstration test, which is a launch dress rehearsal, was held in February and will not need to be repeated.

      Separately, Griffin said NASA is on track to award a major contract for the Ares rocket component that will lift the next-generation Orion spacecraft, which will go to low Earth orbit, then to the moon, and eventually to Mars. NASA last year awarded the Orion contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT].

      “We’re on target” for the Ares downselect award, Griffin said.

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