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Space Shuttle Atlantis, Blocked By Bad Florida Weather, Lands At Edwards

By | June 25, 2007

      Orbiter Vehicle Appears Sound After Landing

      Space Shuttle Atlantis, blocked repeatedly by two days of bad Florida weather from landing at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), streaked through reentry and landed instead at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

      The touchdown capped a challenging but successful STS-117 mission that was supposed to last 11 days but turned into 14 days because of problems with a heat-shielding blanket on the shuttle that had to be fixed in an extra (fourth) spacewalk, and the weather woes.

      Florida weather problems turned the Atlantis mission into a months-long saga of overcoming adversity, with bad weather at KSC marring the beginning and ending of the Atlantis epic.

      The space shuttle originally was to launch in March, and Atlantis made it as far as a launch pad at KSC, but a raging thunderstorm machine-gunned hail onto the Atlantis external fuel tank, putting thousands of dings in foam insulation covering the external fuel tank.

      That necessitated Atlantis returning to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs to patch and plug the holes, so that the tank looked as though it had a bad case of zits.

      Some questioned whether the repairs might fail, and foam insulation might break free from the tank and damage the orbiter vehicle.

      That’s what occurred when Space Shuttle Columbia launched in 2003, when a chunk of foam insulation smashed an undetected hole in an orbiter vehicle leading wing edge. Later, returning 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.

      But NASA leaders expressed confidence that the repairs would hold, noting that foam insulation repairs haven’t broken loose on prior shuttle missions. And they were proven right.

      In-orbit inspections of Atlantis at the International Space Station (ISS) showed no major damage, with heat shields intact.

      But there was a small piece of thermal blanket, to protect the orbiter vehicle from the fierce heat of reentry, that had pulled out of position. That forced NASA to add an extra spacewalk to the scheduled three extravehicular activities, so the blanket could be pushed into place and held there with surgical pins. On return, the blanket had moved a bit, but still was closer to being in position than before the repair. Some pins still were in place, according to William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations.

      “The blanket did exactly what we wanted,” he said at a post-landing media briefing.

      He said the Atlantis mission, despite challenges, is notable for what went right.

      One challenge came when spacewalking crew members on Atlantis attached a huge new S3/S4 solar array truss segment to the space station and unfurled the new solar array electrical generating unit, and plugged it in to help power the space station as it expands.

      It isn’t known whether there might have been arcing, but there was a sudden outage of ISS computers that control oxygen supply, air cleansing operations, and space station attitude.

      Atlantis helped to keep the space station on course, while Russian and U.S. experts, and astronauts and cosmonauts, battled to get the computers working again. One move that helped was to use jumper cables to deliver power from the new solar array, bypassing a possibly faulty switch.

      It may be months before the root cause of the computer outage is known, Gerstenmaier said, adding, “You’re going to see a very long trouble-shooting” effort.

      What is learned here will aid astronauts in working on the ISS electrical power system in future, he said. Perhaps, he said, it might include some delays in letting power from a new source go to the space station power system, to prevent any initial surge from causing problems.

      There were seven in the Atlantis crew: Commander Rick Sturckow, Pilot Lee Archambault and mission specialists Jim Reilly, Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson, John “Danny” Olivas and Sunita Williams.

      While the men had launched with Atlantis on June 8, along with Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson, Williams had traveled to the space station in December on Space Shuttle Discovery. She was replaced as a member of the space station crew last week by Anderson.

      Before returning to Earth, Williams set a new record for the longest single space flight by a woman astronaut, 195 days in orbit.

      Now NASA already is looking forward to new events.

      For example, Space Shuttle Endeavour is set for launch in August to install the S5 truss on the space station, an STS-118 mission that will further prepare the space station for ongoing expansion. The Endeavour crew will include teacher and astronaut Barbara Morgan, who trained in the 1980s with Christa McAuliffe in the Teacher in Space program. McAuliffe subsequently died in the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. Now, Morgan finally is poised to realize her goal of heading into space.

      Atlantis won’t fly again until December, and NASA will have ample time to prepare it for that mission, according to briefers.

      Also, NASA is now planning to use the U.S. segment of the space station as a national laboratory. NASA sent Congress a report that outlined possible partnerships with other government agencies and private companies to conduct research aboard the station.

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