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Space Shuttle Atlantis Lands; Little Damage Seen On Clean Orbiter

By | February 21, 2008

      Ambitious Shuttle Missions Schedule Now Set For 2008

      Space Shuttle Atlantis glided down to a perfect landing at Kennedy Space Center, where little damage was spotted on the orbiter vehicle after a 5-million-plus miles STS-122 Mission that saw the spaceship crew install a European laboratory on the International Space Station.

      The shuttle touched down on the runway just hours before the Navy blasted a failed satellite to smithereens, creating temporary debris in space. Officials wanted to have Atlantis descend into the atmosphere and land safely on the ground before that debris was created. (Please see full story in this issue.)

      "It was an unbelievably super mission for us," Bill Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, told reporters after the smooth landing.

      This sets NASA on course for an ambitious five more shuttle launches this year, including a liftoff of Space Shuttle Endeavour in less than three weeks. It is already poised on Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy, ready to blast off March 11 for the STS-123 Mission to the space station, where astronauts will install the first part of the Japanese Kibo laboratory.

      NASA can meet this busy schedule of launchings, he said.

      "I don’t consider this a hectic pace," he said. "The work’s in front of us," and "we’ve got good plans in place" to ensure the launches occur.

      "I’m looking forward to the pace this year," with five more shuttle liftoffs, said Mike Leinbach, the shuttle launch director.

      The glitches that late last year had kept Atlantis stuck to Launch Pad 39A for months finally were banished, albeit with lengthy difficulty, and NASA had learned much that will avert similar problems from besetting future shuttle missions.

      For example, Atlantis was almost ready for liftoff Dec. 6 when fuel gauge sensor readings went awry during tanking operations, as the giant external fuel tank was being filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. On the hydrogen side, the sensor data clearly was wrong.

      It took weeks of sleuthing to discover that the problem actually lay in wiring carrying data from the fuel gauge engine cutoff sensors through the side of the tank and out to the orbiter vehicle. The gauges warn of low fuel, a critical function because if the fuel tank runs dry and engines continue running, there could be a horrific explosion.

      As well, a radiator hose in the shuttle cooling system was kinked, so that a special tool had to be devised to help the hose fold into a box as the shuttle payload bay doors closed. Gerstenmaier said during the mission, the hose folded into the box, as intended.

      Solving those problems will mean they don’t crop up on later shuttle missions.

      And the shuttle orbiter vehicle came back in good shape. Except for a thermal heat shield blanket protruding slightly from a less-critical area, which could hardly be seen when officials on the landing strip walked underneath the spaceship, there was no damage, or at least none that was immediately visible, Gerstenmaier said. As he spoke, he said, there was nothing that would "cause us concern."

      Returned Items

      The Atlantis mission was important for what it took up to the space station, including the European Columbus laboratory, but the mission also is important for what Atlantis brought back: returned items will permit NASA experts to determine what problems are occurring in a joint on the space station that permits huge solar power electrical generating panels to keep turned toward the sun, including examination of filings or dirt that may shed light on the problem.

      A key point here is that shuttles alone have the huge size to bring some hefty items back from the space station to Earth, he noted.

      And that is a consideration as the space shuttles face mandatory retirement in October 2010, little more than two years hence.

      More broadly, however, Gerstenmaier said that the rapidly-growing space station shows that humans "are now learning how to work in space," with crew members plugging away on experiments in laboratories there, while others work on daily routine chores.

      "This is a great, great time to be here," Gerstenmaier said.

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