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August 31, 2006


NASA has just announced that the Space Shuttle Atlantis will attempt to lift-off from Kennedy on Wednesday, September 6 at 12:29 p.m. EDT.

Shuttle managers decided on the launch date after assessing conditions at Kennedy following Tropical Depression Ernesto. The center's facilities and Atlantis, which sits on Launch Pad 39-B, sustained no damage during the storm.

If weather or other issues prevent Atlantis' launch on Sept. 6,opportunities are available on Sept. 7 and 8. All dates allow for completion of the mission's objectives and allow for shuttle undocking from the station by Sept. 17. This is necessary so the Russian Soyuz taking the next space station crew up to the orbiting laboratory can launch Sept. 18.

Posted by bsilcox at 04:24 PM

August 28, 2006

Rollback ordered

With Tropical Storm Ernesto barreling toward Florida, mission managers have ordered the Space Shuttle be prepared for rollback to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The rollback can be cancelled at any time if the storm track improves. But the move to initiate rollback will dash any chance of getting off a Tuesday launch attempt.

This crew has been waiting for this flight for a long time -- one of the rookies on the mission is said to have gone through the longest training flow of any astronaut. Looks like they're going to have to wait a bit longer.

The challenge now is that the normal launch window closes in the middle of next week. But the shuttle could launch later and still be in good sun conditions. The problem is that the timing of the shuttle flight impacts the return of the next Soyuz capsule. If the shuttle goes up later than September 7, then the Soyuz would have to return in night conditions, something that the Russians want to avoid, as they've just switched over to a new (and private) vehicle retrieval service.

So: expect some heated discussions between Moscow, Washington and Houston over the next week.

Posted by george_whitesides at 11:35 AM

August 27, 2006

Launch Slipped Until Tuesday; Debate on Rollback

As mission managers confirmed that the shuttle launch had been slipped to no earlier than Tuesday, debate continued on whether to rollback the launch stack to safeguard against oncoming Tropical Storm Ernesto.

As of this writing, Ernesto had just been downgraded from hurricane to tropical storm, but that could change as the storm moves to Cuba.

Regardless of the title, the challenge for shuttle mission managers is that their rules prohibit moving the shuttle stack if winds continually exceed 40 knots -- which even a tropical storm could easily exceed.

Rollback to the Vehicle Assembly Building, the massive structure which contains the shuttles during their stack assembly, takes about 42 hours. With Ernesto peeling toward central Florida, that gives NASA a narrow window to make their decision -- and perhaps not enough time to try a launch on Tuesday before the storm arrives on Thursday.

No one said space is easy -- but trying to get off a shuttle launch in the middle of hurricane season is a particular challenge.

Posted by george_whitesides at 06:55 PM

Lightning strike delays launch

The launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis has been slipped at least a day, from Sunday to Monday afternoon. NASA engineers are taking an extra day to do a full check of the launch vehicle in the wake of a lightning strike on Friday. The lightning hit Pad 39B's 'lightning protection system' -- basically, a really big, strong lightning rod on the top of the launch tower.

Jim Oberg is reporting that the strike was one of the most powerful in NASA's history (lightning has struck launch towers before.) But engineers are nervous, because the shuttle electrical systems showed a slight bump, when they should have registered nothing. So they are taking a close look at separation systems between the solid rocket boosters and the external tank, as well as other electrical systems.

NASA has plenty of time with this launch window, with daily launch opportunities through September 7.

Posted by george_whitesides at 01:57 AM

August 25, 2006

The Power Team

As I read the article “Crew puffing up for building tasks” by Mark Carreau in the Houston Chronicle yesterday, I reflected on what it takes to be an astronaut. What comes to mind first? Courage? Experience? Four of the STS-115 crew joined the Navy, and Dan Burbank joined the Coast Guard. Academic achievement? Four members of the STS-115 crew have masters’ degrees in engineering, and Steve MacLean has a Ph.D. in physics.

These are certainly important criteria, but poor health will ground even the bravest most accomplished genius, and also those who hope and save to buy trips into space in the future, as Japanese businessman Enomoto discovered when he failed the medical exam required to fly the Soyuz to the space station.

So children who aspire to become astronauts, and aging space enthusiasts who still hope to win the lottery, take note: the most important thing you can do to get ready for your future in space is to work out!

“We’re required to go to the gym,” Joe Tanner told reporters. “And by the way, we like it.” Dan Burbank said he spends a lot of time lifting weights and running. These guys would make good calendar models, but I think many women and young girls will find no better role model for physical fitness than spacewalker Heide Piper. Anyone who can flex the fingers of a spacesuit glove over and over for 7 straight hours would not even need to run a jar of pickles under water before opening it—with one hand.

This strength will be needed as the spacewalkers install and connect the bus-sized solar arrays to the space station truss. Stamina will be vital to all the crewmembers because problems inside or out of the shuttle or station can arise at any time during their long busy days. I hope they won’t mind if I therefore call them the “Power Team.” It seems appropriate because of their fitness and also their mission to add electrical power to the station.

The crewmembers are now in quarantine awaiting launch. Even if they indulge in a little bit of TV watching or blog reading, I bet they make time for jumping jacks, lifting weights, and pushups. Staying in shape is a way of life for astronauts. And what are you doing to prepare for YOUR trip? In between reading that space physics text and sharpening your math skills solving orbital dynamics problems and the occasional Sudoku, be sure to schedule time for that work out. As Pilot Chris Ferguson said about exercise, “It keeps you in a good mental state and improves your overall performance.” So if you want to go, then get up and go!

Marianne Dyson, hurrying off to martial arts class

Posted by m_dyson at 06:28 PM

August 22, 2006

Ready (and then some) for STS-115

At the press conference on August 11, the six members of the STS-115 crew filed in and sat down in front of a room full of reporters at Johnson Space Center. As they adjusted their microphones and chairs, I could not help but notice something different about this crew: they were relaxed!

I’ve attended dozens of these press briefings over the years, and while astronauts are not generally as nervous as their managers when the TV cameras start rolling, astronauts, especially rookies, always appear as if they are afraid to breathe and expect to have their knuckles rapped if they don’t sit perfectly straight. Not this crew. They were more like friends who can’t wait to share the good news that they all got straight A’s on their report cards.

The reason for this confident and happy attitude became apparent as Commander Brent Jett reviewed their training history. This crew had completed their training and would have flown the next shuttle flight if Columbia and her crew had not been tragically lost in 2003. While the shuttle fleet was grounded and preparations were made for the two return-to-flight missions, the crew of STS-115 continued to train for their mission to deliver the second set of giant solar arrays to the space station. And trained some more. If they gave out college degrees in shuttle training, this crew would have graduated with honors by now. They may be the best-prepared crew since the first shuttle flight. “I get the record for the rookie with the longest training flow,” Mission Specialist Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper said with a smile.

This crew also has plenty of practical experience in space. Commander Jett is on his fourth mission. He and lead spacewalker Joe Tanner flew together on STS-97 that serviced the Hubble Space Telescope. This is Tanner’s third flight. The reporters laughed when he said, “I’m a bit of a slow learner, so it helps me to have done this before.” Tanner and rookie Piper are paired for two challenging spacewalks. Commander Jett will be “camping out” in the airlock with the spacewalkers overnight, providing rookie Pilot Chris Ferguson with an opportunity to command the shuttle. He is also operating the robotic arm. The other spacewalk team, Daniel Burbank and Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean are both on their second flights. As MacLean said, “I really feel I’ve been part of a dream team, and will be going on a dream adventure.”

The STS-115 crew’s enthusiasm for their “adventure” was evident at the press conference. They are ready, and then some, for it to begin.

Please join your friends here in the National Space Society as we follow the progress of the STS-115 crew during one of the most-challenging space missions in history. The five-minute launch window opens on Sunday, August 27 at 3:24 p.m. Central time (4:24 p.m. Eastern). There are launch opportunities every day up through September 14. It won’t be long now before the crew will finally hear the long-awaited words, “You are GO, Atlantis!”

Marianne Dyson

Posted by m_dyson at 05:05 PM


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