Europe's new cargo freighter safely docks to space station
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: April 3, 2008;
Updated after post-docking news briefing
Europe's Jules Verne spaceship glided into port at the international space station Thursday, delivering more than 10,000 pounds of supplies to the complex and completing nearly a month of testing to prove the craft's revolutionary navigation system worked.
"No commands," a Russian flight controller radioed flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko moments before the docking. Malenchenko was manning a control panel inside Zvezda, ready to manually send an abort command if a problem appeared.
Such commands were off limits once the ATV moved within three feet of the complex because a late abort could cause more harm than good.
"The parameters are nominal, waiting for contact."
"We have contact," Malenchenko said.
Officials at the ATV control center in Toulouse, France, erupted in applause when the docking was announced.
"The ATV is so much more than a simple delivery truck," said Daniel Sacotte, the European Space Agency's director for human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration. "It is an intelligent and versatile spaceship which has just demonstrated its extraordinary skills."
Heralded as the most advanced spacecraft ever built in Europe, the ATV joins ESA's Columbus laboratory module at the station, which launched aboard the shuttle Atlantis in February.
"It is the largest and most complex spacecraft ever developed in Europe, and the second in size of all the vehicles visiting the station after NASA's space shuttle. With Columbus and the ATV, we have entered the major league of the ISS," Sacotte said.
NASA administrator Mike Griffin congratulated the Europeans on the ATV docking Thursday morning.
"I am incredibly proud of and pleased for our European partners with this demonstration of a successful automated docking of the ATV cargo vehicle with the ISS," Griffin said. "This accomplishment showcases yet again the process which has been made by the international partnership in bringing this incredible program to fruition."
In a statement minutes after the docking, ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain announced the space agency will begin recruiting a new class of European astronauts in the next weeks.
Before Thursday's docking, Jules Verne automatically flew through various waypoints using data from a relative GPS navigation system and four laser devices.
The ship switched from GPS to optical data at about 1333 GMT (9:33 a.m. EDT) as Jules Verne flew in formation about 817 feet behind the station.
The advanced instruments were heavily tested through two demonstration days Saturday and Monday to ensure they were ready to close in on the complex.
Jules Verne reached a holding point 62 feet behind the station at 1415 GMT (10:15 a.m. EDT), where it held for about 20 minutes as the craft aligned its docking probe with the corresponding receiving port on the back end of Zvezda.
After resuming its approach, Jules Verne arrived at a location 36 feet from the station at 1438 GMT (10:38 a.m. EDT). Ground controllers at the ATV control center issued a "go" for docking before the ship began its final rendezvous.
With its docking probe extended, the bus-sized spacecraft stretches 34 feet in length and 15 feet in diameter at its widest point.
The ship's pressurized section ferried more than 2,500 pounds of dry cargo to the station, including 1,100 pounds of food, 300 pounds of spare parts for the newly-delivered Columbus module, and storage support hardware for the Russian segment. The Automated Transfer Vehicle also carried about 176 pounds of fresh clothing, according to the European Space Agency.
The station's three-person crew - commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Garrett Reisman - will open up the 31-inch-wide pathway leading to Jules Verne early Friday morning. They will install atmospheric scrubbers to cleanse the air inside the module before being permitted to fully ingress the craft Saturday.
"The initial ingress will occur tomorrow morning," said Brian Smith, NASA's ATV flight director. "That's where they will take some air samples in the vestibule, they will open the ATV hatch and take some more samples, and then they're going to set up a scrubber."
Officials also plan to test Jules Verne's ability to control the station's orientation by firing the ship's thrusters Saturday.
The crew is scheduled to begin outfitting of the cargo carrier Monday to prepare for transfer activities.
"They will take the bags, they'll reconfigure them, they'll reconfigure the racks that are in there, set up some temporary racks, and they'll be ready to go to start transferring items in and out," Smith said.
Station residents will manually unload the supplies from Jules Verne's pressurized logistics carrier. The gear will be replaced with waste material throughout its four-month stay at the orbiting laboratory.
"We'll be using it a bit like the cupboard," said John Ellwood, ESA ATV project manager.
Jules Verne also trucked nearly 600 pounds of water and 46 pounds of oxygen to the station. The water will be used for drinking, cleaning and food rehydration, while the oxygen will be moved into the outpost's air supply beginning April 14.
The crew will hook up the water lines and must manually turn valves to transfer the oxygen.
Once fresh water is pumped inside the station, the crew can transfer liquid waste back into the ATV's water tanks.
About 1,900 pounds of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants housed inside Jules Verne's refueling tanks will also flow into Zvezda. The fuel will be used for the station's primary propulsion system on the Russian segment of the complex.
Jules Verne's flight to the station exhausted more than half of its own 12,900-pound fuel supply, leaving about 5,000 pounds of propellant to raise the station's altitude, steer the complex clear of orbital debris, and provide attitude control when the outpost's gyroscopes are down. The ATV must also keep a fuel reserve for the ship's suicidal de-orbit burn at the end of the mission.
The refueling system will be checked out April 18 before propellant will begin running into Zvezda's propulsion system, and the first re-boost is planned for late April to tweak the station's orbit for the arrival of the shuttle Discovery in early June.
Engineers on the ground will control the refueling and re-boost operations.
Jules Verne shepherded a total of approximately 10,100 pounds of supplies for the station, including dry cargo and fluids.
The ATV is designed to carry more than 16,000 pounds of logistics, three times more payload mass than Russia's workhorse Progress spacecraft, which has averaged nearly four missions per year since 2001.
Officials opted to pack Jules Verne with less than a full load because of the nearly month-long voyage to the station, which included a complicated series of tests that will not be required on future ATV missions.
Future ATV trips to the station will likely last about eight days, according to ESA officials.
The ATV program has cost ten ESA member states $1.9 billion since 1995, including the craft's design, development and construction. The cost number also covers the program's ground segment.
France led the program's development, providing nearly 47 percent of the total contributions to the ATV. Germany and Italy supplied 24 percent and 13 percent, respectively, and seven other ESA member states had contributions in the single digits.
Led by the industrial giant European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., the ATV contractor team included thousands of engineers and technicians across Europe. Russia provided the docking probe and refueling system.
Four more ATV's are in the pipeline. Scheduled for launch at the end of 2009 or early 2010, the next spacecraft is already under construction. Subsequent ATV's are manifested for launch in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The ATV's cargo capacity will be especially needed after the space shuttle's retirement in 2010. The shuttle currently carries most of the station's internal and external hardware to orbit.
"It is a major contribution to the program, probably more significantly post-2010 when the shuttle is no longer available for us to much of the logistics work it does," said Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager.
Jules Verne's mission is tentatively set to end Aug. 7 with an undocking from the space station. Two engine firings will slow the craft's speed enough to drop into the atmosphere, destroying the craft and up to 14,000 pounds of the station's trash over the South Pacific.
"That fiery end of the ATV mission really concludes the operations of Jules Verne," Chesson said.