Spaceflight Now: STS-101 Mission Report

NASA seeks next launch attempt for shuttle Atlantis

Posted: April 27, 2000

Atlantis will stay on its launch pad through at least May 3 and possibly until May 18. Photo: NASA/KSC
Senior NASA officials today will begin wheeling and dealing to secure a new launch date for shuttle Atlantis' thrice-delayed space station repair mission.

Atlantis was grounded for the third straight day on Wednesday by bad weather at emergency landing strips the shuttle would use if a major problem occurred during the first minutes of flight.

Strong crosswinds whipping across the shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center were the culprits on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday the Florida weather was picturesque but across the Atlantic Ocean in Spain and Africa, stormy skies and crosswinds thwarted Atlantis' takeoff by closing all three abort landing sites.

"Looks like everybody was trying to work to get us there today but we were just a little bit out," NASA Launch Director David King radioed shuttle commander Jim Halsell on Wednesday at 3:20 p.m. EDT. "So we're going to need to scrub for the day."

Wednesday marked the third consecutive day NASA attempted launching Atlantis, something the agency had never done before in the 19-year history of the shuttle program. Previously, officials had never tried more than two times in a row before allowing the launch team a day to rest.

But afternoon launch times this week and a possible three-week delay before another try could be made spurred NASA managers to make the unprecedented effort.

"The fact that we didn't get airborne doesn't take away from the record set here and the perfect three countdowns on three consecutive days," commander Halsell said from the cockpit after the scrub was announced. "Our thanks to everybody."

The Atlantis astronauts look up at the shuttle at pad 39A before boarding on Wednesday afternoon. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
NASA officials are scheduled to meet this morning to begin hammering out a plan to prepare Atlantis for another launch attempt. A jam-packed schedule on the Air Force-controlled Eastern Test Range, however, might mean Atlantis would remain Earth-bound until May 18.

The range is a vast network that provides critical tracking, communications and safety services to all launches from Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center. It also supports other military activities such as this weekend's suspected missile test between U.S. and British submarines off the Cape.

Although recent upgrades have sped up the range's ability to reconfigure its systems from one operation to another, it still takes about 24 hours to set up equipment to support different operations.

The range logjam begins today when an Air Force Titan 4B rocket undergoes its Combined Systems Test -- a mission dress rehearsal. The reconfiguration day will be Friday with classified operations scheduled over the weekend. Another undisclosed test is planned on Monday. Tuesday will be spent reconfiguring in preparation for the predawn launch Wednesday of a Lockheed Martin Atlas 2A rocket carrying the GOES-L weather satellite for NASA and NOAA. A backup launch date is available on Wednesday, May 4.

The next notable event on the range is planned on May 8 when the Titan rocket launch is slated, and a backup date of the 9th. The oft-delayed launch of a Boeing Delta 2 rocket carrying an Air Force Global Positioning System satellite is now officially scheduled for May 10, with a backup date of the 11th. Then the inaugural Atlas 3A rocket is slated for liftoff on May 15, becoming the first American launcher to use Russian-built engines.

The bottom line for NASA is a possible delay until May 18 for a fourth launch attempt of shuttle Atlantis. The agency has some hope of taking over next week's launch slot of GOES-L, which is a NASA mission, for the shuttle.

"That is an option," King said Wednesday afternoon.

Top NASA officials in Washington would make the decision to swap dates between the shuttle and Atlas, King pointed out, and NOAA would have to be consulted.

However, delaying GOES-L, an advanced U.S. weather satellite that will ultimately replace one of two aging sister satellites in space, could disrupt other Atlas missions for commercial customers and NASA.

  Atlas rocket
The Atlas rocket with GOES-L sits inside the protective mobile service tower at pad 36A. Photo: NASA/KSC
The Atlas rocket with GOES-L aboard is fully assembled atop pad 36A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station awaiting its countdown activities to start late this weekend. Once GOES is off the ground, work crews plan to transport Eutelsat's W4 communications satellite to nearby pad 36B for attachment to the maiden Atlas 3A booster for a May 15 liftoff.

Lockheed Martin historically has not allowed satellites to be atop Atlas rockets on both Complex 36 pads at one time. The concern is if one rocket were to malfunction on launch or moments after liftoff it could destroy the spacecraft on the neighboring pad.

A satellite normally spends 10 days at an Atlas pad to undergo routine tests before launch.

A decision to allow Atlantis to launch on May 3 -- delaying the weather satellite's takeoff until later in the month -- would almost certainly force Lockheed Martin to scrap the planned May 15 date to fly its Atlas 3 until late-May since GOES-L is already at the pad. Once GOES-L had lifted off, the Eutelsat satellite would be taken to its pad and launched about 10 days later.

Removing GOES-L from the pad in favor of launching the Atlas 3 with Eutelsat W4 on schedule might also be an option, but would force a longer wait for NOAA to get its new weather eye-in-the-sky in orbit. GOES-L was originally supposed to launch last May but was put on hold by rocket engine problems.

The commercial Atlas 3 launch is also running nearly a year behind schedule because its initial payload -- Loral's Telstar 7 TV satellite -- was pulled at the last minute in favor of rival Arianespace's Ariane 4 rocket. The unusual switch was ordered because of delays in the Atlas program last summer due to engine concerns.

"There are a lot of options out there on the range," King said. "The range is very packed. [But] as everybody knows, the range schedule is dynamic. So we'll be evaluating all our options over the next day or two and I would think we could probably settle in on a date by the end of the week or early next week."

Once Atlantis finally reaches orbit, the seven astronauts will chase down the International Space Station to perform repairs and other maintenance chores aboard the 16-month old outpost.

With Atlantis stuck on the ground, U.S. and Russian flight controllers are discussing the possibility of a rocket firing as early as Saturday to adjust the station's orbit slightly. While the maneuver would raise the station's altitude by some small amount, the primary purpose of the maneuver would be to preserve the capability for a shuttle docking later in the month on the flight's third or fourth day.

The engine burn is not required for a possible May 3 launch of Atlantis.

The upcoming shuttle mission will also reboost ISS' orbit by more than 20 miles, saving the station's precious fuel supply. The craft is losing about 1.5 miles of altitude every week because increased solar activity has created additional drag on low-Earth orbiting craft.

Meet the crew
Get to know the seven astronauts that will fly aboard shuttle Atlantis' upcoming mission in Spaceflight Now's crew report. You can read their biographies and hear the crew describe the flight in movie clips.

Pre-launch briefing
STS-101 index - See a listing of all our STS-101 stories and coverage.

Mission preview - A special report package on Atlantis' repair mission and its astronauts.

Launch timeline - Chart with times and descriptions of events to occur during the launch.

Video vault
Atlantis' launch is postponed a third time because of weather. Rain, cloud and winds at the emergency landing sites in Africa and Spain are blamed.
  PLAY (155k, 1min 11sec QuickTime file)
NASA launch director Dave King announces Atlantis' launch is scrubbed for a second time due to high crosswinds at the Shuttle Landing Facility.
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The seven-member crew of space shuttle Atlantis leave their quarters on Tuesday for a second launch attempt.
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NASA launch director Dave King announces the launch is scrubbed due to high crosswinds at the Shuttle Landing Facility.
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The seven-member crew of space shuttle Atlantis leave their quarters for the launch pad.
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The sun sets on launch complex 39A and the rotating service structure is pulled away from the shuttle. One hour is compressed into seconds in this time lapsed video.
  PLAY (146k, 15sec QuickTime file)
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