NASA moves shuttle target; formally adds new test flight
Posted: October 3, 2003

As expected, NASA today set a new, more realistic target date for launch of the next shuttle mission -- between September 12 and October 10, 2004 -- and announced a new flight that will be inserted into the launch manifest to complete tasks originally planned for the first mission.

NASA's shuttle fleet faces a long road to resume flights. Photo: NASA
Given post-accident requirements that sharply restrict when a shuttle can actually take off, however -- launch and external tank separation in daylight and thermal constraints at the international space station -- the shuttle's return to flight easily could slip into 2005 when all is said and done.

Those requirements currently translate into 26 days of launch opportunities between Sept. 16 and Oct. 11, 2004; Nov. 19-21, 2004; and Jan. 17 through 19, 2005. The next available launch window opens in March 2005.

Current estimates show photo documentation of external tank separation in daylight will not be possible until Sept. 16. But NASA managers say those estimates might change and so they added a bit of cushion to the front end of the target launch window.

Bill Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space flight, stressed the new launch window, like the original March/April target window, remains a target only and that it may change again as planners get a better idea of how much work remains to be done.

Mission STS-114, currently assigned to the shuttle Atlantis, will include a robot arm extension and sensors to look for damage to the ship's heat-shield tiles and leading edge panels; a spacewalk to test tile and leading edge repair techniques; another spacewalk to install a new gyroscope on the space station; and supply and equipment transfers to and from the lab complex.

"We're going to be very much driven by the milestones and by the content we have to accomplish here in terms of the testing of the robotic arm, survey techniques, tile repair, modifications to the external tank, all the testing that's required," Readdy said in an evening teleconference with reporters. "So It comes down to being able to satisfactorily accomplish all of those.

"I can't tell you whether or not we're going to have more content creep in over time, whether we're going to come up on some technical hurdles. I can almost guarantee that this is going to be a long, uphill climb back to return to flight. But I also would tell you that we're getting an awful lot smarter about this and we're going to come back stronger and safer as a result."

To accommodate the tile/leading edge inspections and the repair demonstration spacewalk, NASA decided to split the original STS-114 mission into two separate flights. The new mission, known as STS-121, currently is assigned to the shuttle Discovery. It is targeted for launch Nov. 15. Again, that's a few days in advance of when a daylight tank separation actually becomes possible according to current estimates.

Making the September launch date for the first post-Columbia mission will not be easy. Long poles include development of the robot arm extension boom and the sensors needed for in-orbit tile and leading edge inspections and development of viable techniques for repairing leading edge damage. A wild card is the impact of work to remove Atlantis' carbon composite nose cap for an extensive corrosion inspection.

But shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said it's too soon to predict how all of that might play out. As for the shuttle's sharply restricted launch windows, "I think we have some opportunities, some small opportunities in November and possibly January and some other places."

"But you know, again, we're still refining those requirements, we're still refining exactly what we need to do to meet the lit launch requirement," he said. "But I think there are some opportunities in November (2004) for us to go launch."

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