Atlantis crew arrives as countdown begins early
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 24, 2006
The shuttle Atlantis' astronauts flew to Florida today to prepare for launch Sunday on a long-awaited flight to restart space station assembly. With forecasters predicting a 70 percent chance of good weather, liftoff from pad 39B is targeted for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.
"I hope you can tell by the smiles on our faces that we're very, very happy to finally be here in Florida to start the launch countdown," Commander Brent Jett told reporters at the shuttle runway. "Now there's been a lot of talk in the press lately about NASA being 'back' and I think we would all certainly agree with that talk. But we have a saying back in Texas that it's time to 'walk the walk.' Speaking for myself and my fellow crewmates, I can assure you we are ready for the challenge and we are anxious to restart the station assembly sequence. All we need is a little good weather Sunday and we'll be out of here."
Jett and his crewmates - pilot Chris Ferguson, Joe Tanner, Dan Burbank, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean - plan to spend the next two days reviewing their flight plan and relaxing before strapping in for launch Sunday.
Forecasters are predicting a 70 percent chance of acceptable weather Sunday, improving to 80 percent "go" Monday and Tuesday. NASA's launch strategy calls for back-to-back launch tries Sunday and Monday, then two more back-to-back tries Wednesday and Thursday to give four launch attempts in five days. Three more launch opportunities are available between then and the end of the launch window on Sept. 7.
While the afternoon weather is expected to be favorable this weekend, forecasters predict afternoon thunderstorms Friday and Saturday. As a result, the launch team moved up the start of Atlantis' countdown from 6 p.m. to noon today to give engineers a better chance for loading on-board oxygen and hydrogen for the shuttle's electricity producing fuel cells.
A hold at the T-minus 19 hour mark that normally lasts just four hours will be lengthened to 10 hours to make up for the early start of the countdown. When the count resumes at 2 a.m. Saturday, all subsequent activities will be synched up with the original schedule.
The goal of the 116th shuttle mission is to deliver and install a $372 million set of solar arrays and a complex rotary joint on the international space station, a complex job requiring back-to-back spacewalks, dual robot arm operations and tight coordination with flight controllers in Houston. It is the first in a series of assembly flights that rank as the most complex ever attempted by NASA.
Station assembly has been on hold since the Feb. 1, 2003, loss of the shuttle Columbia but with a successful test flight last month, NASA managers are counting on Atlantis' mission to restart the assembly sequence and clear the way for more frequent shuttle launchings.
"It's been six years since our payload has been at Kennedy," MacLean said. "It's been four years since Atlantis has been in preparation (for launch) and for us as a crew, it's been four and a half years as well. And finally, on Sunday, we're going to get to walk out to the pad for launch.
"For me, walking out to the pad on Sunday will be much like walking into an Olympic stadium for your athletic event. Many countries will be participating in a spirit of international cooperation and our families and our friends who believe in what we do will be in the front seats of the stadium. So I invite you all to watch what we do over the next week. It will be exciting. It's complex what we do, it's not easy. But with a team like this that I've been working with for the last four years and especially with the focus and dedication of the teams on the ground, I promise you we'll bring home a gold medal."
The official crew patch for the STS-115 mission of space shuttle Atlantis to resume orbital construction of the International Space Station.
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