Rollback preps ordered for Atlantis
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 28, 2006
NASA managers early today ordered engineers to begin preparations for rolling shuttle Atlantis off the launch pad and back to the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building, eliminating any chance of launching the shuttle Tuesday.
While its movement over land will decrease Ernesto's strength, the current track likely will bring tropical storm-force winds to Florida's space coast by Wednesday morning and possible category one hurricane-force winds by Wednesday night. Here is the National Hurricane Center five-day forecast.
NASA managers met this morning at 7 a.m. to discuss the storm and quickly decided to begin preparations to roll Atlantis off the launch pad, a move that would take 42 hours to complete. Rollback can be called off at any point between now and Tuesday afternoon if the storm changes strength or direction.
NASA's safety rules forbid moving the unprotected orbiter off the pad in winds higher than 40 knots. On Sunday, when the storm's track was well west of the space center, NASA managers expected 40-knot winds early Wednesday morning, giving them time to complete a rollback, if necessary, by Tuesday evening.
NASA managers considered ordering a rollback Sunday night but deferred a decision to today believing they had time before the onset of 40-knot winds. By deferring a decision, NASA kept open the possibility of launching Atlantis Tuesday on a space station assembly mission if Ernesto's track or strength dramatically changed. That option is now closed.
Atlantis' launch window closes Sept. 7, based on a desire to launch in daylight for photo documentation of the shuttle's heat shield and external tank and because of conflict with launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the space station's next crew.
While the shuttle can launch as late as Sept. 13 from a lighting standpoint, any launch past Sept. 7 would force the Russians to delay the Soyuz launch and, more important, delay the return to Earth of the station's outgoing crew. A shuttle launch on Sept. 7 would result in a pre-dawn landing for the returning Soyuz.
Every day past Sept. 7 would move the landing earlier in the day and Russian managers want to avoid a dead-of-night touchdown because the recovery team will be conducting its first operation under new civilian management.
A rollback likely would use up NASA's available launch window, barring a concession form the Russians to delay the Soyuz launch. Even if Ernesto passes without causing major damage, it would take NASA at least eight days to ready the ship for flight after rolling back out to pad 39B.
If Atlantis remains at the launch pad, either because of high winds preventing a rollback or because the storm changes strength or direction, NASA managers believe it's unlikely any launch attempts could be made before Sunday at the earliest.
Space station program manager Mike Suffredini planned to open discussions with the Russians today about the possibility of a launch past Sept. 7, but it's not yet known whether that's a real possibility.
As for relaxing the lighted launch requirement to open up more opportunities after the Soyuz flight, Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of spaceflight for NASA, said Sunday the agency considers photo documentation of the shuttle's tank and heat shield a high priority.
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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