Astronauts arrive at Cape for second countdown
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 2, 2006
Arriving in T-38 jet trainers, commander Brent Jett, pilot Chris Ferguson, flight engineer Dan Burbank, Joe Tanner, Steve MacLean and Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper landed at the spaceport's 3-mile-long shuttle runway around 9:30 a.m., two hours ahead of schedule.
The astronauts originally hoped to take off Aug. 27, but the flight was delayed, first by testing after a powerful launch pad lightning strike Aug. 25 and then by concern about tropical storm/hurricane Ernesto.
The storm's projected track and strength prompted NASA managers to order Atlantis moved off its seaside launch pad and back to the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building early Aug. 29.
But before the shuttle could reach the VAB, LeRoy Cain, chairman of NASA's Mission Management Team, and launch director Mike Leinbach changed their minds and ordered the shuttle back to the pad after an updated forecast that lowered predicted wind speeds.
"Last Tuesday, as the center here was preparing for tropical storm Ernesto, we were flying back to Houston," Jett said today at the landing strip. "In fact, we made a left turn out over the pad and as we did, we saw Atlantis on the crawler headed for the VAB. I think all of us thought we were going to be spending a little while in Houston, but I think we're all really happy, just four days later, we're back here, we've got a shot at this launch window.
"The past week and a half, we've been fortunate enough to observe the team here at KSC work a lot of issues, from the lightning strike to the threat of Ernesto, and then getting Atlantis back ready (to fly). These guys never cease to amaze me, they've done a terrific job, from the crawler crews all the way to the leadership of Mike and LeRoy. They're dedicated, they work hard and they're good at what they do.
"We're honored to be here to work with them this week," Jett said. "There's a saying that if you work hard, you bring yourself good luck. If that's true, these guys deserve some good luck this week with the weather. I hope they get to see Atlantis leave the pad on Wednesday."
NASA has not yet released an official forecast for Wednesday, but the National Weather Service is predicting a 40 percent chance of rain with partly cloudy skies and scattered showers and thunderstorms.
The launch window, based on the space station's orbit and NAAS's desire to launch Atlantis in daylight for photo documentation of the ship's heat shield and external tank, originally extended through Sept. 7. The close of the window was due to a conflict with a Russian mission to launch the space station's next crew and to return the outgoing crew to Earth.
In the wake of Ernesto, NASA was able to extend the window one day to Sept. 8 after agreeing to give up one potential in-flight extension day and guaranteeing the Russians Atlantis will undock from the station Sept. 17 at the latest.
That will clear the way for launch of the Expedition 14 crew aboard the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft on Sept. 18 and, more important, the return of the outgoing Expedition 13 crew at dawn on Sept. 29. A shuttle launch past Sept. 8 would have forced the Russians to delay the Soyuz launch, resulting in a nighttime landing for the returning station crew. The Russians don't want to do that for safety reasons.
The goal of Atlantis' mission is to deliver a $372 million solar array segment to the space station and restart assembly after a three-ahd-a-half-year hiatus. When the astronauts arrived at the Cape for their first launch attempt, Canadian astronaut MacLean promised reporters a gold medal performance in space.
"I hope we still get a good gold medal," he said today. "But I also promised a very good story. The story starts with the lightning bolt that hit the shuttle, followed by Ernesto that teased us into a dancing shuttle two-step. For me, the mission will be complete when the solar panels are deployed. The borders of the solar panels are all golden, so there's a little bit of gold there as well!
"I really encourage everyone to watch the middle of the mission, to see how we do, and I expect that you'll be on the edge of your seats. With the ground team, I think we'll give you a good show with a good story to tell everybody else."
If Atlantis isn't off the ground by Sept. 8, the flight will be delayed to late October, barring a NASA decision to give up the current daylight launch requirement. The next daylight window opens Oct. 26 and closes Oct. 27. If NASA gives up a requirement for external tank lighting in orbit, the opening of the window could be moved up to Oct. 20.
NASA managers are reviewing the rationale for the daylight launch requirement and if that rationale is relaxed, Atlantis could take off the day after the Soyuz TMA-8 spacecraft lands.
But no decisions have been made and in any case, it will be a moot point if Atlantis gets off the pad next week and if its external tank performs well. Assuming no new tank problems, NASA already intended to resume night launchings with the next shuttle flight in December.
NASA does not plan any media events Sunday, but will hold a countdown status briefing Monday at 10 a.m. and a pre-launch news conference around 4 p.m., after the L-minus two-day Mission Management Team review.
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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