Atlantis departs station, Soyuz about to launch
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 17, 2006
The shuttle Atlantis undocked from the international space station today, beaming down spectacular video of the lab complex and clearing the way for launch of the station's next full-time crew early Monday to kick off the 14th long-duration expedition.
"It's a consequence of the complexity of the task that we're trying to undertake that as you need more air traffic controllers when the airport gets busier, that's the situation that we're facing. I frankly think it's very exciting. I think it bodes well for our future and I think we all look forward to the era of the construction of the station."
Atlantis undocked from the space station at 8:50 a.m., about 15 hours before the scheduled launch of the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft at 12:09 a.m. EDT Monday. The shuttle flew a slow loop around the station for photo documentation, the first 360-degree fly around in the post-Columbia era.
Dramatic video showed the station's new solar arrays gleaming against the blue and white backdrop of planet Earth as the two spacecraft streaked 220 miles above the heartland of America, the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway at 5 miles per second.
The station had a distinctly asymmetrical look with the newly added 240-foot-long P4 solar arrays arrays positioned at right angles to the lab's other major set of solar panels, known as P6.
P6 provided power for the early stages of station assembly in a temporary position on a truss atop the multi-hatch Unity module that connects the U.S. and Russian segments of the lab. Next year, if all goes well, P6 will be moved to its permanent position adjacent to the P4 arrays on the left end of the station's main power truss.
"Hey Jeff, we completed the fly-around," shuttle commander Brent Jett called as the shuttle began moving away. "I just wanted to let you know we got a lot of great pictures, it was really a spectacular sight to see your vehicle from above, looking down on the Earth. So hopefully, we'll get to send some of those to you over the next couple of days and we'll see you back on Earth in a little while."
"Yeah, we'll look forward to seeing those," station flight engineer Jeff Williams replied from the lab complex. "I think we got some pretty good pictures and video of you guys in the fly around as well, especially underneath with the Earth in the background. So those pictures will be on the ground when you get there, waiting for you. It was a great mission, thanks for all the good work, enjoyed the time together and look forward to seeing you back in Houston."
"Yeah, we really appreciate it," Jett replied, "it was fun working with you guys. Be safe the rest of your mission."
"You bet. So long now."
At the sprawling Baikonur Cosmodrome, meanwhile, Russian rocket engineers were preparing the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft for launch. Monday night, a Progress supply ship loaded with trash and no-longer-needed equipment will undock from the Russian Zvezda command module's aft port, clearing the way for Lopez-Alegria, cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and space tourist Anousheh Ansari to dock at 1:24 a.m Wednesday.
Four-and-a-half-hours later, Atlantis is scheduled for landing at the Kennedy Space Center.
Ansari will return to Earth Sept. 28 with Expedition 13 commander Pavel Vinogradov and flight engineer Jeff Williams. European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, who flew to the station aboard the shuttle Discovery in July, will remain aboard the lab complex as a member of the Expedition 14 crew until late December.
Ansari, born in Iran and a naturalized U.S. citizen, is the fourth private citizen to buy a seat on a Soyuz for a trip to the international space station. She helped sponsor the $10 million Ansari X-Prize competition for development of sub-orbital space flight and while she would not disclose the actual cost of her space station trip, it is believed to be in the neighborhood of $20 million.
Lopez-Alegria, asked if space tourism was a good idea, told a reporter "if you would have asked me that question a couple of years ago, I might have answered quite differently because I was sort of a critic of space tourism." He added that "sending people to the international space station while it was still under construction was still by no means a place for the light hearted."
"But I recognize the requirements that the Russian space agency has to keep its program alive, we can't do what we're doing without them, so if that's what the correct solution is, and if somebody like Anousheh can be that person, then I have come to the realization that not only is it good from a technical standpoint, just to keep the program going, but it's also good from the standpoint that she represents a great dream and a great hope for a lot of people, not just in our country and iran, but all over the world. I think it was short sighted of me, perhaps, to think the way I did a couple of years ago so I'm somewhat of a convert."
Tyurin agreed, saying it was time for spaceflight to move beyond government-only sponsorship. As for Ansari's presence on the crew, "I was sincerely surprised when we started working together by the high level of professionalism she has even though she's not a professional cosmonaut. She became such a natural part of our crew we have the impression we've been working together for maybe 10 years."
Ansari, wearing a blue flight suit sporting a personally designed mission patch, pointed out that she would be taking off in a Soyuz spacecraft that is very similar to Russian capsules launched at the dawn of the space age.
"It's been over 45 years since the first human flew to space and over these 45 years, only government agencies have been working toward the goal of space exploration," Ansari said. "In order for us to make giant leaps toward space exploration ... we need private industry to get involved and help the government agencies and work collaboratively together to be able to make that lofty goal come true in the near future for us.
"So I'm hoping to be an ambassador to take this message out and get more people interested and more private investment made into space exploration," she said. "I also want to add that taking an orbital flight is not an easy task. ... It does require a lot of training, you have to be mentally and physically prepared for it, you have to get to know the system that you're flying because there's a lot of dangers out there. It definitely requires a lot of training and it's not necessarily for the light of heart."
Ansari plans to describe her experiences throughout the flight in a blog hosted by the X-Prize Foundation.
Atlantis was launched Sept. 9 and docked with the station last Monday. Over the next five days, Jett, pilot Chris Ferguson, Dan Burbank, Joe Tanner, Canadian Steve MacLean and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper installed the new arrays, wired them into the station's power grid, and activated a massive rotary joint that will drive the panels like huge waterwheels to track the sun as the station circles the globe.
The P4 and P6 solar panels stretch 240 feet from tip to tip. The new P4 arrays currently are locked in place because of interference with the left wing of the P6 array. That wing will be retracted in December in preparation for moving P6 to the main truss next August.
Between now and December, the P4 arrays will remain stationary and canted at slightly different angles to prevent rocket plume contamination from the shuttle on the front end and Soyuz/Progress arrivals and departures on the back end.
Over the next half-dozen flights, considered the most complex in manned spaceflight history, shuttle crews will build out the solar array truss, re-wire the station's power system, activate complex ammonia coolant loops and prepare the station for arrival of European and Japanese research modules.
Given the success of Atlantis' mission, Phil Engelauf, a senior manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said flight planners, engineers and managers are optimistic about the work ahead.
But not overly confident.
"You feel confident in the sense that you've got one tough hurdle behind you," he said today. "But that doesn't really change the equation for the outlying flights. I think everybody at NASA involved in this program has commented about the difficulty of this sequence of flights, how each one of them really has to go well in order for the whole sequence to work.
"We now have one of those under our belt and that certainly a good feeling. (But) there are a lot of difficult milestones ahead and we're far from finished. We're one lap down, but it's a long race."
With hugs and handshakes, the Atlantis astronauts bid farewell to their space station colleagues today, signed the lab's logbook and closed hatches between the two spacecraft.
"Houston, the log book has been completed, all of the ceremonies have taken place and the STS-115 crew is egressing the station for the final time," Jett radioed as the farewell ceremony broke up.
Williams, following naval tradition, then rang the ship's bell and called out: "STS-115, the crew of Atlantis departing" as the shuttle astronauts left the Destiny laboratory module and floated back into the orbiter.
The shuttle's hatch was closed at 6:27 a.m. and the vestibule between the hatch and the station was depressurized.
With Ferguson at the controls, Atlantis' docking system was disengaged on time at 8:50 a.m. and powerful springs pushed the shuttle, tail toward Earth and cargo bay facing the station, straight away along the direction of travel.
After reaching a point roughly 400 feet directly ahead of the station, Ferguson guided the spaceplane though a 360-degree loop around the lab complex, passing 600 feet directly above, behind, below and back out directly in front again before leaving the area for good.
The astronauts plan to carry out a final heat shield inspection Monday before packing up and testing the shuttle's re-entry systems Tuesday. Landing at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 5:58 a.m. Wednesday.
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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