Endeavour heads for launch amid troubles at NASA
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 26, 2007
Wrapping up a two-day flight readiness review, NASA managers today tentatively cleared the shuttle Endeavour for blastoff Aug. 7 on a space station assembly flight featuring educator-astronaut Barbara Morgan. NASA's inspector general, meanwhile, is investigating the apparent sabotage of an electronic black box that is part of a wireless instrumentation system bound for the lab complex. NASA managers had no immediate comment on an Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine report citing an agency-ordered review of astronaut health care issues and alleged alcohol abuse.
Endeavour is scheduled for launch at 7:02 p.m. on Aug. 7. At the controls will be commander Scott Kelly, pilot Charles Hobaugh, Tracy Caldwell, Rick Mastracchio, Dave Williams, Al Drew and Morgan, NASA's first educator-astronaut and backup to Christa McAuliffe in the original Teacher in Space Program.
This will be Endeavour's first flight since late 2002 following an extensive maintenance and overhaul period in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster.
Endeavour has been equipped with Global Positioning System navigation gear and a new station-to-shuttle power transfer system that will allow the orbiter to use electricity generated by the station's solar arrays. If the system works as expected, the crew will be able to extend the mission by three days and remain docked to the lab complex longer than previously possible.
"It's like a new space shuttle," said Program Manager Wayne Hale. "It's been completely inspected from stem to stern for any defects in the wiring, any structural corrosion and it's come out clean. It's like driving a new car off the showroom floor. But even more than that, we made 194 modifications to improve safety on board Endeavour."
During the 1,665 days Endeavour spent in the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA and its contractors delivered 1,657,173 parts, replaced 2,045 heat-shield tiles and completed 13,156 checks to make sure the flight hardware met specifications.
"It was a tremendous amount of work in the OPF," said Launch Director Mike Leinbach. "The processing (at the pad) is going really well. ... The launch countdown will pick up Saturday night, Aug. 4, shooting for an on-time launch on Aug. 7. On behalf of all the people who worked on Endeavour, both here and really across the country, it's a great feeling to have Endeavour back on the pad and looking forward to a great launch."
Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for spaceflight at NASA headquarters in Washington, said engineers are expected to resolve a handful of outstanding technical issues between now and Aug. 7.
One of those open issues is work to repair an electronic component that apparently was deliberately sabotaged. Gerstenmaier said the company that supplied the component notified NASA of deliberate damage found in a qualification unit in the factory. A subsequent inspection of the flight hardware revealed similar intentional wire cuts. The component in question does not play a critical role on the station and it will be repaired in time for launch.
"There was some intentional damage done internal to a qual unit," Gerstenmaier said. "We then inspected the flight unit and determined that some wires were cut on the inside of that unit. This is currently being investigated by the inspector general's office. The subcontractor on the space station side will fix the hardware and we'll get ready to go fly it."
The computer component is part of a system used to collect data from sensors on the station's main solar array truss to better characterize the stresses and strains the structure experiences.
"The subcontractor told us about it as soon as they found it," Gerstenmaier said. "We went and checked the flight unit and it had the same kind of damage inside. We will fix it and go fly the unit. It's a device we use to take data off some sensors out on the truss."
Gerstenmaier declined to comment on media reports today about a NASA review of astronaut health care issues in the wake of the Lisa Nowak arrest earlier this year.
Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine reported today that the NASA-chartered review "has found that on at least two occasions astronauts were allowed to fly after flight surgeons and other astronauts warned they were so intoxicated that they posed a flight-safety risk."
"The panel also reported 'heavy use of alcohol' by astronauts before launch, within the standard 12-hour 'bottle to throttle' rule applied to NASA flight crew members."
The story did not say whether the two flight incidents in question involved the space shuttle, NASA jet trainers or U.S. astronauts launched aboard Russian Soyuz rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Sources told CBS News the report does not include any names or other specific details and is generally anecdotal in nature.
Two sources said one of the incidents in question may have involved a Soyuz launch and another a T-38 jet trainer flight. Another source noted shuttle astronauts leave their quarters at the Kennedy Space Center and board the orbiter on live NASA television, wearing 70-pound pressure suits, and that he was not aware of any crew member ever showing obvious signs of intoxication on launch day.
But NASA officials had no official comment and speculation today about the nature of the two incidents remained just that - speculation.
At a news conference to discuss Endeavour's flight readiness review, Gerstenmaier said he could not discuss the details of the health care report before its planned release Friday. But he did say he was not aware of any past disciplinary actions related to alcohol abuse or any instance in which a shuttle flight was jeopardized by such behavior.
"Again, I don't know, you guys are going to keep asking me the same question a bunch of different ways," he said. "But the obvious answer is no, I've never had any instances of that. You know the astronauts and where we are. That's all I really want to say on that. But there's not been a disciplinary action or anything I've been involved with regarding this type of activity."
A NASA spokesman contacted by CBS News said the agency planned to hold a news conference Friday afternoon to discuss the medical review.