Discovery soars at sunset to boost space station power
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: March 15, 2009;
Updated after news conference
Running a month behind schedule and facing a Tuesday deadline, the shuttle Discovery finally roared to life and thundered into orbit late today, putting on a spectacular show as it rocketed out of dusk and into sunlight atop a torrent of fire from its twin solid-fuel boosters.
Two minutes after liftoff at 7:43:44 p.m., the spent boosters fell away for a parachute descent to the Atlantic Ocean 29 miles below and Discovery continued its ascent under the power of its three-hydrogen-fueled main engines. Arcing away toward the northeast, the shuttle looked like a brilliant, fast-moving star is it accelerated toward space, visible almost all the way to orbit.
Television views from a camera mounted on the side of the external tank showed the boosters falling away and later, dramatic atmospheric effects that resulted in a brilliant ring of light ballooning, flickering and collapsing around the accelerating spacecraft.
There were no obvious signs of any major pieces of foam insulation or other debris falling away from the tank during the critical first few minutes of flight when the shuttle's fragile heat shield is most susceptible to impact damage. But engineers will need several days to fully evaluate imagery and other data.
"We didn't see anything at all in the first quick look," Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of space operations at NASA, told reporters after launch. "It looked very good."
Eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, now streaking through space at 5 miles per second, the main engines shut down as planned and Discovery slipped into its planned preliminary orbit. An orbital maneuvering system rocket firing 37 minutes after launch raised the far side of the orbit, putting the shuttle on track for a docking with the space station around 5:13 p.m. Tuesday.
"I've seen a lot of launches, either as a test director or the launch director, and this was the most visually beautiful launch I've ever seen," said Launch Director Mike Leinbach. "It was just spectacular. ... We could see the orbiter from the firing room seven minutes into flight and at that point in time, the orbiter was somewehere off New Jersey, the New York coast. It was just spectacular."
At the controls aboard Discovery were commander Lee Archambault, rookie pilot Dominic "Tony" Antonelli and flight engineer Steven Swanson. Their crewmates are station-and-shuttle-veteran John Phillips, Koichi Wakata, Japan's first long-duration space station flight engineer, Joseph Acaba and Richard Arnold, both former school teachers.
Arnold and Acaba were selected by NASA as part of a pre-Columbia program to add "educator astronauts" to the agency's roster of shuttle fliers. But with the shuttle program now set for retirement in 2010, the men and women selected as educator astronauts are now viewed as general assignment astronauts with operational roles and responsibilities.
But Acaba and Arnold both said they won't forget their roots.
"When you look at what teachers do every day, it's really an operational background," Acaba said before launch. "I mean, teachers have to think on their feet, they have to adjust all the time and I think that's part of what we do. We train for specific things, but you never really know exactly what's going to happen.
"I think bringing that skill as a teacher is really beneficial," he said. "When we're up on orbit, we may see things that these guys might not notice as an educator that we might want to make note of and when we come back, we'll try to share that with teachers to help them inspire students."
With the shuttle on its way, the station astronauts are gearing up to welcome visitors aboard. They also may be asked to maneuver the station Monday to avoid piece of space debris associated with the Russian Cosmos 1275 spacecraft. If radar tracking indicates a station avoidance maneuver is needed, the "burn" would be carried out Monday evening. The predicted time of closest approach is around 3:14 a.m. Tuesday, about 14 hours before the shuttle docks.
The on-going problem of pace debris has been a major topic of discussion in recent weeks with a satellite collision last month and a close approach last week by a small piece of satellite junk that forced the station fliers to briefly move into their Soyuz re-entry craft as a precaution.
Wakata, a shuttle veteran, will take flight engineer Sandra Magnus's place aboard the station and Magnus will return to Earth aboard Discovery after four months in orbit. Wakata's presence in orbit will highlight Japan's contribution to the space station project, a huge laboratory module known as Kibo.
"It is over 20 years since Japan started this endeavor, participating in the international space station program," he said in a NASA interview. "Early in 2008, two shuttle missions assembled the two components of the Kibo module. Now it is time for us to utilize the wonderful experiment platform."
The other major goals of the 125th shuttle mission are to install a $300 million set of solar arrays on the lab complex, completing its main power generation system. The astronauts also will deliver a new urine processor distillation assembly to help the station crew get its water recycling system up and running after start-up problems late last year.
"We're flying the last power truss to the ISS," said space station Program Manager Mike Suffredini. "In fact, this is the last major U.S. element ... built by the Boeing Corp. and flown by the Boeing-NASA team and I couldn't be more proud of the performance to date."
The new truss segment takes up the entire payload bay and "this is pretty much what our focus will be on the mission, getting the element installed and activated and the wings deployed," Suffredini said.
The day after docking, the 45-foot-long, 31,000-pound solar array truss segment will be pulled from Discovery's cargo bay by the space station's robot arm. It will be handed off to the shuttle arm briefly will the station's crane is moved to the far end of the lab's main solar power truss. Then, the station arm will take the new truss segment and "park" it overnight.
On Thursday, during the first of four planned spacewalks, Swanson and Arnold will attach the starboard 6, or S6, truss segment and position its solar array blanket boxes for deployment. The folded arrays will be extended later in the mission.
NASA originally planned to launch Discovery Feb. 12. But the flight was repeatedly delayed because of concern about possible cracks in the three hydrogen flow control valves used to pressurize the hydrogen section of the ship's external tank during the climb to space.
After weeks of around-the-clock testing and analysis, engineers using a new inspection technique were able to identify three valves with no hints of any cracks. That, plus impact testing and analysis that indicates the valves can't crack and propagate to failure in a single flight, gave NASA managers confidence it was safe to proceed.
Then, last Wednesday, a launch attempt was scrubbed during fueling when a gaseous hydrogen leak developed at an umbilical plate that connects a 7-inch vent line to the external tank. The line is used to carry away excess hydrogen gas to maintain the proper pre-launch pressure inside the tank
The umbilical plate was disassembled and inspected, but no obvious problems were found. Seals and other components were replaced, the umbilical plate was reassembled and reattached and sensors detected no leakage during today's countdown.
Gerstenmaier said the flow control valves aboard Discovery worked flawlessly and Leinbach said the re-built gaseous hydrogen vent line worked equally well and did not show any signs of leakage today.
But the delay from Wednesday to today, pushed launch to the end of NASA's March launch window. Because of an upcoming Russian mission to swap out space station crew members, Discovery only had until Tuesday to get off the ground of the flight would have been delayed to around April 7.
Discovery must undock from the space station by March 25 to clear the way for the Russian mission. The delay to Sunday means the shuttle astronauts will only be able to carry out three of the four spacewalks they originally planned. But the work being deferred is mostly made up of "get-ahead" tasks needed for downstream assembly missions. The work originally planned for the fourth spacewalk will be carried out later by the station crew of during an upcoming shuttle visit.<
Discovery's flight comes at a crucial moment in the history of the international space station as NASA and its partners in Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan gear up to boost the lab's crew from three to six in late May.
The Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft is being prepared for launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 26 to deliver the station's next commander and flight engineer, along with Charles Simonyi, a wealthy U.S. space tourist making his second $30 million trip to the station.
Gennady Padalka and Michael Barratt will replace Expedition 18 commander Mike Fincke and flight engineer Yury Lonchakov, who were launched to the outpost last October. Fincke, Lonchakov and Simonyi are scheduled to return to Earth aboard the Soyuz TMA-13 spacecraft April 7.
Padalka, Barratt and Wakata will be joined in late May by cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk and European Space Agency astronaut Frank De Winne. To ultimately support six full-time crew members, the station's life support system must be able to convert condensate and urine into potable water for drinking, personal hygiene and oxygen generation.
U.S. astronauts installed new water and urine recycling equipment late last year, gear that NASA managers hoped to have fully tested and operational before the additional astronauts and cosmonauts arrive later this Spring.
But the vacuum distillation assembly at the heart of the U.S.-built urine recycling gear has failed to operate properly and a 180-pound backup unit was launched aboard Discovery.
Engineers do not yet know what caused the problem with the unit currently installed and they can't rule out the possibility the new distillation assembly might suffer the same fate. But they need to get the original component back to carry out a detailed failure analysis.
"The bad news is, we try very, very hard to build rigor into the design of every piece of hardware we build such that every single one is built exactly like the other one," Suffredini said Saturday. "So that's the bad news. The good news is, it could be a tolerance stack-up issue. And if it's a tolerance stack-up issue, it's possible the tolerances just bit us on this one and won't bite us on the next."
He said a similar design processor flown on an earlier shuttle flight worked normally.
"So we have reason to believe the design should be OK," Suffredini said. "But with all that said, we don't know the answer. So after we install it and activate it and make sure it works, we'll turn it back off and wait until we do our failure analysis on the ground to see what the actual cause is to see whether the potential is it will be a problem for the one on orbit. And if yes, is there any way to operate it so we can process urine without failing it?
"That's really forward work for us. What we are doing with all our plans for six-person crew is assuming the DA (distillation assembly) is not working and making sure we have enough water to support that."
The space station can support a six-person crew all summer without using the urine processor assembly at all because of water supplies stockpiled on board and because visiting shuttles typically deliver 1,000 pounds or so of fresh water every visit.