Crew says NASA has turned the corner after Columbia
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 14, 2006
The Discovery astronauts closed up the Leonardo logistics module today and geared up to detach it from the space station and re-install in the shuttle's cargo bay for return to Earth. With undocking from the station on tap Saturday, shuttle pilot Mark Kelly said the crew has accomplished virtually all of the mission's objectives, clearing the way for station assembly to resume this fall.
"We're getting close to meeting all our mission objectives," Kelly told CBS News during an in-flight interview. "Our commander, Steve Lindsey, right now about 30 feet behind us is closing out the logistics module. We've completed all the (supply and equipment) transfers, we've completed all the objectives with our three EVAs (spacewalks), the space shuttle Discovery's in great shape for a return trip home on Monday."
Asked if Discovery's flight will help NASA turn the corner and shift its focus from recovering from Columbia to resuming space station assembly, spacewalker Mike Fossum said he hoped so, adding "we needed this mission to get a lot of these objectives (accomplished), to reinforce our ability to do our own inspections, to test our ability to get access to different places on the shuttle's wing and underbelly if we needed to get there to do repair. We've done some testing on the future repair capability. So we're feeling good about that, we've answered a lot of those questions almost completely and I think we're ready to get rolling."
Before the 2003 Columbia disaster, when NASA was gearing up to begin the same stretch of assembly missions currently facing the agency, mission managers frequently spoke of the "wall" of spacewalk challenges facing construction crews.
Piers Sellers, who joined Fossum for three spacewalks during Discovery's current mission, agreed "there's really a lot to be done. It is kind of a wall."
"Every flight has got to get through its EVA tasks and install its equipment before the next flight can go," he said. "I mean, that's really the way the sequence works, so it's going to be a lot of hard work. It's a lot of hard work for a lot of people on the ground working furiously to make this happen."
NASA hopes to resume station assembly flights with launch of the shuttle Atlantis around Aug. 28 to mount a huge solar array and a massive rotary joint on one side of the station's main truss. The Russians plan to launch a fresh space station crew later in September and bring two outgoing crew members back to Earth. If all goes well, Discovery will return to the lab complex in late December to continue building the solar array truss, to deliver another full-time station crew member and to give European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter a ride home.
"This flight and the one last summer, together they're the 'return to flight' missions and we feel like we've done all the tests and met the objectives and we feel like the whole program is back on track to assemble the space station and move on back to the moon and to Mars," robot arm operator Lisa Nowak told another reporter. "And we're looking forward to all of that."
In a morning execute package of daily instructions to the crew, flight controllers said Nowak and crewmate Stephanie Wilson had completed more robotic arm work than any other shuttle crew.
"Good morning, Discovery," the morning message to the crew read. "We hoped you enjoyed your time off (Thursday), Ścause guess what, it's time for more arm ops. Unofficially, we believe this flight has had the most robotic operations to date. The PDRS and ROBO folks would like to say thanks to you all, and especially the 'ROBO chicks.' They have definitely earned the title.'
Today, the "robo chicks" plan to use Discovery's robot arm and a long inspection boom to carry out laser scans of the shuttle's left wing leading edge panels. After undocking Saturday, they will re-inspect the shuttle's nose cap and starboard leading edge panels for any signs of damage due to impacts that might have occurred after the ship reached orbit.
Here is an updated timeline of today's activities (in EDT and mission elapsed time; includes NASA TV sked/rev. O):
01:08 AM 09 10 30 STS crew wakeup (flight day 11) 01:38 AM 09 11 00 ISS crew wakeup 03:48 AM 09 13 10 MPLM cargo module egress 04:03 AM 09 13 25 MPLM deactivation 04:03 AM 09 13 25 Media interviews 04:23 AM 09 13 45 Middeck transfers 05:28 AM 09 14 50 Spacesuit transfer 05:53 AM 09 15 15 MPLM vestibule depressurization 07:13 AM 09 16 35 Crew meals begin 08:13 AM 09 17 35 Station robot arm (SSRMS) grapples MPLM 08:23 AM 09 17 45 MPLM bolts backed out 09:00 AM 09 18 22 Mission status briefing on NASA TV 09:08 AM 09 18 30 MPLM pulled away from Unity module 10:43 AM 09 20 05 MPLM berthed in shuttle bay 11:23 AM 09 20 45 SSRMS ungrapples MPLM 11:38 AM 09 21 00 SSRMS grapples MBS 12:28 PM 09 21 50 SSRMS ungrapples lab 01:18 PM 09 22 40 OBSS port survey 03:13 PM 10 00 35 Rendezvous tools checkout 05:00 PM 10 02 22 Post MMT briefing on NASA TV 05:08 PM 10 02 30 STS/ISS crew sleep begins 06:00 PM 10 03 22 Daily video highlights reel on NASA TV
The so-called "late inspections" were added to the flight late in the crew's training flow after engineers decided the risk of catastrophic damage from such orbital impacts warranted an additional looks.
Kelly said engineers "don't really know what the risk is. It's pretty low, we've been flying space shuttles for a long time and we've never had any kind of critical damage from a micrometeoroid. So it's pretty remote."
Before launch, Steve Poulos, manager of the orbiter projects office at the Johnson Space Center, said the odds of a catastrophic impact due to space debris or micrometeoroids "is about 1-in-210, something on that order." By doing the late inspections, the odds will improve to 1-in-280 and possibly as low as 1-in-350, based on the performance of the sensor package on the end of the inspection boom.
It will take ground engineers a day or so to assess the late inspection data, but "based on what we've seen over the last 10 days, the inspections we've done, we've got a great ship," Kelly said. "It's ready to come home. We'll be doing that on Monday morning and it's going to be a safe landing, hopefully at the Kennedy Space Center if the weather's good.
"The space shuttle is ready to go and after this flight, I think we're really in a good configuration and we're pretty much set up to continue assembly of the space station and continue to fly the shuttle, hopefully like we did before 2003."
Asked how confident he is about the health of Discovery's heat shield, Kelly said: "We're real confident. We're going to look at it one more time, but based on what we've seen so far, knowing what the risk is, I think all of us feel really comfortable."
"Looking out the window the other day and looking down both wings, they're looking like they're in great shape, similar to when we saw them when the orbiter was being processed," he said.
The only technical problems of any significance are a very slight pressure decrease in the fuel tank of an auxiliary power unit, or APU, and trouble with stuck thermostats in a second APU.
Engineers are not yet sure whether the leak is nitrogen, used for pressurization, or hydrazine, the volatile fuel that powers the APU. Either way, Kelly said the leak was so small it was not a major concern.
"It's pretty minor," he said.
But given the critical nature of APUs, NASA engineers are keeping a close eye on the hydraulic powerplants. For readers interested in additional details, here's the latest thinking on the issue from NASA's Mission Management Team:
Source: NASA daily execute package for Flight Day 11