Astronauts eager for Monday's return to Earth
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 16, 2006
The shuttle Discovery is in excellent condition for landing and with a successful space station repair and resupply mission now in the books, NASA should be clear to resume assembly flights with launch of shuttle Atlantis in late August, Discovery skipper Steve Lindsey said today.
"It's been very, very clean throughout the mission, we've had very, very few issues with it," Lindsey said of Discovery in an interview with CBS News. "The vehicle's been clean, the (external fuel) tank looked pretty clean, we got a clean bill of health today to enter after inspecting for micrometeorite damage yesterday and the day before. So I think this vehicle has done great."
As for Discovery's mission to deliver supplies to the international space station, to repair a critical robot arm transporter and to ferry a third full-time crew member to the lab complex, Lindsey said "we achieved all of those objectives."
"Two big objectives were to get the space station ready for assembly as well as bring the crew back up to three people," Lindsey said. "I think we are ready to go back to space station assembly and start flying the shuttle, hopefully, as soon as August.
"Having said that, we'll stay vigilant with the shuttle, we'll continue watching it, taking care of it, paying attention to ice-frost ramps and areas like that. Just because we're going to be back to flight doesn't mean we're going to change the way we're operating. We're going to be very careful, very cautious, look at everything and we'll leave no stone unturned as we continue with this program."
NASA managers hope to launch Atlantis as early as Aug. 27 to install a huge set of solar panels on the end of the station's main solar array truss. To ensure good lighting for photo documentation, and to avoid a conflict with the planned launch of a Russian Soyuz rocket carrying the station's next crew, Atlantis must get off the ground between Aug. 27 or 28 and Sept. 7.
If the shuttle isn't off the ground by then, the flight will slip into late October at the earliest.
Asked if he was concerned about pressure to get Atlantis off in the September window, Lindsey said he was confident NASA managers would make the right decisions.
"Every program and project I've ever been involved in, every one I know of, there is schedule pressure," he said. "And there are other kinds of pressures, too. There is technical pressure, their are cost pressures, all those are a part of every program and project that I know of. ... As long as we can carefully balance those pressures, I think we'll be fine.
"The diligence that went into launching us ... I think the same will happen for Atlantis. We will shoot for August and if something happens and we can't make August, then we'll go for the next launch date. I'm not worried about it, everybody's paying attention, we're especially conscious of that sort of thing and we talk about it a lot. So I think the program will make the right decisions."
But first, entry flight director Steve Stich and his team must make the right decision about when to bring Discovery back to Earth. In a pre-entry briefing today, Stich said the only concern is the weather, with forecasters predicting a chance of showers that could cause problems.
Discovery will have two chances to land at the Kennedy Space Center Monday, the first at 9:14 a.m. and the second around 10:50 a.m. If the weather doesn't cooperate - and it looks slightly better for the first opportunity than the second - Lindsey and his crewmates will remain in orbit an extra day.
In that case, Stich likely will activate the shuttle's backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and bring Discovery down on one coast or the other Tuesday. The forecast in Florida calls for possible showers Tuesday while Edwards is expected to be "go" Monday and Tuesday. The shuttle has enough on-board supplies to remain in orbit until Wednesday.
"The weather looks fairly reasonable for tomorrow," Stich said. "Of course, at the Kennedy Space Center in the summertime, even though it's a morning landing, they're always looking at a chance of showers and that's the main thing we're looking at tomorrow. There's a frontal boundary just to the north of the Kennedy Space Center and they're worried about that front pushing to the south and causing showers. That's about the only concern for weather."
Otherwise, he said, Discovery is in excellent condition for landing.
Lindsey, pilot Mark Kelly, flight engineer Lisa Nowak, Piers Sellers, Mike Fossom and Stephanie Wilson spent the day packing up and rigging Discovery for entry. Thomas Reiter, the European Space Agency astronaut who blasted off with Lindsey and company July 4, was left behind on the space station to boost crew size back to three for the first time since downsizing in the wake of the Columbia disaster.
Discovery's mission featured one of the busiest flight plans in recent memory, with dual robotic arm operations virtually every day, three spacewalks and work to move tons of supplies and equipment from the shuttle to the station.
"I've got to tell you, about the first seven to nine days, depending on what your role was on this flight, it was a pretty tough timeline," Lindsey told CBS News. "It was tough. This is my fourth flight and it's probably the toughest one I've ever seen.
"We actually did, on flight day 10, get about three quarters of a day off where everybody could just kind of goof off. I actually ordered the crew, because I couldn't get them to stop, they were not allowed to work and they had to go look around station, tour station, take pictures and just have fun. I think everybody took advantage of it, came out of it refreshed and ready to pick up with the last part of the mission."