Atlantis crew flies to Cape for practice countdown
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: November 17, 2007
The seven men set to launch aboard space shuttle Atlantis next month for delivery of the European scientific laboratory to the space station will undergo a countdown dress rehearsal this week at the Kennedy Space Center.
"We're really excited to get back to Florida, get so close to launch and be able to practice our launch count in Atlantis - the real vehicle," commander Steve Frick told news media gathered at the runway.
"We're looking forward to our training...do our launch count on Tuesday and then get home for Thanksgiving."
The crew for this space station assembly mission includes pilot Alan Poindexter, mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Stanley Love, Hans Schlegel and Leopold Eyharts. Eyharts will fly to the station on Atlantis and exchange places with Expedition 16 resident crew member Dan Tani.
The European Space Agency's Columbus module has been tucked inside shuttle Atlantis' payload bay for the one-way ride up to the space station. The lab is Europe's main contribution to the international outpost.
Liftoff is targeted for 4:31 p.m. EST (2131 GMT) on December 6, if ongoing work aboard the station that must be completed for receiving Columbus and the shuttle can be finished in time.
The Expedition 16 crew last week relocated the shuttle docking port to the new Harmony connecting module launched by Discovery in October. Then, Harmony was detached from its temporary spot on the station and bolted to its permanent home on the front end of the U.S. Destiny laboratory module. Two spacewalks are planned for Tuesday and Saturday to hook up umbilicals and fluid lines to Harmony.
NASA has a tight window in December to get Atlantis launched, otherwise the mission would likely have to wait until early January.
"We're really excited about how well the folks here at KSC have done to get Atlantis ready to go on such a short schedule with such time constraints to make our December 6 launch date," Frick said. "We only have about seven days of window and if we can make our first attempt on the 6th -- and hopefully our only attempt -- that'll give us a good shot to get the Columbus up to the station in early December and keep assembly going forward."
The astronauts will spend the next few days participating in the Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test, or TCDT, which every shuttle crew undergoes in the final weeks before a planned launch. The astronauts will spend time learning how to evacuate pad 39A if an emergency arises, including procedures to operate the slide-wire baskets that would quickly whisk the crew from the launch tower to a bunker west of the pad, and test-drive an armored tank available for the astronauts to escape the area.
Other activities on their schedule include inspections of the mission payloads, trying on the launch and landing spacesuits and holding an informal chat with reporters at the pad. The TCDT culminates Tuesday when the crew boards Atlantis for a full countdown simulation.
The astronauts will follow a normal launch morning routine with breakfast, a weather briefing on conditions at the Cape and various abort landing sites, then don their suits and depart crew quarters at about 7:45 a.m. to board the Astrovan that will take them to pad 39A.
After arriving shortly past 8 a.m., all seven astronauts will climb inside Atlantis and strap into their assigned seats for the final three hours of the countdown.
Around 11 a.m., clocks will halt in the final seconds to simulate a shutdown of the three main engines just prior to to the mock liftoff time. The crew will egress the shuttle and practice scurrying to the slide-wire baskets.
For the countdown, the shuttle won't be fueled and the crew won't actually leave the tower in the baskets.
Once the countdown is completed, the crew will return home to Houston for the final two weeks of training there.