Atlantis astronauts arrive for start of countdown
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: December 3, 2007
The crew of the shuttle Atlantis flew to the Kennedy Space Center today for the start of the countdown to blastoff Thursday on a long-awaited mission to attach a European laboratory to the international space station. There are no technical problems of any significance at launch complex 39A and forecasters are predicting an 80 percent chance of good weather.
"We're really excited to be here in Florida today, obviously on a tremendous day, and we hope it stays like this all week long to have our chance to launch in Atlantis on Thursday and bring the Columbus module up to the international space station," commander Steve Frick told reporters at the shuttle runway.
"Obviously, it's been a real long training flow for us, a long time building to this moment and so we're just absolutely ready to go. We know the shuttle program has worked really hard to get Atlantis ready, actually ahead of schedule, for this Thursday and the station folks and Peggy Whitson and her crew up on orbit have worked just tremendous hours the last month, month and a half, to ... get it ready so we could actually launch on time. We only have a week of launch window, so we're really excited to launch successfully on the first try."
The shuttle's countdown was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., leading to a launch attempt around 4:31:44 p.m. Thursday, roughly the moment when Earth's rotation carries the launch pad into the plane of the space station's orbit. At a morning status briefing, NASA Test Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson said engineers are repairing three areas of minor damage to foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank but otherwise, Atlantis is in good condition going into its countdown to launch.
"All of our systems are in good shape, our countdown work in on schedule and we have no significant issues to report," she said. "Our teams are ready, Atlantis is ready and we're all looking forward to Thursday's launch."
Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters said good good conditions are expected Thursday, although there is a 20 percent chance of low clouds in the area depending on how an approaching front behaves later in the week.
"The weather is actually looking pretty good for launch day, we're very optimistic right now about it," Winters said. "The only concern we have is a frontal boundary that's going to be moving through this evening will be down to the south and at some point, it's going to start turning back towards our area. The first thing that occurs when that happens is a ceiling rolls into the area. That's our primary concern for launch.
"But it looks like that would be more likely to happen on Friday. Friday and Saturday, the weather would deteriorate. So the first day, the first attempt on the sixth of December, is the best weather day.
Winters said the forecast for Thursday is 80 percent "go," decreasing to 60 percent go on Friday and Saturday.
The primary goal of the year's fourth shuttle mission is to deliver the European Space Agency's Columbus research module to the international space station. Joining Frick aboard Atlantis will be pilot Alan Poindexter, Leland Melvin, flight engineer and lead spacewalker Rex Walheim, German astronaut Hans Schlegel, Stan Love and French astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who will replace station flight engineer Dan Tani.
"As you probably all know, Columbus is the biggest contribution from Europe for the international space station," Schlegel said today at the shuttle runway . "And from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank all the people in Europe, in the U.S., and all the other international partners who got us here and made Columbus ready for launch. I feel very honored to be a member of this crew that will bring up Columbus for Europe into space.
"By doing this, launching Columbus, attaching it to the international space station, operating it around the clock, Europe will become a senior partner in human space flight. And I'm very glad, I'm very proud to be an active part of this team effort."
Said Eyharts: "It's a great honor for me to be part of this mission, on this shuttle crew and the ISS Expedition 16 crew." Noting that he is not scheduled to return to Earth until the next shuttle flight in late February, "I would like to wish you all a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. See you in 2008."
Three spacewalks are planned to get Columbus installed; to replace a nitrogen tank used to help pressurize the station's ammonia coolant system; to install two European experiments on the outboard bulkhead of the new research lab; and to move a failed control moment gyroscope back to the shuttle for return to Earth.
But flight controllers hope to extend the mission by two days and add a fourth spacewalk if Atlantis has enough on-board hydrogen and oxygen to power the ship's electrical generators. If the shuttle gets off the pad during the first three days of its eight-day launch window, the crew should have enough power to support the mission extension. If the flight is delayed past Dec. 8, launch would slip to the end of the window to give ground crews time to reload hydrogen and oxygen for the shuttle's fuel cell system.
Mission managers would like to add a spacewalk, if possible, to carry out an additional inspection of the station's right-side solar alpha rotary joint, or SARJ, one of two used to rotate the lab's solar arrays to keep them face on to the sun as the station orbits the Earth. The starboard SARJ currently is locked in place because of metallic contamination in the gear-bearing race mechanism.
Engineers do not yet know what's causing the problem. A spacewalk inspection during the Atlantis mission could shed light on the mystery and what might be needed to resolve the issue.
The launch window closes Dec. 13 because of periodic solar power and temperature issues related to the space station's orbit. The launch window reopens Dec. 30, but program managers say if Atlantis isn't off the ground by Dec. 13, the flight will be delayed to early January.