NASA will land shuttle before satellite shoot down
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 15, 2008
The shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to land Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida but NASA officials said today they will staff the agency's backup landing site in California to get the shuttle down as soon as possible and "give the military the biggest possible window" for destroying a falling satellite.
Pentagon planners are fine tuning plans to fire a missile from a Navy cruiser in the Pacific Ocean in a bid to break up the crippled NROL-21 satellite, which malfunctioned shortly after launch in December 2006. The out-of-control satellite has been slowly descending ever since and barring intervention, it is expected to plunge back into the thick lower atmosphere early next month.
Because the satellite failed so soon after launch, it is carrying a virtually full load of now-frozen hydrazine rocket fuel, a good portion of which could be expected to reach the ground after a normal atmospheric breakup. The Pentagon announced plans Thursday to fire a missile at the spacecraft in an attempt to break it apart and disperse the toxic fuel before it can pose a threat.
Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday the unprecedented intercept would not be attempted until after Atlantis returns to Earth on Wednesday to minimize the risk of debris that might pose a threat to the orbiter.
Normally, NASA would not staff its backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for the shuttle's first landing attempt. If the weather or some other problem prevented a Florida landing, the crew would simply remain in orbit another 24 hours and try again the next day. In that case, Edwards would be an option.
But space station Flight Director Sally Davis today read a prepared statement during an afternoon briefing saying Edwards will be staffed for the first landing attempt Wednesday.
"The shuttle is scheduled to land on Feb. 20," she said. "We're going to open up Dryden (Flight Research Center) at Edwards Air Force Base to ensure we land at the earliest opportunity. The reason is to give the military the biggest possible window and maximum flexibility to ensure the success of the satellite intercept."
It typically costs nearly $2 million to service a shuttle at Edwards and ferry it back to the Kennedy Space Center atop a 747 jumbo jet. It also adds a week or more to the time necessary to prepare a shuttle for its next flight.
But NASA managers are hopeful it won't come to that. The preliminary long-range forecast for Wednesday calls for acceptable conditions in Florida and the crew will have two shots at Kennedy on successive orbits before any diversion to Edwards. NASA's second alternate landing site near White Sands, N.M., will not be staffed.
Atlantis, currently docked to the international space station, is in a roughly circular orbit at an altitude of about 210 miles. Pentagon planners want to hit the falling satellite at an altitude of about 160 miles. Depending on the timing of the shot and the relative positions of the spacecraft, the shuttle could interfere with those plans or be exposed to potentially dangerous debris if the ship was still in orbit.
A landing Wednesday would take the shuttle out of the equation and give military planners a longer window to deal with the errant satellite.
The space station, NASA officials say, is not in any danger. While a successful strike would create a cloud of debris, including some that might reach or exceed the station's altitude, most of it would quickly re-enter and burn up.
"We've analyzed it and it has negligible additional risk to the space station," said Kirk Shireman, deputy space station program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "So we're not concerned at all about any risk to the space station and at this point in time have no plans to do any operations in conjunction with that activity."