Commanders say satellite shoot-down no threat
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: February 16, 2008
The commanders of the shuttle Atlantis and the international space station said today they have no safety concerns about an upcoming attempt to destroy a falling spy satellite. The dramatic shoot-down will be attempted after Atlantis returns to Earth Wednesday and to give the Pentagon as much time as possible, NASA will staff a backup landing site in California in case of problems that might prevent a Florida touchdown.
"We don't have any concerns," shuttle commander Steve Frick told reporters today. "It's obvious to us the DOD and NASA have worked closely together to make sure there are no problems with the plan that they're going to do to make sure the satellite is not a risk to anyone on the ground. We're going to be safely on the ground before they take any action and the satellite is going to be well below the space station, so we don't expect any problems."
The permanently manned space station's orbit was raised an average of one mile today by a 36-minute firing of the shuttle's maneuvering thrusters. The reboost maneuver, one of two needed to set up the proper rendezvous and docking conditions for upcoming visits by the shuttle Endeavour, a European supply ship and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, left the station in an orbit measuring 215.5 by 203.2 statute miles.
A U.S. Navy cruiser will fire a missile at the falling spy satellite, known as NROL-21, when it reaches an altitude of around 160 miles. A successful strike could blast a few pieces of debris into orbits with high points, or apogees, above the station. But experts say any such debris will rapidly fall back into the atmosphere and that the additional risk to the station is minimal.
"NASA and the DOD loves the station crew as much as they love (the shuttle)," commander Peggy Whitson joked, laughing with her crewmates. "So no, we're not worried about it, either."
Frick said the crews heard about the Pentagon plan "through the normal operational channels," adding the astronauts were informed "in plenty of time and NASA made sure our families found out within that first day of when we found out."
Frick and his crewmates - pilot Alan Poindexter, flight engineer Rex Walheim, Leland Melvin, Stan Love and European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel - will be joined by outgoing space station astronaut Dan Tani for the trip back to Earth. Tani was replaced aboard the station by European Space Agency astronaut Leopold Eyharts, who will remain aboard the lab complex with Whitson and cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko when Atlantis undocks early Monday.
Tani, launched to the station aboard the shuttle Discovery last October, originally planned to come home in December. But his ride home, Atlantis, was grounded by fuel sensor problems and his stay in space was extended two months. Along with missing the holidays with his family, Tani was in orbit when his mother was killed in a Dec. 19 car accident.
Tani said today he is preparing notes that might help future long-duration space fliers cope with personal tragedies, as well as nuts-and-bolts advice about living and working in space, tips on "what I think people on the space station might think about if they have a family tragedy similar to what I had, more administrative kind of stuff, things I think will help them communicate with their family more."
"So I am sort of developing some advice that I will leave up here," he said. "But it's mainly how to maximize communications with the ground and that kind of thing. ... And certainly, I'll talk to our office about it when I get home."
On a lighter note, Tani said he's had a great time in space and that he will leave the station with mixed emotions.
"I love living here on the station, it's comfortable, it's fun, it's exciting, the view, of course," he said. "So it's going to be tough leaving here, but obviously, I want to get back to see my family.
"I look forward to some odd things," he added. "I look forward to putting food on a plate and eating several things at once, which you can't do up here. I'm looking forward to spitting my toothpaste out in a sink rather than swallowing it. And of course, the most (significant) thing I'm looking forward to is seeing my (two) girls and my wife."