Canadian robot, Japanese module headed for station
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: March 10, 2008
The space shuttle Endeavour, carrying a crew of seven, a Japanese storage module and a high-tech Canadian robot with 11-foot-long arms, is on track for a sky lighting pre-dawn launch March 11 to kick off a marathon five-spacewalk mission to the fast-growing international space station.
The Japanese module is the first of two that will make up an entire wing of the space station, a state-of-the-art addition that will complement U.S. and European research modules. But the assembly of Canada's $209 million special purpose dextrous manipulator, or "Dextre," represents the most complex task of Endeavour's mission.
Capable of manipulating objects as big as a phone booth and as small as a phone book, Dextre is an attachment for the station's Canadian-built robot arm that, in effect, will give it a pair of hands capable of positioning components to within 2 millimeters and gripping them with as little as 1.5 pounds of force.
"If you could picture what a praying mantis would look like, that's what I liken Dextre to," Linnehan said in a NASA interview. "I grew up with cartoons and sci-fi and there used to be this show on when I was a kid called 'Gigantor, the Space Age Robot' and so, you know, my pet name for Dextre is 'Gigantor.' It's this giant robot with arms and out-riggers and all this equipment, with wrists and hands that actually move and can articulate itself all over the station."
Once assembled and attached to the station's robot arm, Dextre, equipped with force-sensing grippers for hands, TV eyes, a tool pouch and sophisticated control software, can be operated by astronauts or flight controllers on the the ground to perform equipment swap outs that otherwise would require a spacewalk.
"This is something we haven't attempted before so it kind of goes toward exploration and new technology development," said Dana Weigel, lead space station flight director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "But the other piece of it is it will save EVA time. If you look at it, EVAs are risky. This will buy down some risk. If this buys back one or two EVAs, that's certainly a good trade."
Joked astronaut Michael Foreman, who will help Linnehan build the robot: "As spacewalkers, we don't want to put ourselves out of a job! But I think Dextre will be a boon to the space station when it gets built and put into work."
Along with installing the Canadian robot and Japan's pressurized logistics module, the Endeavour astronauts also plan to ferry space station flight engineer Garrett Reisman to the lab complex and bring European Space Agency astronaut Leopold Eyharts back to Earth after six weeks in space.
And in a milestone test scheduled for the crew's fourth spacewalk, Foreman and Robert Behnken plan to test a caulk gun-like device, squirting a thick, heat-resistant pink goo known as STA-54 into deliberately damaged heat shield tiles to demonstrate a repair technique that could help a crippled shuttle make it through the heat of re-entry.
The demonstration is one of the final in-flight tests of procedures developed in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster to give astronauts a fighting chance in case of major heat shield damage that might otherwise prevent a safe descent to Earth.
"I consider it to be kind of the last thing we're going to do on the return to flight tile and (wing leading edge) repair tasks that we took on," said shuttle program manager John Shannon. "We have high confidence in it, but this will just be the final activity that we'll do to verify that's indeed a good repair capability."
While not a requirement, a successful test would give NASA added confidence about launching the shuttle Atlantis in late August on a final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, a flight that cannot take advantage of safe haven aboard the space station if major heat shield damage occurs.
Along with transferring fresh water and supplies to the space station, the Endeavour astronauts also will temporarily store the shuttle's 50-foot-long heat-shield inspection boom on the forward face of the station's solar power truss for use by the crew of the next assembly mission. That flight will deliver the huge Japanese experiment module, or JEM, to the station and there is not enough room for the lab and the boom in Discovery's cargo bay.
"If you had to go to a drawing board and describe an exciting mission from scratch, I think you would come up with STS-123," commander Dom Gorie said of Endeavour's flight. "We've got everything on this mission that you can imagine, going to the space station, taking Garrett up there and dropping him off for another crew member, 16 days on orbit, five spacewalks, international hardware, a night launch, a night landing. It's all there."
Launch is targeted for 2:28:12 a.m. EDT Tuesday, roughly the moment Earth's rotation carries launch pad 39A into the plane of the space station's orbit. Assuming an on-time launching, Gorie and pilot Gregory Johnson will guide Endeavour to a docking with the space station around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The next day, Linnehan and Reisman will stage the first of the crew's five planned spacewalks - a record for station assesmbly during a single shuttle flight - to prepare the new Japanese logistics module for installation and to begin putting Dextre together.
Japan is supplying three critical components to the station, known collectively as Kibo, or Hope, in English. The centerpiece of the Japanese addition is the huge Japanese Experiment Module that will be bolted to the left side of the Harmony connecting module in late May. The smaller pressurized module carried aloft by Endeavour will serve as a logistics depot and ultimately will be mounted to a port on the lab module's outboard upper end.
Finally, a porch-like deck will be added next year for experiments that need access to the space environment. An airlock on the far end of the JEM, along with a sophisticated robot arm, will permit researchers to move experiments inside and out as required.
Because of its sheer size, NASA is launching Kibo in stages. The pressurized logistics module delivered by Endeavour's crew will be temporarily mounted on the Harmony module's upper port the day after docking. Linnehan and Reisman will prepare the module for attachment to Harmony before beginning assembly of Dextre.
Linnehan will be joined by Foreman for the Endeavour crew's second spacewalk on March 15 and by Behnken for the third on March 17. The first two spacewalks are devoted to Dextre assembly while the third will be used to complete any unfinished work and to store spare parts on the station, including a joint for the station's main robot arm and two power switching units.
Behnken and Foreman will carry out the final two spacewalks on March 20 and 22 to replace a critical circuit breaker, test the "T-RAD" heat shield repair tool and to help mount the shuttle's heat shield inspection boom on the station.
Linnehan, a large animal veterinarian before becoming an astronaut, last flew in space aboard Columbia in 2002 when he helped service the Hubble Space Telescope. Working on Hubble, he said, was like performing surgery, "operating on a big beast and you go in and open it up. It's like playing 'Operation' on a large scale, if you can remember that game we used to play when you were a kid."
"With this mission, it's much more physically strenuous," he said. "This is like being a longshoreman in terms of the physical exertion and what happens with moving big pieces of the station around robotically and with humans. I would have to say this is a much more complicated mission than the Hubble mission was."
If all goes well, Endeavour will undock from the space station around 8 p.m. on March 24 and land back at the Kennedy Space Center around 8:35 p.m. on March 26.
Endeavour's mission is just the latest in a series of critical flights to the fast-growing space station.
In a dramatic prelude, the European Space Agency successfully launched the Jules Verne Automated Transfer Vehicle, or ATV, Saturday evening from Kourou, French Guiana, atop powerful Ariane 5 rocket. The ATV, carrying more than 10,000 pounds of equipment and supplies - about three times the cargo of an unmanned Russian Progress freighter - is scheduled to dock at the station April 3, after Endeavour is back on Earth.
The Jules Verne is the first of at least five ATVs being built by EADS-Astrium for the European Space Agency as part of a $7 billion investment in the international space station project. That figure includes the cost of the ATV, ESA's Columbus research module and the ground infrastructure required to operate them.
"The ATV as a logistics vehicle carries almost three times the hardware and fuel and water and oxygen that a Progress can carry for us," said Mike Suffredini, space station program manager for NASA. "So it is a major contribution to the program. Probably more significantly will be post 2010 when the shuttle is no longer available for us to do much of the logistics work it does. To me, that's a key part of what the automated transfer vehicle brings to the program."
Said Daniel Sacotte, ESA's Director for Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration: "Last month, with the docking of Columbus, Europe got its own flat in the ISS building. With the launch of the first ATV, we now have our own delivery truck. We have become co-owners of the ISS, now we are about to become fully-fledged partners in running it."
The Russians plan to follow the ATV docking with launch of a Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 8 to deliver two Russian cosmonauts - Sergey Volkov and Oleg Kononenko - to the space station to replace Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko.
Reisman will take Eyharts' place in the Expedition 16 crew and then serve with Volkov and Kononenko after Whitson and Malenchenko return to Earth April 19 along with a South Korean guest cosmonaut who will launch with Volkov and Kononenko. If all goes well, Reisman's replacement - NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff - will be launched aboard the shuttle Discovery at the end of May when the Japanese Experiment Module is launched.
At that point, the pressurized logistics module carried up by Endeavour and temporarily mounted atop the Harmony connecting module, will be moved and mounted on the far end of the JEM to serve as a sort of storage locker for the larger lab module.
"We're having kind of a growth spurt right now in terms of we're finally getting the international partners on-line," Linnehan said in a NASA interview. "It's almost an exponential growth in space aboard the ISS in terms of scientific capability and also bringing in a larger crew with larger space, larger power capability with the new arrays that are up there. We're able to put more modules (up) and we're able to open up space. I think the JEM itself is about the size of a Greyhound bus. It's a really big module. It's going to give us a lot more operational space and I think once we have that happening with Columbus and all that, that's when we're going to be looking at increasing crew size and bringing people up and we'll have a true multi-national crew on ISS."
The international nature of the space station project reflects a partnership that Reisman described as "really one of the most remarkable stories in the whole history of the space station program."
"It's a fantastic engineering feat, something unparalleled, really, in the history of engineering," he said. "But on top of that, it's also an amazing political achievement. The fact that we've gone through so many different administrations here in the United States, over in Russia and in Japan, Canada, it survived all of that, it held together, and it's only strengthened over time as we've learned to work together.
"So it's very exciting now that we're bringing in more partners on a day to day basis. These partners have always been with us, but now they're getting their hands really dirty and being a real big contributor to the whole program. It's a very exciting time."
Reisman, Gorie, Linnehan, Foreman and Behnken will be joined by pilot Gregory Johnson and Japanese astronaut Takao Doi, a shuttle veteran responsible for activating the new Japanese pressurized logistics module. Gorie is making his fourth shuttle flight as is Linnehan. Foreman, Behnken, Johnson and Reisman are space rookies.
"The highlight of my whole spaceflight is going to be being part of this crew," Reisman said. "For me, since I'll be doing robotics and space walking and assisting all these guys in their tasks, for me it's kind of like playing the Super Bowl and then going about the regular season for another two months. I've had such a good time as far as this crew, I think when it's time to close the hatches I'm going to be looking around saying, 'where are you guys going? Why are you leaving me here?'"