Shuttle Endeavour roars into the night
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: March 11, 2008;
Updated with cooling system details, debris report
The space shuttle Endeavour, carrying a crew of seven, a Japanese space station module and a high-tech Canadian robot with 11-foot-long arms, vaulted into orbit early today, lighting up the pre-dawn sky for miles around as it knifed through low clouds and rocketed away on a 16-day space station assembly mission.
"OK, Dom, the vehicle's in great shape, the weather is go, in fact it should be an interesting sight for you to punch through the clouds tonight," Launch Director Mike Leinbach radioed during a final hold in the countdown. "So on behalf of the KSC launch team, I'd like to wish you good luck, Godspeed and we'll see you back here in 16 days."
"Well Mike, you've just made people smile around the world and you've got seven smiling faces on board here," commander Dom Gorie replied from the shuttle's cockpit. "We'd like to give a special thanks to our families, KSC's Endeavour crew, our friends in Houston and Canada and for JAXA (the Japanese space agency), we'd like to say konichwa, doomo arigatoo and banzai! God has truly blessed us with a beautiful night ... to launch, so let's light 'em up and give 'em a show."
With its three hydrogen-fueled main engines roaring at full throttle, Endeavour's twin solid-fuel boosters ignited with a rush of fiery exhaust at 2:28:14 a.m., instantly pushing the spacecraft away from pad 39A atop twin pillars of 5,000-degree flame.
Climbing straight up for the first 10 seconds, Endeavour wheeled about to put the crew in a heads-down orientation beneath the external tank and arced away to the northeast on a course paralleling the East Coast. It was only the second night launch since the 2003 Columbia disaster and Endeavour put on a spectacular, if brief, sky show as it passed through a deck of clouds about 6,300 feet above the launch pad and disappeared from view.
Monitoring the computer-controlled ascent from Endeavour's upper flight deck were Gorie, pilot Gregory Johnson, flight engineer Michael Foreman and Robert Behnken. Strapped in on the shuttle's lower deck were Richard Linnehan, Japanese astronaut Takao Doi and space station flight engineer Garrett Reisman, hitching a ride to the lab complex to replace outgoing flight engineer Leopold Eyharts.
Telemetry from the shuttle indicated a problem moments after liftoff with a loss of data from two of the ship's reaction control system maneuvering jets and a few minutes later, a glitch of some sort forced a switch to an alternate cooling system controller. The flash evaporator system, or FES, is primarily used during ascent and entry, when the shuttle's cargo bay doors are closed and Freon coolant loop radiators are not yet deployed.
LeRoy Cain, chairing NASA's Mission Management Team, described the problems as "minor" and said neither was expected to have any impact on Endeavour's mission.
"It's a fully redundant system," he said. "It's the kind of thing we have seen fail in this way during powered flight a number of times. ... I fully expect we'll be able to resolve it. It's a loss of redundancy in the very worst case."
As with all space station flights, today's launching was timed to roughly coincide with the moment Earth's rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the lab's orbit. As a result, takeoff occurred in darkness and even with a camera mounted on the side of the shuttle's external tank, there was little to see after Endeavour's solid-fuel boosters separated two minutes and five seconds into flight.
Eight-and-a-half minutes after liftoff, the shuttle's main engines shut down and seconds later, the spaceplane separated from its external tank. As Endeavour pulled away, live television views from the tank camera showed periodic flashes as a digital camera in the belly of the shuttle used a new Nikon flash system to illuminate the tank. The goal was to collect detailed digital pictures to help engineers assess the condition of the tank's foam insulation even in orbital darkness.
A quick look at the limited video available from ground cameras indicated at least one piece of debris separated and fell away 83 seconds after liftoft. The incident occurred while the shuttle was still in the thicker, lower atmosphere, which can produce higher impact velocities, But astronaut James Dutton in mission control told the crew the debris, whatever it might have been, did not appear to strike the orbiter.
"We did track one piece of debris that appeared to move past the right wing at 83 seconds," Dutton said. "There was no impact seen. ... Overall, it looked really nice."
The astronauts will carry out their own heat shield inspection later this evening, using a sensor boom on the end of the shuttle's robot arm to check the condition of the ship's nose cap and wing leading edge panels, which experience the most extreme heating during re-entry. if all goes well, Gorie will guide the shuttle to a docking with the space station around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The primary goals of the 122nd shuttle mission are to install a Japanese equipment module atop the forward Harmony module; to assemble Canada's special purpose dextrous manipulator robot, known informally as "Dextre;" to deliver spare parts and supplies; and to test a new heat shield repair technique, one of the final steps in NASA's recovery from the Columbia disaster.
Five spacewalks are planned - the most of any station assembly flight to date - over 12 docked days. That's the longest shuttle stay at the station since construction began in 1998. Endeavour is equipped with a new station-to-shuttle power transfer system that lets it tap into the lab's solar power grid, permitting longer stays than possible with the shuttle's fuel cells alone.
The Japanese module mounted in Endeavour's cargo bay 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 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 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."
Installation of the Japanese module, assembly of Dextre and the transfer of spare parts to the station will take up the first three spacewalks. In a milestone test scheduled for the crew's fourth excursion, Foreman and 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. The goal is 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," 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."
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 8:33 p.m. on March 26.