Bittersweet blastoff sends Atlantis back into space
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: May 14, 2010
The shuttle Atlantis blasted off on its 32nd and final planned mission Friday, closing out 25 years of service with a 12-day flight to deliver a Russian docking module and critical spare parts to the International Space Station.
Accelerating through 100 mph - straight up - in just eight seconds, Atlantis wheeled about its long axis and lined up on a trajectory paralleling the East Coast. Liftoff was timed for roughly the moment Earth's rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the space station's orbit, the first step in a two-day rendezvous procedure.
Atlantis quickly arced away to the northeast, putting on a spectacular afternoon sky show for area residents and tourists who gathered along Florida's "Space Coast" to witness the shuttle's final planned flight.
Commander Kenneth Ham, pilot Dominic Antonelli and flight engineer Michael Good monitored the shuttle's computer-controlled ascent, joined by Stephen Bowen, a former submariner, Piers Sellers and Garrett Reisman, who spent three months aboard the space station in 2008.
"We're going to take her on her 32nd flight and if you don't mind, we'll take her out of the barn and make a few more laps around the planet," Ham radioed launch director Mike Leinbach a few minutes before takeoff.
The shuttle's ascent appeared normal with no obvious impacts from external tank foam insulation. Video from a camera mounted on the side of the tank showed a few bits of insulation separating and falling away, but by that point the shuttle was out of the dense lower atmosphere where debris impacts pose a more significant threat.
"Just wanted to let you know, the preliminary imagery and observation looks really clean, looks like another fantastic flight for Atlantis and the ET," astronaut Charles Hobaugh radioed from mission control after the shuttle reached orbit. "So that's good news. Of course, we'll find out a whole bunch more as we go on."Later, as Hobaugh and the ascent team was going off shift in mission control, Ham radioed "This is one more fantastic ride for Atlantis, She's doing us proud."
Engineers will spend several days assessing launch imagery, as well as photos taken from the shuttle and subsequent heat shield inspections before giving the ship a clean bill of health for re-entry.
"All the work that led up to this launch today was just phenomenal, the Atlantis team did a great job of processing the vehicle out at the launch pad," said Bill Gerstenmaier, chief of space operations for NASA. "The vehicle looks like it's in really clean shape, we're ready to go do a pretty challenging mission."
The primary goals of the 132nd shuttle mission are to deliver the Russian Rassvet - "dawn" - docking module, to install a spare 6-foot-wide Ku-band dish antenna system and to replace six aging batteries in one of the station's four sets of U.S. solar arrays.
If all goes well, Ham will guide Atlantis to a docking at the space station's forward port Sunday morning. The exact time is a bit uncertain because of a possible close encounter with a piece of space debris an hour or so later that could force station flight controllers to carry out a protective debris avoidance maneuver. But no major problems were anticipated.
Ham and his crewmates will be welcomed aboard the station by Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov, Soichi Noguchi, Timothy Creamer, Alexander Skvortsov, Mikhail Kornienko and Tracy Caldwell Dyson.
Reisman, Good and Bowen will work in two-man teams for three planned spacewalks to install the backup antenna, the solar array batteries and other equipment. Sellers, who will operate the station's robot arm during the spacewalks, will assist Reisman on the arm during installation of the Russian mini-research module, or MRM-1, on the fifth day of the mission, the day after the first spacewalk.
The 17,760-pound mini-research module, or MRM, is packed with 3,086 pounds of NASA equipment and supplies and carrying an experiment airlock and European robot arm equipment that will be attached to other modules later.
Docked to the Earth-facing port of the central Zarya module, MRM-1 will bring additional pressurized volume for research and stowage and provide needed clearance between the forward Russian docking port and a U.S. storage module scheduled for attachment later this year.
The Russian module's docking system is virtually identical to the systems used by Progress and Soyuz spacecraft that dock with considerably more force than NASA typically employs. The station's robot arm cannot match that docking force, but by precisely centering the docking mechanisms, engineers are confident the Canadian space crane can get the job done.
"This module was originally designed to fly up, like all the other Russian modules, and dock under its own power, autonomously," Reisman said. "The way they do that is they have big cone (on one module) and a big probe (on the other), they get a good running start and it's almost like bringing train cars together.
"What we're trying to do here is very different. ... The arm can't get the kind of ramming speed it normally develops under its nominal means of docking. So we're going to be restricted to coming in approximately five times slower, and that's the fastest the arm can do safely.
"What we hope to do is have very fine control and have it come right down the middle. There are a lot of people who have worked really hard, did a lot of analysis to verify this is going to work. But the exciting thing is it's never been done before and so I'm sure we'll all be watching very carefully as we bring that in on flight day five."
MRM-1 complexities aside, the timelines for all three spacewalks are extremely tight and the excursions must be conducted in serial fashion.
During the first spacewalk on flight day four, Reisman and Bowen plan to install the backup Ku-band dish antenna atop an 8-foot-tall mast and mount an equipment support platform on a Canadian robot arm extension.
During the second spacewalk the day after the MRM-1 docking, Bowen and Good will begin work to replace six 365-pound nickel-hydrogen batteries on the far left end of the station's main power truss. The battery swap out will be completed during a third spacewalk by Reisman and Good.
"These aren't double As," Good joked before launch. "One of my brothers likes to give me a hard time about flying up in space and changing batteries, he thinks this is not a very difficult task, not a big deal. But these are like 400-pound nickel-hydrogen batteries, they're the size of a big suitcase, probably bigger than the airlines would let you take on without charging you extra. And they're pretty tricky. ... The alignment and the tolerances are very tight."
Atlantis is scheduled to undock from the station around 11:20 a.m. on May 23, setting up a landing back at the Kennedy Space Center around 8:44 a.m. on Wednesday, May 26.
While STS-132 is Atlantis' final planned mission, the shuttle will be processed for stand-by duty as an emergency rescue vehicle to support the shuttle Endeavour's launch late this year or early next on what is currently the program's final mission.
But NASA managers are considering the possibility of launching Atlantis on a final space station resupply mission after Endeavour's flight, using a reduced crew of four. A four-person crew could seek safe haven aboard the space station if necessary and rotate back to Earth aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, eliminating the need for a rescue mission.
NASA managers believe the benefits to the space station outweigh the marginal cost of the flight, but it remains to be seen whether such a mission will win the necessary political support. A decision is expected early this summer.
"I've personally asked the president that that's what he ought to do, fly one extra shuttle flight, because we've got the hardware, it's ready to go," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who flew aboard the shuttle Columbia in 1986.
"It sits for the remaining flights as a rescue shuttle and when you would fly it as the last flight, the risk would be (minimal) because even if something happened that you couldn't return to Earth, they could take safe harbor on the space station.
"So I think NASA is seriously considering it and I'm going to continue to press the White House that they ought to approve it," Nelson said.
The final planned flight of space shuttle Atlantis is symbolized in the official embroidered crew patch for STS-132. Available in our store!
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