Spaceflight Now

Shuttle Atlantis receives payloads for space station

Posted: June 19, 2011;
Updated June 20 after payload installation was completed

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--A cargo-laden module stuffed with a full year's worth of necessities for the International Space Station was loaded into shuttle Atlantis' payload bay Monday to prepare for launch next month.

The payload canister (left) was hoisted into the gantry Friday in advance of Monday's installation into Atlantis. Credit: Justin Ray/Spaceflight Now
Known by its nickname Raffaello, or more formally as the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, this cylindrical structure is packed with food, spare parts and science gear for the station's residents.

Atlantis' upcoming mission, slated for blastoff July 8 at 11:26 a.m. EDT (1526 GMT), will attach the Italian-built module onto the station so that the astronauts can unload what amounts to a space-age moving van.

And once the containers and bags of supplies are pulled from Raffaello, items either no longer needed on the space station or looking for a ride back to Earth will be stashed inside the module before it's returned to Atlantis' payload bay for ferrying home.

Raffaello was moved out of Kennedy Space Center's Space Station Processing Facility last Monday within a special transport canister shaped like the shuttle's 60-foot-long payload bay. After a layover at the rotation building, where the container was turned upright, the module reached pad 39A at about 11:30 p.m. EDT Thursday.

Ground crews went to work hoisting the canister up the gantry to place the payload into the pad's cleanroom Friday night and the tower rotated around Atlantis early Saturday to prepare for the eventual insertion into the shuttle bay on Monday.

A photo gallery released late Monday shows the payloads successfully installed aboard the orbiter for launch.

"We're taking a year's worth of food," says mission specialist Sandy Magnus. "We're taking about 2,000 pounds of science equipment, we're taking hygiene items, we're taking clothing, we're taking thousands of pounds of spare parts for the different systems, life support system, the electrical system, the computer system and so forth. These are the big things that we're taking because we're trying to supply the station for a whole year, and that hedges our bets against when the commercial follow-on cargo contracts will be available up and running."

Once the space shuttles are retired after this final mission, NASA will rely upon the commercial firms SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to fly resupply missions with the new capsules and rockets being developed. Russian, European and Japanese unmanned cargo vehicles will continue flying to the station as well.

But the relatively late decision to formally approve launching this extra space shuttle mission gives the station program some breathing room in case the commercial providers fall further behind in beginning routine servicing of the outpost.

"135 wasn't really a planned mission until very recently, it was supposed to be a rescue mission. Since the orbiter was ready, they were stacking and processing it just like it was a regular flight, and they said, well if we put an MPLM (multi-purpose logistics module) in the back and we load it up with cargo, we can probably get an extra year's worth of provisions up to the space station," said commander Chris Ferguson.

Raffaello gets moved to transporter last week at KSC's space station processing hangar. Credit: NASA
Also along for the launch besides Raffaello in the payload bay is a bridge-like structure holding a robotic refueling experiment, a boxy payload that the space station's Dextre robot will use to test tools and techniques to service free-flying satellites. The ammonia coolant pump that malfunctioned on the station last summer will be brought home on that carrier for analysis.

"As far as what we're doing, big picture, we're delivering about 17,000 pounds of cargo in an MPLM. We're also going to deliver a robotics refueling module which is a Fisher-Price play toy, if you will for the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, and we'll be bringing home a pump module that failed on the space station," Ferguson said.

"We're also going to bring back a lot of cargo and spare things that have been in the space station, in an effort to clean it out a little bit. There's a lot of space shuttle related items that we keep up there permanently from flight to flight; after this flight's over there'll be no reason to have them up there so we'll bring a lot of those home as well.

"So largely it's a cargo mission. It's an effort to posture the space station for about a year, put it in a good position until we can get our commercial cargo resupply system up and running."

Assuming an on-time launch, Atlantis will rendezvous and dock with the station on July 10 at 11 a.m. EDT. The following flight day is devoted to mounting Raffaello onto the Harmony node and opening up the hatchway, with attachment targeted for July 11 at about 7:45 a.m.

The mission's only spacewalk -- by station astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum -- is slated to begin around 8:45 a.m. July 12 to relocate that failed pump to the shuttle payload bay and transfer the refueling experiment over to the outpost.

A look inside Raffaello before the module was sealed up for launch. Credit: NASA
Several days will be devoted to unloading and repacking Raffaello. The challenge facing Atlantis' astronauts and their fellow crewmates from the Expedition 28 team living aboard the station is getting all of the highly choreographed transfer work done during the week the shuttle is docked.

"This mission the scheduling is that tight. They're looking at 15-minute windows, half-an-hour windows and having debates at that level to figure out how to get enough transfer time on the books they feel confident that we'll be able to move everything from MPLM to station and then from station back to MPLM and the middeck," Magnus says.

"It's quite a puzzle game and the very first most important rule is, 'Do what Sandy says,' because Sandy's lived up there and she's our loadmaster so she knows where things go and also how is the best way to rearrange stuff," mission specialist Rex Walheim added.

"I'll be her assistant and so we'll figure out ways to make that shell game happen because before you bring stuff back, obviously, you've got to make a hole for it and can you bring all this stuff out of the multi-purpose logistics module before you start bringing stuff back in or do you bring them back part at a time. So it's kind of one of those puzzle games where we will start bringing stuff in before we've offloaded everything."

Raffaello will be closed up and then detached from the station around 7:15 a.m. July 17, and Atlantis undocks from the outpost at 2 a.m. July 18.

Landing at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for July 20 at 7:06 a.m. EDT to conclude the space shuttle program.