Spaceflight Now: Space Station/STS-98

Atlantis departs station after flawless lab delivery

Posted: February 16, 2001

Space shuttle Atlantis undocks from the space station. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
The shuttle Atlantis undocked from the international space station today, leaving the outpost behind with a new $1.4 billion laboratory module and some 3,000 pounds of equipment and supplies.

With shuttle pilot Mark Polansky at the controls, Atlantis dropped straight away from the station at 9:06 a.m. and fell to a point about 450 feet directly below the outpost.

Polansky then flew the shuttle through a slow half loop around the station for a detailed photo survey, moving up in front of the outpost and then to a point directly above it before moving away for good.

Spectacular video from the shuttle showed the station with its newly attached Destiny module and its huge solar arrays gleaming against the deep black of space. As the loop continued, the station could be seen against the brilliant backdrop of Earth.

Video downlinked through the space station's computer conferencing system showed Atlantis slowly moving away, spitting out gusts of rocket exhaust as its small maneuvering jets fired to maintain the proper orientation and rate of motion.

"Houston, Atlantis, sep burn is complete," Polansky radioed as the shuttle departed.

"Copy, Mark, good job on the fly around," replied astronaut Mario Runco in mission control.

"Thanks. It was awesome to get to do that."

A seen through a window on the space station, Atlantis' jet thrusters fire during the undocking sequence. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Back on their own until their replacements arrive in mid March, station skipper William Shepherd, Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev face a busy few weeks of work to complete Destiny's activation and to unpack supplies and equipment delivered by the shuttle crew.

"Alpha would like to salute the crew of Atlantis as they depart for Earth," Shepherd radioed. "We want to say thanks to the shuttle and station teams and the whole station partnership for bringing on board a great new capability, the research lab Destiny. We will use it well. Have a safe voyage back and a safe landing."

If all goes well, Polansky, commander Kenneth Cockrell, flight engineer Marsha Ivins and spacewalkers Thomas Jones and Robert Curbeam will glide back to the Kennedy Space Center Sunday afternoon, touching down on NASA's 3-mile-long shuttle runway around 12:50 p.m.

Atlantis docked with the station last Friday and the crew installed the Destiny module the next day during the first of three spacewalks by Jones and Curbeam.

The lab's computer systems were activated Sunday and a second spacewalk was carried out Monday to attach a shuttle docking port to Destiny's forward hatch that will be used by subsequent assembly crews.

In a major milestone, the station's NASA-supplied gyroscopic stabilization system was activated Tuesday. Other than a momentary spin down in one of the four gyros Friday, the system has performed flawlessly.

"Yesterday, control moment gyro No. 2 stopped communicating with the GNC MDM (guidance, navigation and control computer)," said station flight director Andrew Algate. "The on-board software automatically re-established communications.

"We looked at the data for a few hours and decided it was all right to put that one gyro back into the control set," he said. "So it's back up and operating normally at this time. We're still assessing the data to determine what caused the initial problem."

The only other issue under study is the failure of a vacuum pump in the lab's carbon dioxide removal system. Deputy station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier said today spare parts have been shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for launch to the station next month if Shepherd's crew is unable to get the system working.

The international space station with Earth as a backdrop. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Meanwhile, with two successful spacewalks behind them, Jones and Curbeam carried out a third and final excursion Wednesday to attach a spare S-band antenna array to the station's hull and to test emergency rescue techniques. Final equipment transfers were the order of the day Thursday and this morning, at 8:14 a.m., hatches between Atlantis and the space station were closed for the last time.

"I've been involved in a large number of missions over the years and I have to say, this is by far the most complex in terms of having a serial sequence of activities that all have to be carried off successfully in order to get the station ready (for) the next mission," Algate said.

"The fact that all these activities came together and worked so well is a real tribute to all the teams who worked together on this mission: The station program and Boeing folks, who put together the hardware and software for the mission; the ops teams and the shuttle crew and station crew, who worked together to develop the techniques we'd use; and the Russians, who had their own critical activities."

Next up: Shuttle Discovery, scheduled for launch March 8 from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. Joining the shuttle crew will be Expedition 2 commander Yuri Usachev, James Voss and Susan Helms.

The shuttle also will carry an Italian-built pressurized module loaded with supplies and equipment, including the first suite of experiment hardware for the Destiny module.

There had been a bit of concern in recent weeks that Discovery's flight might have to be delayed because of the upcoming re-entry of the Russian Mir space station. The Russians do not have the staffing needed to support a shuttle-station docking and to orchestrate Mir's safe re-entry.

But it now appears Mir's final descent will occur several days after Discovery's launch and docking and Gerstenmaier said that as of today, there is no conflict that would delay Discovery's flight.

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