NASA announced yet another delay for the launch of the Discovery STS-119 mission to the International Space Station Friday, marking the fourth time the mission has been postponed.
An all-day review of the craft’s readiness for launch left managers still under-confident about the operations of three hydrogen control valves that channel gaseous hydrogen from the main engines to the external fuel tank. Engineering teams have been working to identify what caused damage to a flow control valve on shuttle Endeavour during its November 2008 flight. NASA managers decided Friday more data and possible testing are required before launch can proceed.
“We need to complete more work to have a better understanding before flying,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for Space Operations at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Gerstenmaier chaired Friday’s Flight Readiness Review.
“We were not driven by schedule pressure and did the right thing. When we fly, we want to do so with full confidence.”
Besides understanding what happened with Endeavor’s valves last fall, teams also have tried to determine the consequences if a valve piece were to break off and strike part of the shuttle and external fuel tank.
Meanwhile, the Discovery launch date has shifted from Feb. 12, to Feb. 19, to Feb. 22, Feb. 27 and now — as of last night’s briefing — is postponed until further notice. The Space Shuttle Program has been asked to develop a plan for further inspections. The plan will be reviewed during a meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 25 and a new target launch date may be considered then.
The STS-119 mission is supposed to enhance the solar gathering power of the International Space Station so it might support a larger crew. When it does fly, STS-119 will tote two solar array wings, each of which has two 115-foot-long arrays, for a total wing span of 240 feet, including the equipment that connects the two halves and allows them to twist as they track the sun. Altogether, the four sets of arrays can generate 84 to 120 kilowatts of electricity – enough to provide power for more than 40 average homes.
The mission astronauts arrived at the Kennedy Space Center Jan. 19 and have more or less been in standby mode ever since, shuttling back and forth between Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston. On Wednesday of this week, STS-119 mission specialists Richard Arnold and Joseph Acaba were in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at Johnson, brushing up on spacewalk procedures. As of Thursday, the astronauts were in launch-countdown mode which included preflight quarantine.