Soyuz Blasts off with International Crew to build out ISS


An international crew of three astronauts and cosmonauts blasted off Sunday (Dec 20) at 4:52 PM EST in a Russian capsule from the bone chilling Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, bound for the International Space Station (ISS). The crew aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 capsule comprises Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA’s T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

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Following a two day pursuit they will rendezvous and link up with the ISS at the Zarya module’s nadir port on Tuesday at 5:58 p.m. EST about 220 miles over South America. Then they will officially join the Expedition 22 core crew of two, ISS Commander Jeff Williams (NASA) and flight engineer Max Suraev (Russia) thereby enlarging the orbiting outposts population to five, just one person shy of the full staffing of six.

Williams and Sureav have served as the sole occupants for the last three weeks since the scheduled Dec. 1 departure of the three man Expedition 21 crew. They arrived by Soyuz capsule TMA-16 in October.

Hatches between the ISS and Soyuz will be opened about 90 minutes after the Tuesday docking, which will be carried live on NASA TV. Kotov, Creamer and Noguchi are bringing along holiday goodies just in time to celebrate the arrival of Christmas and begin their 6 month stint in space.

The pre-dawn launch occurred precisely on time at 3:52 a.m. Monday local Kazakh time and was timed to coincide with the moment Earth’s rotation carried the launch pad into the plane of the space station’s orbit. The roaring stream of flames lit up the night sky for earth bound observers for miles around.

With Soyuz Commander Kotov occupying the center seat, the capsule separated from the third stage after the thunderous 9 minute climb to space. “Everyone feels great, no problems”, Kotov reported as the capsule was safely injected into an initial earth orbit. A live internal video feed showed the crew for most of the ride to orbit, working efficiently and in a relaxed manner. Engines will be fired three more times to raise the orbit and maneuver the capsule to match the stations orbit. On Tuesday the engines will be fired for a final time to align the Soyuz for docking.

The Expedition 22 crew of five have a busy agenda ahead filled with spacewalks, shuttle arrivals, relocating equipment, attachment of new modules and ambitious science experiments

Expedition 22 Soyuz Rollout. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 22 Soyuz Rollout. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

This was the first December lift off for a Soyuz since 1990 and took place in the frigid cold as the earthling observers shivered outside. The crew had been training in Baikonur for the last week and a half to complete final launch preparations.

The launch pad is the very same one used to support the historic launch of Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 on mankind’s first manned space flight. The Soyuz crew capsule has been in use by Russia since 1967.
Creamer is making his first space flight and is a distinguished Army aviator. This is Kotov’s 2nd flight to the ISS where he has already performed two spacewalks. Likewise it’s the 2nd flight for Noguchi, but his first on board a Soyuz. He was previously a member of the Shuttle Return to Flight crew in 2005. Three dozen Japanese journalists were on hand to document the mission, the first by a Japanese aboard a Soyuz.

Before today’s lift-off, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Administrator for NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations previewed the ‘year in space’ to come. “It’s an amazing time in spaceflight. We are bringing the station crew back up to five and learning how to operate with a larger crew size. For the systems to work right that requires a lot of preparation”.

“This will be an amazing year upcoming as I stand here in Kazakhstan with the Soyuz behind me. We have a shuttle almost ready to fly from KSC and this Soyuz set to fly. 2010 will be a busy year. We’ll have as many as 6 Progress, 4 Soyuz and 5 Shuttle flights to the ISS. The shuttle will start the year by bringing up the Tranquility and Cupola modules” (read our previous article for more info).

“We have built a phenomenal research station in space which could only have been assembled by the shuttle. But now it’s time to move beyond the shuttle. After the shuttle retires we will transition to smaller rockets like the Soyuz and the Dragon”.

What Would NASA Do with an Added Shuttle Flight?

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits poised for the STS 129 launch from Pad 39 A on 16 November 2009. Atlantis would likely fly a proposed new flight as STS-135. Credit: Ken Kremer

The end of the Space Shuttle Era is rapidly approaching and with it some urgent questions including, “How will the US support continued use of the ISS?” and “What would NASA do if granted an additional shuttle flight?”

Currently, only 5 flights remain on the manifest and right now, the final shuttle flight is set for September 2010. This deadline and policy was decreed by the Bush Administration and simultaneously coincides with the end of ISS assembly and the end of the Fiscal 2010 budget year. Thus far the Obama Administration has not announced any policy changes despite recurring questions from Congress and the press as the retirement approaches.
ISS.  Credit: NASA

Then comes the big “gap” in US human spaceflight launch capability between the looming shuttle shutdown and the debut of the Orion capsule. Orion will not be ready until 2015 or later. So there will be a minimum 5 year “gap” when NASA cannot launch its own astronauts or even unmanned cargo supply vessels to the International Space Station which will operate until at least 2015. Hence the practical questions from the US side on “How to re-supply the ISS?”

NASA will then be utterly dependent on Russia to launch US astronauts to the ISS at a cost of some $50 million per Soyuz seat. Several companies are receiving NASA funding under the COTS program to develop cargo up-mass vehicles to the ISS and are also exploring crewed options.

For the most part, the general public is unaware of these facts. Congress has been fully aware of this quandary since 2004 when President Bush announced new NASA goals as part of the VSE or “Vision for Space Exploration” to return to the Moon and beyond to Mars. NASA’s budget has been cut in the intervening years and the “gap” has grown longer. Insufficient funding from Washington, DC directly caused a slower development pace for Orion and the Ares rocket.

One much discussed “gap” closing measure is to slightly extend the deadline for closing out the shuttle program by adding 1 or more new flights. This action requires a direct decision soon from President Obama and enabling funding from Congress.

If granted the authority to extend the Shuttle program with an additional flight, NASA officials at a very high level have already decided on paper what such a mission would entail. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations says that the team has done some planning for what is dubbed a ‘contingency’ flight. “It sits on the manifest as a ‘contingency’ if we need to fly it. It would be prudent to have an MPLM (pressurized Multi-purpose logistics module) in there to carry spares and restock station. We originally wanted to have a back up shuttle available in case we had a situation where we needed to do a contingency crew support to keep them in orbit for some period of time.”

At the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), I spoke with Scott Higginbotham about the details of the ‘contingency’ flight. Scott is a shuttle payload mission manager at KSC, most recently for STS-129 . He told me, “If there was to be another mission then the plan is to fly another MPLM. We have two more MPLM’s but only one is flight worthy. For the call up mission, the possible new last flight, we would fly ‘Raffaello’. But NASA needs more money and work modifications to get ‘Raffaello’ ready and up to speed”.

‘Donatello’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC.  This module is being utilized for spare parts. Outer shielding is being removed.   Credit: Ken Kremer
‘Donatello’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC. This module is being utilized for spare parts. Outer shielding is being removed. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA has three MPLM’s total, named ‘Leonardo’, ‘Raffaello’ and ‘Donatello’ after significant engineers in Italian history and the Ninja turtles too. All were built by Alenia in Italy under contract to the European Space Agency (ESA). ‘Leonardo’ will be permanently attached on the current last flight, STS 133, after “beefing up the outside to provide extra micrometeoroid debris protection for the module. That will allow it to stay on orbit,” according to Gerstenmaier. ‘Leonardo’ would then be redesignated as a Permanent Multipurpose Module, or PMM. Initially it will be docked at a space facing port on the Harmony connecting node.

“Since the MPLM’s only go up on short sortie missions, their shielding is not as thick as the other station elements,” said Higgenbotham. ‘Leonardo’ flies once more in March 2010 and will then be modified to add shielding. “Donatello will never fly. It’s become our spare parts man to be raided if needed.” Alenia also constructed the Tranquility and Cupola long duration modules I observed recently at a ceremony inside the KSC Space Station Processing Facility (LINK). While inside the station facility, I inspected all three of the MPLM’s (see photos).

“Because of the limited number of shuttle missions left and budget constraints, it makes more sense financially to just fly ‘Leonardo’ over and over again. ‘Raffaello’ is being maintained just in case” added Higgenbotham. “We know that we would like to fly more supplies to the station and bring things home. But whether we actually go prepare ‘Raffaello’ for that contingency mission is being discussed. So we are doing some of the advanced exercises in case we get turned on.”

Leonardo’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC built by Alenia under contract to ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).  This module will be left attached to the ISS on the last scheduled shuttle mission, STS 133. It will be modified with additional shielding for protection against strikes by micrometeoroids. Note grapple fixture at top. Each MPLM is 21 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, weighs 4.5 tons, and can deliver up to 10 tons of cargo to the ISS.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Leonardo’ MPLM module inside the Space Station Processing Facility at KSC built by Alenia under contract to ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). This module will be left attached to the ISS on the last scheduled shuttle mission, STS 133. It will be modified with additional shielding for protection against strikes by micrometeoroids. Note grapple fixture at top. Each MPLM is 21 feet long, 15 feet in diameter, weighs 4.5 tons, and can deliver up to 10 tons of cargo to the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We know the big picture of what would be included. It would include science experiments, spare parts, food, clothing, station consumables and what the crew needs to get by day to day”, he said. “So if I have the ability to launch another MPLM mission, then I can loft thousands of pounds that I don’t need to pay a commercial vendor or the Russians to do,” Higgenbotham explained. “We can save them for other items that may break down in the future.”

Large outside items would probably not go up on that mission. “The expectation is we are going to clear the house of all large external parts by the time the last mission flies. All those are planned for going up on the already manifested missions. We have analyzed what’s needed over the lifetime of the station if we extend out to 2020,” said Higgenbotham.

The station must be continually resupplied with spare parts and logistics for its remaining lifetime whether it’s 2015 or longer to 2020 which is far beyond the upcoming retirement of the Space Shuttle.

“NASA has one External Tank (ET) already built for the ‘contingency’ mission” according to Mike Moses, shuttle integration manager at KSC. Two others exist only in pieces he told me. Since it takes 3 years to build a new ET from scratch, there would be some launch delay for any further missions beyond the possible ‘contingency’ flight.

The future goals of NASA and US human and robotic spaceflight hangs in the balance awaiting critical choices by President Obama and political leaders in Washington, DC. At this point, there is no indication of when President Obama will make a decision on goals or funding. With each day’s delay, the chances to extend the shuttle program are diminished as US manufacturing production lines are shut down, more shuttle workers are layed off and their high technology skills are lost.

About 7000 shuttle workers will lose their jobs at KSC and many more across the US as the Space Shuttle program is terminated in the midst of the current recession.

Butterflynauts Emerge from Cocoons on ISS

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Four “butterflynauts” have emerged on the International Space Station. They are part of a suitcase sized educational experiment that was rocketed to space on Nov. 16 on space shuttle Atlantis as part of the STS-129 mission. Students of all ages and the public are invited to follow the tiny crew’s development from larvae to adult butterflies in the microgravity of space.

In over 100 classrooms across the U.S., students have set up habitats and are replicating the space experiment. Their objective is to compare the growth and behavior of ground-based butterfly larvae and adult butterflies with those living in the microgravity environment of space. New pictures and videos and Powerpoint slides are available almost daily.

A free Butterflies in Space teacher’s guide can be downloaded from BioEd Online at the Butterflies in Space website here. The project is sponsored by National Space Biomedical Research Institute.

Initial results show that there appears to be no difference in the development rates of these butterflies in a microgravity environment as compared to Earth’s gravity, which is a fairly significant finding. While microgravity environment has obvious impacts on human health and physiology, relatively little is known about how microgravity whould effect human growth and development. While there are major differences between humans and butterflies, basic cellular divisions in follow similar processes. Therefore, the success of the butterfly experiment in space indicates that a human embryo could potentially survive and develop normally in space even in the absence of gravity.

ISS Temporarily Down to Crew of 2

Following today’s departure of the three man crew of Expedition 21 aboard the Soyuz TMA 15 capsule, staffing on the International Space Station (ISS) is now temporarily reduced to a skeleton crew of just 2 men for the first time since July 2006. The ISS had hosted a complete 6 person and truly international crew complement for the first time ever since its inception, starting in May of this year.

Soyuz Commander Roman Romanenko (Russia), European Space Agency Flight Engineer Frank De Winne (Belgium) and Canadian Space Agency Flight Engineer Bob Thirsk floated into their three segment Soyuz return capsule on Monday evening, Nov 30. After powering up systems and a farewell ceremony the hatches were closed at 7:43 PM EST. They disengaged hooks and latches and then physically undocked from the Zarya module at 10:56 PM over Mongolia after spending 188 days in space. De Winne was the first European commander of the ISS. All prior commanders have been either Russian or American. Romanenko is a second generation cosmonaut. His father Yuri, flew his first mission in 1980. Thirsk is the first long duration Canadian astronaut.

Soyuz TMA 15 landing track. Credit: NASA TV
Soyuz TMA 15 landing track. Credit: NASA TV

Retro rockets were fired for 4 min 19 sec at 1:26 AM Tuesday morning to initiate the de-orbit braking maneuver for the fiery plunge of atmospheric reentry. 19 minutes later the three Soyuz segments pyrotechnically separated at an altitude of 87 miles. The Soyuz barreled backwards as it hit the earth’s atmosphere at 400,000 ft above Africa and the crew experienced maximum G forces. The three parachuted to a safe touchdown strapped inside their Soyuz descent module onto the snowy steppes of Kazakhstan at 2:15 AM Tuesday Dec 1 (1:15 PM Kazakhstan local time) thereby concluding a mission that began with a May 27 blast off. Russian search and recovery forces drove to the ice cold landing zone at Arkalyk to greet and assist the trio in opening the hatch, exiting the craft, readapting to earth’s gravity and returning to Star City. This was the first December landing of a Soyuz since 1990.

Poor icy weather and low clouds grounded the normal recovery force of 8 helicopters. The capsule landed right on target and in an upright configuration. Recovery forces sped quickly into place. Romanenko was first to depart out the top hatch of the capsule, followed by Thirsk and De Winne. They were carefully extracted by the ground based recovery team and immediately assisted into stretchers while smiling broadly and waving to the crowd. Then they were swiftly slid into all terrain vehicles larger than their capsule for the initial leg of the ride back to Russia. Flight surgeons confirmed the health of the crew who are eager to re-unite with family and friends and earthly comforts.

The Expedition 22 core crew of NASA Commander Jeff Williams and Russian Flight Engineer Max Suraev remain as the sole two occupants for about three weeks until the Dec 23 arrival of the next international crew comprising Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, NASA’s T.J. Creamer, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency who head to the station Dec. 20 on the Soyuz TMA-17 craft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Williams and Suraev arrived by Soyuz capsule TMA -16 in October.

US astronaut Nicolle Stott rounded out the six person ISS crew until her departure just days ago on Nov 25 aboard shuttle Atlantis (link) left just five people on board. She spent 91 days aloft conducting science experiments and has the distinction of being the last ISS resident to hitch a ride up and down on a shuttle. Future crew rotations are planned via Russian Soyuz rockets since the shuttle will be retired by late 2010 and NASA’s Ares / Orion launch system won’t debut until 2015 or later.

Watch video of the shuttle “belly flip” as it arrives at the station.

During 7 days of joint operations in late November, the ISS boasted an ethnically diverse population of 12 humans from the combined crews of STS 129 Atlantis and the resident ISS members from two docked Soyuz capsules, just shy of the record 13 occupants. With all the comings and goings of assorted manned and robotic spaceships lately it’s been an exceptionally busy time that required careful planning and traffic coordination among the world’s space agencies.

The 800,000 pound station is now 86% complete and thus far larger and more complex compared to the last instance of a two person contingent. Since the 2005 Return to Flight of the shuttle following the Columbia accident, several habitable modules (Harmony, Columbus, Kibo, Poisk), truss segments, radiators, stowage platforms and giant solar arrays have been attached. All this has vastly expanded the astronauts and cosmonauts daily responsibilities of both maintaining station systems and carrying out a much expanded scientific research program.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of space operations, said the ISS partners have carefully looked at the operational challenges of this three week interlude to make sure “there is not a lot of activity going on then, other than some software uploads. We moved all the major activities that were occurring to other periods when there will be more crew. We are prepared and ready to cut back a little on operations but still be able to do a little bit of science research with just two crew members on orbit.”

Three space walks by the Atlantis crew helped pave the way for the next shuttle ISS assembly flight in February 2010, designated STS 130, which will haul up the long awaited Tranquility and Cupola modules and which I recently observed close up at the ESA to NASA hand off ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (link) (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center.

Atlantis delivered two large pallets loaded with 15 tons of critical spare parts that will help extend the working lifetime of the ISS and serve as a hedge against on orbit equipment failures ahead of the fast approaching deadline when the space shuttle is no longer available to loft such bulky gear.

Only 5 flights remain until the shuttle era ends late in 2010. The Orion capsule will not debut for at least five years and perhaps longer, dependent on funding decisions in Washington, DC. The station will then be completely dependent for supplies and equipment on Russian, European and Japanese cargo vehicles. Test flights of US commercial ISS transport vessels begin next year.

Not until another three person Soyuz blasts off next April 2010, will the station return to a full team of six. But science research will be full speed ahead.

Tranquility Module Formally Handed over to NASA from ESA

The European Space Agency (ESA) formally transferred ownership of the Tranquility habitable manned module over to NASA at a commemorative handoff ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday, November 20. Tranquility is the last element of a barter agreement between ESA and NASA for station hardware. Included on the module is the “Cupola,” which will provide astronauts with a panoramic view from the largest window flown in space.

ESA contributed the module known as Node 3 in exchange for NASA’s delivery of ESA’s Columbus laboratory to the station in 2008. Thales Alenia Space in Turin (Torino), Italy, built the module in partnership with ESA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and delivered it to KSC in May 2009 aboard an Airbus ‘Beluga’.

Official documents formalizing the ownership exchange were signed by Bernardo Patti, the space station manager for ESA and Michael Suffredini, the space station manager for NASA. A crowd of managers and technicians from NASA, ESA, Thales and Boeing involved in building and processing the node for flight witnessed the event. Media like myself were in attendance to document the transfer formalities.

Bernardo Patti (left), the ESA space station manager for ESA and Michael Suffredini (right), the NASA space station manager sign Tranquility module ownership transfer documents inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) on 20 November 2009. Credit: Ken Kremer
Bernardo Patti (left), the ESA space station manager for ESA and Michael Suffredini (right), the NASA space station manager sign Tranquility module ownership transfer documents inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) on 20 November 2009. Credit: Ken Kremer

“We are very proud to accept this module”, said Suffredini. “In some ways it’s a bittersweet moment because it represents a tailing off of assembly and using the SSPF. But Tranquility was built to start human life beyond Earth as we put things together on-orbit. More than just the work, history will look back at the legacy of the partnership that was built here.

Patti responded saying, “Yes it’s sad that the room is getting empty, but we are very happy that Tranquility is going to the ISS which is a platform for an exploration program that we are privileged to have a future with”.

Attached to the end cone of Tranquility is the Cupola advanced observation module and robotics work station. Both segments are set to launch aboard the next shuttle flight, STS 130, presently scheduled for a 4 February 2010 blast off.

One of the major tasks of spacewalking astronauts aboard the current STS 129 flight of shuttle Atlantis is equipment work to prepare the way for the attachment of Tranquility and the Cupola to the port side hatch of the Unity Node on the ISS by the STS 130 crew of shuttle Endeavour. The astronauts have removed and repositioned external brackets, handrails, micrometeoroid shields, computer and electrical connections.

Tranquility is a complex pressurized interconnecting node that will provide increased living and scientific workspace for the resident ISS crews and house “many of the stations critical life support systems”, Suffredini said to me in an interview following the ceremony. Tranquility will be home to the racks for the advanced Environmental Control and Life Support Systems. This includes the equipment for revitalizing the station atmosphere and removing contaminants, generating oxygen and providing breathable air, carbon dioxide removal, recycling waste water into potable drinking water, the crew toilet and the Colbert Treadmill for crew exercise. Suffredini added, “The check out and activation period for Tranquility will occur during the shuttle mission. The racks are already aboard the ISS and just need to be moved and installed. Many of them are aboard the Destiny module. Their relocation will free up research space”.

The Cupola will function as a panoramic control tower through which operations outside the station can be observed and guided with command and control workstations inside. The circular top window is 80 cm in diameter, making it the largest window flown in space.

Side view of the Tranquility and Cupola modules which will be delivered to the ISS on the STS130 mission by shuttle Endeavour.  The two modules combined weigh over 13.5 tons. Tranquility has six docking ports and is 7 meters (21 ft) in length and 4.5 meters (14.7 ft) in diameter with a pressurized volume of 75 cubic meters (2650 cubic ft).  Credit: Ken Kremer
Side view of the Tranquility and Cupola modules which will be delivered to the ISS on the STS130 mission by shuttle Endeavour. The two modules combined weigh over 13.5 tons. Tranquility has six docking ports and is 7 meters (21 ft) in length and 4.5 meters (14.7 ft) in diameter with a pressurized volume of 75 cubic meters (2650 cubic ft). Credit: Ken Kremer

The unique 7 windowed Cupola module will afford astronauts a heretofore unparalleled 360 degree viewing spectrum of the Earth, the station and the cosmos, said KSC Director Bob Cabana. It will be used for earth observation and space science. Cabana commanded the space shuttle mission which delivered the first US space station component to space, the Unity node and docked it to the Russian Zarya control module to commence ISS assembly in 1998.

‘Tranquility’ is named in honor the Sea of Tranquility, the lunar landing site for Apollo 11 which was NASA’s first flight to land man on the moon in July 1969.

Lead image caption: Michael Suffredini, the ISS manager for NASA accepts ownership of the Node 3 Tranquility module from ESA at hand off ceremony inside the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) at the Kennedy Space Center on 20 November 2009. Cupola observation module is attached at forward hatch in center and covered with thermal protection blankets. Note robotic arm grapple fixture at lower right. Credit: Ken Kremer

Spectacular Shuttle Belly Flip As Atlantis Docks to ISS (Video)

Hypervelocity


(Editor’s note: Ken Kremer is in Florida covering the STS-129 mission for Universe Today)
The astronaut crews for the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Atlantis united as one team in space on Wednesday when Atlantis successfully docked with the ISS at 11:51PM EST. Preluded by some of the most spectacular footage ever of the shuttle “belly flip” or the Rendezvous Pitch Manuaever (RPM), docking occurred in orbital darkness about 220 miles high above earth and directly between Australia and Tasmania. The shuttle astronauts were welcomed aboard the ISS and the jubilant crews exchanged bear hugs, handshakes and high fives inside the Harmony module.

Thursday morning at 9:24 a.m. EST, STS-129 spacewalkers Mike Foreman and Robert Satcher headed outside for the first spacewalk of the mission.

The shuttle docked at a port on Harmony, located on the US end of the station and parallel to the earth below. Russian Soyuz manned capsules dock at the opposite end of ISS on the Russian side of the station. The ISS currently weighs over 800,000 pounds.

After a series of leak checks, hatches between the two vehicles were at last opened at 1:28 PM EST, at 1 day and 23 hours mission elapsed time for Atlantis marking the start of joint operations. ISS Commander Frank DeWinne from Belgium performed a brief ceremony. With an overall crew of 12 people representing many ISS partners, Harmony was rather crowded. The shuttle astronauts received a safety briefing and tour.

Later in the day, Nicolle Stott’s tenure as an ISS crew member ended and she transitioned over to become an official member of the shuttle crew for her return to earth. She will be seated on a special recumbent seat brought aloft by Atlantis. Stott has spent 3 months aboard the station.
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Commander Charles “Scorch” Hobaugh piloted Atlantis for the final approach to the ISS from behind and below. After guiding the shuttle to a distance of 600 ft he initiated a spectacular back flip, known as the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver (RPM), about 30 minutes prior to docking. Hobaugh began the now standard 360 degree back flip maneuver while flying in formation with the ISS at Mach 25 above the Amazon.

The purpose is to collect obtain high resolution imagery of the delicate heat shield tiles which protect the orbiter during the searing heat of reentry. The photos are carefully inspected to look for any signs of damage to the over 20,000 tiles before NASA commits the shuttle to landing back on earth.

Why is this photography important? Because any heat shield leak can be catastrophic for the vehicle and crew. That lesson was tragically learned during the reentry of Columbia.

Station astronauts Jeff Williams and Nicole Stott had about 90 seconds to photograph Atlantis’ belly while aiming 800 mm and 400 mm telephoto lenses respectively through portholes on the Russian Zvezda module. They snapped hundreds of digital photographs which were quickly down linked for analysis by teams waiting in Houston. The spectacular show was carried live on NASA TV.

Atlantis cargo bay carrying spare parts for installation on the ISS with earth in the background. Credit: NASA
Atlantis cargo bay carrying spare parts for installation on the ISS with earth in the background. Credit: NASA

With Atlantis cargo bay pointing towards the ISS the RPM began with a dramatic pitch of the nose upwards and a stunningly beautiful view of earth in the background. Continuing on a full circular path, the shuttle spun around until the bright belly nearly filled the TV screen. Individual tiles and even the wheels wells were easily discernible as the spin progressed unabated. Momentarily the shuttle was again oriented perpendicularly as the tail faced the ISS with a fantastic view directly down into the shuttle’s three main engines and OMS pod. Finally the Atlantis shuttle returned to the same cargo bay orientation from which it started.

The RPM back flip is true spaceflight and looks like something straight out of a futuristic science fiction TV show or movie like my favorites, Star Trek and Babylon 5. But this is real and it’s happening today. And there is nothing routine about it. Make no mistake. Spaceflight is a highly risky business. And highly rewarding. Only a thin line separates life and death.

In the darkness of space, Hobaugh then closed in on the ISS at 0.2 ft per second. For the last 100 feet, Atlantis gradually slowed even further precisely aligning with the ISS until a flawless docking at 0.1 feet per second. Thrusters fired post contact to force the two docking ports together.

A spring loaded docking system damps out the relative motions of the ISS and shuttle over several minutes. The docking ring was then withdrawn to allow a hard mate between the two vehicles.

The astronauts wasted no time and their workload began right away today. Less than 90 minutes after hatch opening the first of two on board Express Logistics Carriers, dubbed ELC 1, was plucked out of the cargo bay by the shuttle arm. ELC 1 was then handed off to the station arm (Canadarm 2) which plugged it into an earth facing attach point on the ISS port side backbone truss at 4:27 PM. During the back flip and docking sequence approach, the shuttles robotic arm could be seen extending outwards from the cargo bay and attached to the 14,000 pound ELC 1.

The hugh ELC’s measuring 16 ft x 14 ft are designed to hold large space parts like the control moment gyroscopes (CMG’s) which provide orientation control for the station. The ELC’s are brand new equipment provided by NASA Goddard and flying for the first time on a shuttle. Also attached to ELC 1 are the ammonia and nitrogen tank assemblies and a battery charger discharge unit. There are some open attach sites to accommodate new spares brought up on future flights.

The first of three planned spacewalks, or EVA’s, is slated for Thursday at 9 AM and will last about 6½ hours. The astronauts quickly moved their space suits into the stations Quest airlock module to begin configuring all equipment needed. The two spacewalkers will spend the night “camped out” inside Quest to acclimate their bodies and purge nitrogen from their bloodstreams, preventing decompression sickness once they move out into the vacuum of space.

This mission will insure that the ISS has spare parts to sustain operations for several years to come. Having these spare components already on board will enormously simplify ISS planning. Of course, the unexpected can always happen. And that is the impending difficulty caused by the looming retirement of the shuttle.
Potentially the ISS could operate for another 10 years to 2020. Currently the ISS is only funded through 2015 and that’s another decision for President Obama on his packed plate. The other ISS partners, especially Russia, favor an ISS life extension as it just now finally reaches its full science capability.

Ken Kremer’s website

Read my earlier reports from KSC on the flight of Atlantis and Atlas launch attempt here:

Atlantis Roars to Space for Trek to ISS
Tweeters and Atlantis Ready for Launch
Clock Ticking for Shuttle Atlantis on Critical Resupply Mission
Atlas Launch halted by ORCA; Shuttle Atlantis Next in Line

Atlantis Roars to Space for Trek to ISS


(Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the launch of Atlantis.)
Space Shuttle Atlantis and her six person crew roared into space on Monday precisely as planned at 2:28 PM EST from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The yellow exhaust flames grew into a nearly blinding intensity as Atlantis ascended off the pad on a trail of crackling fire and smoke. For what felt like an eternity, it seemed like Atlantis would be engulfed in a rapidly expanding inferno emanating from her tail in mid air. The time span was in reality perhaps 5 seconds. Atlantis then dove straight upwards, arced over and finally looked like she would return back to Kennedy on a big circular loop directly through the wake of the exhaust plume. In fact that sight was just an optical illusion but the feeling was shared by other media I conversed with here at the KSC Press site.

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As Atlantis rose on 7 million pounds of liftoff thrust following ignition of the 3 space shuttle main engines and twin solid rocket boosters we saw her rotate about her vertical axis. Atlantis swiftly rising exhaust trail was clearly visible for about three minutes as she ascended northwards up the east coast of the United States for her trek into the orbital plane of the International Space Station (ISS) and carefully choreographed link up in 2 days time.

Gloomy early morning skies which were completely overcast had threatened to delay the launch. At a post-launch briefing, even senior Shuttle manager Mike Moses related how he awoke to the unexpected turn in the weather and said “What the heck happened!”.

Ken Kremer met up with a group of lucky Tweeters at the KSC press center a few minutes after Atlantis blast off.  Back dropped by the world famous countdown clock, pad 39 A.  Do you think they are having a blast?   Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer met up with a group of lucky Tweeters at the KSC press center a few minutes after Atlantis blast off. Back dropped by the world famous countdown clock, pad 39 A and US Flag, they appear to be celebrating their good fortune to be invited by NASA to witness the drama first hand and instantly transmit their experiences across all earth’s continents. Do you think they are having a blast? Credit: Ken Kremer

Perhaps an hour before launch the thick cloud layer at last dissipated and Atlantis punched through the deep blue skies, thrilling everyone at KSC including the over 100 tweeters allowed onto the press site for the very first time, some of whom I met and expressed utter joy at having the best seat in the house.

STS 129 is carrying 15 tons of critical spare parts to guard against the fast approaching day when the shuttle is retired from service in about 1 year. The shuttle is a true spaceship whose vital role and capability to transport large components and replacement equipment to the ISS will remain unmatched for decades to come.

“We appreciate all the effort making this launch attempt possible. We are excited to take this incredible vehicle for a ride to another incredible vehicle, the ISS,” Commander Charlie Hobaugh said shortly before launch.

During three spacewalks, astronauts will install two platforms to the station’s truss, or backbone which will be used to store the spare parts brought aloft and also known as Orbital Replacement Units, or ORU’s.

The six person crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis walk out from crew quarters at 10:38 AM to greet the cheering crowd of media and NASA officials and then head out to pad 39 A to strap in for space launch with hours.  Credit: Ken Kremer
The six person crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis walk out from crew quarters at 10:38 AM to greet the cheering crowd of media and NASA officials and then head out to pad 39 A to strap in for space launch with hours. Credit: Ken Kremer

Hobaugh is joined on Atlantis’ STS-129 mission by Pilot Barry E. Wilmore and Mission Specialists Leland Melvin, Randy Bresnik, Mike Foreman and Bobby Satcher. Atlantis will return with station resident Nicole Stott, marking the final time the shuttle is expected to rotate station crew members. Wilmore, Bresnik and Satcher are first-time space fliers. All future ISS residents will ride aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.
I visited the huge Tweet Up Tent which NASA set up for the first time at the Kennedy Space Center Press center so that ordinary folks from around the world could observe a shuttle launch and share it globally straight away as events unfolded.  This reminded me of a high tech command center.  Credit: Ken Kremer
I visited the huge Tweet Up Tent which NASA set up for the first time at the Kennedy Space Center Press center so that ordinary folks from around the world could observe a shuttle launch and share it globally straight away as events unfolded. This reminded me of a high tech command center. Credit: Ken Kremer

Indian TV interview with Ken Kremer at Launch Pad 39 A on NASA’s future, at this link

Read my earlier reports from KSC on the flight of Atlantis and Atlas launch attempt here:
Tweeters and Atlantis Ready for Launch
Clock Ticking for Shuttle Atlantis on Critical Resupply Mission
Atlas Launch halted by ORCA; Shuttle Atlantis Next in Line
Ken Kremer’s website

Tweeters and Atlantis Ready for Launch

(Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the upcoming Atlantis launch attempt.)
Space shuttle Atlantis is all fueled up and ready for launch. Liftoff time is slated for 2:28 PM EST Monday. The weather forecast has degraded somewhat to 70 percent acceptable from the prior 90 percent forecast. The only concern is the possibility of low cloud ceilings this afternoon. Skies are overcast here at the KSC press center. All the emergency landing sites are “Green”. The launch team is not working any issues at this time. Among those on site at Kennedy Space Center are about 100 Twitter devotees, who are part of a special NASA “Tweet Up.” They’ve been able to tour different facilities and will be on hand for the launch attempt today.

Close up of Space Shuttle Atlantis and crew walk out arm and platform at 195 ft level of pad 39 A.  Close out crew assists crew into their seats. Thereafter the orbiter hatch is closed for the 11 day mission to the ISS.  The arm swings away a few minutes prior to launch.   Credit: Ken Kremer
Close up of Space Shuttle Atlantis and crew walk out arm and platform at 195 ft level of pad 39 A. Close out crew assists crew into their seats. Thereafter the orbiter hatch is closed for the 11 day mission to the ISS. The arm swings away a few minutes prior to launch. Credit: Ken Kremer

The “tanking” procedure began with a 10 minute chill down of the pipes at pad 39 A. Valves leading to the bottom of the 154 foot tall External Tank (ET) were cracked open to begin the roughly 3 hour fueling process of cryogenic propellants. Approximately 535,000 gallons of supercold liquid oxygen (LOX, minus 298 deg F) and liquid hydrogen (LH2, minus 423 deg F ) are loaded from storage tanks around the pad to the shuttles mobile launch platform and is nearly complete as of 7 AM. Thereafter the LOX (145,000 gallons) and LH2 (390,000 gallons) are replenished as needed.

The final inspection team will then proceed to pad 39 A to carefully inspect the ET for any signs of ice build-up which could fall off the ET during ascent and potentially damage the shuttle. The cryogenic propellants fuel the orbiters three main engines (SSME’s) during liftoff and ascent for the 8 and a half minute climb to orbit.
This is the 129th Space Shuttle flight, the 31st flight of Atlantis and the last flight of 2009. Only 5 flights remain after STS 129.

The countdown clock began ticking at T minus 6 hours with the start of fueling.

Media from around the globe have descended on the Kennedy Space Center press site to report on STS 129.  I met journalists from many countries including India, Australia, Japan, Korea, Slovenia, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, United States and more. RSS rollback has just commenced as we stand at the perimeter security fence surrounding Pad 39 A. Credit: Ken Kremer
Media from around the globe have descended on the Kennedy Space Center press site to report on STS 129. I met journalists from many countries including India, Australia, Japan, Korea, Slovenia, Poland, Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, United States and more. RSS rollback has just commenced as we stand at the perimeter security fence surrounding Pad 39 A. Credit: Ken Kremer

On Sunday, I watched from a mere few hundred meters away as NASA technicians retracted back the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) at Launch Pad 39 A to unveil a gleaming white Space Shuttle Atlantis for her heavenly trek to the International Space Station (ISS). Media numbering perhaps a hundred from around the globe, including many from across Asia, were on hand to witness the event which began at 5:30 PM EST as the sun was setting.

The global nature of the news coverage augers well for interest in the ever expanding number of international science experiments being conducted aboard the station in a peaceful and collaborative manner to unite the nations of the world in this magnificent engineering achievement.

Rollback of the RSS to the parked position was completed at 5:56 PM during the T minus 11 hour hold during the launch countdown. The massive cocoon-like structure is 130 feet tall and provides weather protection and access for technicians to work on the shuttle and cargo in the payload bay. Installation and work on the STS 129 payload had already been completed and the payload bay doors were closed.

The protective Rotating Service Structure is about halfway through its 25 minute long rollback at dusk on 15 November 2009 to expose Atlantis for launch at Kennedy Space Center Pad 39 A.  Credit: Ken Kremer
The protective Rotating Service Structure is about halfway through its 25 minute long rollback at dusk on 15 November 2009 to expose Atlantis for launch at Kennedy Space Center Pad 39 A. Credit: Ken Kremer

The countdown continues smoothly towards an afternoon liftoff at 2:28 PM EST. The STS-129 Space Shuttle Commander is Charles O. Hobaugh (third flight). Pilot is Barry E. Wilmore (first flight). The four Mission Specialists are Leland Melvin (second flight), Randy Bresnik (first flight), Mike Foreman (second flight) and Robert L. Satcher Jr. (first flight).

Watch continuous NASA live launch commentary on NASA TV and the Web

Here is a timeline of events on what to expect for Launch day:
4:30 AM Crew wake up
5 AM Crew breakfast
5:03 Tanking Begins. Chill down propellant transfer lines
5:13 Begin loading the external fuel tank with about 500,000 gallons of cryogenic propellants
5:30 Crew final medical checks
6:03 Liquid Hydrogen “fast fill” begins
7:18 Liquid Hydrogen “topping” begins (gaseous hydrogen vent valve cyclng)
8:03 Complete filling the external tank with its flight load of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants
Final Inspection Team proceeds to launch pad
8:30 Ascent team on console in Mission Control
9:30 Launch coverage begins on NASA TV
10:05 Astronauts don flight suits
10:38 Crew departs Operations and Checkout Building for pad 39 A
Complete closeout preparations in the White Room
Check cockpit switch configurations
11:08 Flight crew begins to board Atlantis
Astronauts perform air-to-ground voice checks with Launch and Mission Control
12:13 PM Begin to close Atlantis’ crew hatch
Perform hatch seal and cabin leak checks
12:53 Complete White Room closeout
Closeout crew moves to fallback area
1:13 Enter 10-minute hold at T-20 minutes
NASA test director conducts final launch team briefings
1:23 Resume countdown at T-20 minutes
Transition the orbiter’s onboard computers to launch configuration
Start fuel cell thermal conditioning
Close orbiter cabin vent valves
Transition backup flight system to launch configuration
1:34 Countdown enters estimated 45-minute hold at T-9 minutes
Launch director, Mission Management Team and NASA test director conduct final polls for “go/no go” to launch
2:19 Resume countdown at T-9 minutes
Start automatic ground launch sequencer (T-9 minutes)
Retract orbiter crew access arm (T-7:30)
Start APU recorders (T-6:15)
Start auxiliary power units (T-5)
Terminate liquid oxygen replenish (T-4:55)
Start orbiter aerosurface profile test (T-3:55)
Start main engine gimbal profile test (T-3:30)
Pressurize liquid oxygen tank (T-2:55)
Begin retracting the gaseous oxygen vent arm (T-2:50)
Fuel cells to internal reactants (T-2:35)
Pressurize liquid hydrogen tank (T-1:57)
Deactivate bi-pod heaters (T-1:52)
Deactivate solid rocket booster joint heaters (T-0:50 seconds)
Orbiter transfers from ground to internal power (T-0:50 seconds)
Ground launch sequencer go for auto sequence start (T-0:31 seconds)
Booster gimbal profile (T-0:21 seconds)
Ignition of three space shuttle main engines (T-6.6 seconds)
Booster ignition and liftoff (T-0)

2:28:04 PM Preferred launch time

Read my earlier KSC reports on launch attempts for Atlantis and Atlas here:

Clock Ticking for Shuttle Atlantis on Critical Resupply Mission

Atlas Launch halted by ORCA; Shuttle Atlantis Next in Line

Ken Kremer’s website

Clock Ticking for Shuttle Atlantis on Critical Resupply Mission

Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the upcoming Atlantis launch attempt.
As the shuttle enters its final year of operation, the countdown clock is ticking towards blast-off of Space Shuttle Atlantis and her six man crew at 2:28 PM EST on 16 November 2009 towards the International Space Station (ISS) I am reporting from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Press site to witness the STS 129 launch and provide on-site coverage for readers of Universe Today. The weather is gorgeous here at KSC with clear blue skies and moderate temperatures.

NASA managers unanimously declare Atlantis is “Go” for launch after reviewing all flight and hardware issues according to Mike Moses (left), director of Shuttle integration at a KSC press briefing.  Shuttle Launch director Mike Leinbach (center) said “We are right on the money with the launch countdown. Cryogenics are being loaded into the shuttle fuel cells”.  Weather officer Kathy Winters (right) predicted a 90 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time on November 16.   Credit: Ken Kremer
NASA managers unanimously declare Atlantis is “Go” for launch after reviewing all flight and hardware issues according to Mike Moses (left), director of Shuttle integration at a KSC press briefing. Shuttle Launch director Mike Leinbach (center) said “We are right on the money with the launch countdown. Cryogenics are being loaded into the shuttle fuel cells”. Weather officer Kathy Winters (right) predicted a 90 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time on November 16. Credit: Ken Kremer

Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters forecasts a 90 percent chance of favorable weather conditions at launch time on Monday. That drops to 70 percent favorable in the event of a one day scrub to Tuesday November 17 and just 40 percent “Go” on Wednesday. Two days after launch, Atlantis will rendezvous with the ISS and link up with the stations six person crew.

“Atlantis is ready to go. There was a unanimous vote to proceed with the launch countdown” declared Mike Moses, Shuttle Launch integration manager at a KSC press briefing. The primary goal is to deliver nearly 30,000 pounds (15 tons) of critical spare parts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) which cannot be transported by any other existing launch system besides the Space Shuttle. This third Utilization and Logistics shuttle flight for the ISS is designated as ULF-3.

Another top objective for Atlantis is to bring home ISS Expedition 20 and 21 crew member Nicole Stott after three months stay in space. Stott is the final astronaut scheduled to use a space shuttle as a taxi to and from the ISS and thereby will increase Atlantis crew size to seven during reentry.

The path forward was cleared when the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket was scrubbed in its final stages in the early morning hours of November 14 and subsequently delayed until after the STS 129 launch. This avoided a potential conflict on the Air Force Eastern Range which requires a 48 hour turnaround to reconfigure tracking and support systems between launches.

My view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center.  Shuttles are prepped for flight inside the rectangular box shaped buildings at left (near water tower) known as the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF).  At right see the Launch Control Center (LCC).  Ares 1 rocket gantry under construction with tall crane to right of VAB.  Credit: Ken Kremer
My view of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center Press Center. Shuttles are prepped for flight inside the rectangular box shaped buildings at left (near water tower) known as the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). At right see the Launch Control Center (LCC). Ares 1 rocket gantry under construction with tall crane to right of VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

The cargo bay is loaded with two spare gyroscopes, two nitrogen tank assemblies, two pump modules, an ammonia tank assembly and a spare latching end effector for the station’s Canadian built robotic arm. Atlantis’s crew will conduct three spacewalks during the nominal 11 day flight to transfer the spare parts from the payload bay and install them onto the station’s external structures.

Since my last trip here for the STS 125 Hubble repair mission in May 2009, (also conducted by Atlantis) historic changes are rapidly unfolding at the launch pads and environs of the Kennedy Space Center. Launch Pad 39 B has been transferred to the Ares rocket program and been structurally transformed in such a manner that it can no longer support shuttle flights. STS 129 is only the 6th remaining shuttle flight before marking the end of the space shuttle era.

The entire future of US human space flight hangs in the balance as NASA awaits a decision by President Obama which will determine the US destiny in space for decades to come. Following the issuance of the Augustine commissions blue ribbon report outlining a range of future exploration options for NASA, the continuation of the Ares 1 rocket program and NASA goals to return human footsteps to the moon are in serious doubt as the out year NASA budgets have been significantly cut.

Atlas Launch halted by ORCA; Shuttle Atlantis Next in Line

(Editor’s Note: Ken Kremer is in Florida for Universe Today covering the current launch attempts of the space shuttle and Atlas) Image caption: The Atlas 5 will orbit the commercial Intelsat 14 communications satellite. This photo shows upper portion of rocket and umbilical cord connections leading from mobile launch platform to the decaled 4 meter wide white colored payload fairing and Centaur upper stage. The flight is designated as tail number AV-024. Credit: Ken Kremer

Shortly after midnight on Saturday November 14 the launch of an Atlas 5 rocket poised  at Complex 41 and bathed in xenon lights was suddenly halted when engineers discovered a power dropout with the ORCA, or Ordnance Remote Control Assembly.

Atlas 5 rocket sits atop mobile launch platform at launch pad at Complex 41, Cape Canaveral, Florida on a cloudless day just a few hours prior to the scheduled post midnight launch on 14 November  2009.  Note lightings masts at left and Vertical Integration Facility at right where rocket components are assembled.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas 5 rocket sits atop mobile launch platform at launch pad at Complex 41, Cape Canaveral, Florida on a cloudless day just a few hours prior to the scheduled post midnight launch on 14 November 2009. Note lightings masts at left and Vertical Integration Facility at right where rocket components are assembled. Credit: Ken Kremer

The Atlas was due to blast off at 12: 48 AM EST into the cloudless and calm sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying the commercial Intelsat 14 communications satellite into orbit.  I was observing from the Kennedy Space Center press site along with other media representatives as weather conditions were near perfect and gremlins intervened.   My vantage point at KSC provides a clear and direct view to the base of the Atlas rocket and launch pad.

The scrub was called less than half an hour before the scheduled liftoff time and after propellant loading of the first and second stages had been successfully completed.   Engineers will need to troubleshoot the cause of the temporary power interruption to the ORCA electronics component which is used to control the critical flight events on the Atlas booster.

Technicians must obtain access to the electronics box within the rocket and remove it for further investigation of the technical glitch.  Since there is no access at the pad to gain entry and accomplish this task, the Atlas vehicle must be rolled back off the pad about 1800 feet and into the 30 story tall Vertical Integration Facility.  Therefore the launch team executed the standard detanking of propellants to safe the rocket following the scrub.

Atlas 5 rocket at sunset surrounded by 4 lightening masts at pad 41. Multiple tanks of compressed gaseous nitrogen at 4800 psi in foreground.   A technical glitch with the ORCA electronics unit critical for flight control forced a scrub for what would have been the 19th flight of an Atlas 5.  Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlas 5 rocket at sunset surrounded by 4 lightening masts at pad 41. Multiple tanks of compressed gaseous nitrogen at 4800 psi in foreground. A technical glitch with the ORCA electronics unit critical for flight control forced a scrub for what would have been the 19th flight of an Atlas 5. Credit: Ken Kremer

Atlas 5 rocket at sunset surrounded by 4 lightening masts at pad 41. Multiple tanks of compressed gaseous nitrogen at 4800 psi in foreground. A technical glitch with the ORCA electronics unit critical for flight control forced a scrub for what would have been the 19th flight of an Atlas 5. Credit: Ken Kremer

The launch is being conducted for Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services by United Launch Alliance (ULA).  A new launch date has not been set at this time, a ULA spokesman told me.   As a result of the postponement and rollback, the STS 129 flight will proceed without delay as the countdown clock is ticking towards blast off on November 16 according to NASA officials.

Just hours before the planned Atlas liftoff, I visited pad 41 on a special media tour for close-up photography and remote camera set up.  The twilight sun was setting to the west behind the mighty bronze colored rocket topped by a white colored nose cone which protects the valuable satellite payload from aerodynamic forces as it pierces through the atmosphere.

Ken Kremer with the Atlas launch vehicle at Pad 41 which will fly in the 431 configuration with 3 solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage and a single engine white colored Centaur upper stage. The Atlas 5 was rolled out to launch pad on Nov 12. Note tracks at center. The Intelsat satellite is encapsulated in a 4 meter wide extra extended payload fairing.  A similar Centaur stage impacted the moon as part of the LCROSS mission.
Ken Kremer with the Atlas launch vehicle at Pad 41 which will fly in the 431 configuration with 3 solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage and a single engine white colored Centaur upper stage. The Atlas 5 was rolled out to launch pad on Nov 12. Note tracks at center. The Intelsat satellite is encapsulated in a 4 meter wide extra extended payload fairing. A similar Centaur stage impacted the moon as part of the LCROSS mission.

Ken Kremer with the Atlas launch vehicle at Pad 41 which will fly in the 431 configuration with 3 solid rocket boosters attached to the first stage and a single engine white colored Centaur upper stage. The Atlas 5 was rolled out to launch pad on Nov 12. Note tracks at center. The Intelsat satellite is encapsulated in a 4 meter wide extra extended payload fairing. A similar Centaur stage impacted the moon as part of the LCROSS mission. See my LCROSS photos here.