NASA Sets July 8 for Mandatory Space Shuttle Grand Finale

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NASA Shuttle managers met today (28 June) and officially set July 8 as the launch date for the Grand Finale of the shuttle program by Space Shuttle Atlantis. And the NASA officials also emphasized that the STS-135 mission is absolutely crucial to the future well being and functioning of the International Space Station (ISS).

“This flight is incredibly important,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations. “The cargo that is coming up on this flight is really mandatory for space station. This mission is critical from a resupply standpoint. We will stay on orbit in case of some small orbiter failures.”

Atlantis’ primary goal is to dock with the million pound orbiting outpost and deliver the “Raffaello” logistics module. Raffaello is packed to the gills with some 5 tons of critical spare parts, food, water, provisions and science equipment that will keep the station stocked and the crew fed for a year. About one third of the cargo is food.

The STS 135 mission will buy invaluable time to keep the station running and science experiments continuing full tilt after the shuttles are retired and until replacement cargo vehicles are brought online.

STS-135 crew meets with journalists at base of Launch Pad 39A, Kennedy Space Center. From left; Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus; Pilot Doug Hurley and Commander Chris Ferguson. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA hopes that commercial providers – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences – will soon pick up the slack and fill the supply void created by prematurely shutting down the shuttles now, before the replacement vehicles are functioning and proven. If the private company’s spacecraft are further delayed, then the ISS crew size may have to be reduced from 6 to 3 and station science operations could be significantly curtailed.

NASA announced the unanimous “GO” for the July 8 liftoff following a day long Flight Readiness Review at the Kennedy Space Center involving senior shuttle managers from the NASA and contractor teams.

NASA managers announced “GO” for launch of Atlantis on July 8 at a briefing for reporters at KSC. From left: Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, Mike Moses, Space Shuttle Program launch integration manager, Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director. Credit: Chase Clark

“We had a very thorough review,” said Gerstenmaier. Shuttle managers reviewed the shuttle and launch pad systems, the risks associated with the flight as well as the payloads tucked inside the orbiter and an assortment of technical issues and problems that cropped up during the pre-launch processing.

The STS-135 crew comprises of just four astronauts, all veterans, led by Shuttle Commander Ferguson who is joined by Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim. They are scheduled to fly back to Kennedy on Independence Day, Monday, July 4, for the final days of launch preparations.

Since there is no back up rescue shuttle, the shuttle astronauts would have to return to Earth aboard Russian Soyuz capsules in the event of an on orbit emergency.

“We’re really looking forward to achieving this mission, putting station where it needs to be and finishing strong with the shuttle program here with STS-135,” said Mike Moses, Space Shuttle Program launch integration manager.

Moses added that NASA very much wants to extend the planned 12 day flight by one more day to give the crew more time to transfer cargo back and forth between Raffaello and the station.

NASA especially wants to fully load Raffaello for the return trip with experiment samples and voluminous no longer needed items of trash to give the station crew additional work and storage space. The extension depends on consumables use and will be decided once on orbit. Without the shuttle, down mass capability will be severely limited until the private providers are ready.

Technicians at the pad worked successfully to swap out a faulty shuttle engine valve and take X-rays of reinforcing joints on the External Tank after the recent tanking test, thus enabling NASA to approve the July 8 launch date.

“Atlantis is in great shape out at the pad,” said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director. “Team Atlantis is feeling good about the flow and the launch countdown and hope we’ll be able to get her off the ground on Friday the 8th as scheduled.”

“We expect between 500,000 and 750,000 visitors for the launch,” added Leinbach. “We have three launch attempts available on July 8, 9 and 10.”

The countdown clocks will start ticking backwards at 1 p.m. on July 5. STS-135 is the 135th and last shuttle mission.

This will be Atlantis’ 33rd flight and the 37th overall to the station.

Atlantis will be the last of NASA’s three shuttle orbiters to be retired.

Side view of Atlantis at Launch Pad 39A during pre-launch processing on June 28. Credit: Chase Clark

Read my prior features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Final Shuttle Voyagers Conduct Countdown Practice at Florida Launch Pad
Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad
Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery
Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff

Final Payload for Final Shuttle Flight Delivered to the Launch Pad

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The cargo canister for NASA’s final space shuttle mission was delivered to the sea-side launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida and hoisted up the pads massive launch pad gantry early Friday (June 17).

NASA is targeting a July 8 blastoff of the STS-135 mission with Space Shuttle Atlantis and the last cargo a shuttle will ever haul to space. The 60 foot long cargo canister is the size of a shuttle payload bay.

The STS-135 mission is the very final flight of the three decade long Space Shuttle Era and is slated for liftoff at 11:26 a.m. EDT from Launch Pad 39A. The flight is scheduled to last 12 days and will be NASA’s 36th and last shuttle mission bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

Atlantis will deliver the Italian- built “Raffaello” logistics module to the orbiting outpost.

Raffaello is loaded full with about 5 tons of critical space parts, crew supplies and experiments to sustain space station operations once the shuttles are retired at the conclusion of the STS-135 mission, according to Joe Delai, NASA’s Payload Processing Manager for the STS-135 mission.

Close up of top of shuttle Atlantis stack at Launch Pad 39 A
Astronauts will walk through the White Room at left to enter Atlantis crew cabin. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA technicians at the launch pad have closed the cocoon-like Rotating Service Structure (RSS) back around the orbiter to gain access to the vehicles payload bay. Atlantis’ payload bay doors will be opened Saturday night and the cargo will be installed into the shuttle’s cargo bay on Monday (June 20).

The secondary payload is dubbed the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) – a sort of “gas station in space” said Delai, who spoke to me at Pad 39A.

Joe Delai, NASA STS-135 Payload Processing manager, answers media queries at Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Pad workers were also busy on Saturday (June 18) with work to begin the collection of high resolution X-ray scans of Atlantis External Tank at certain support ribs on the shuttle facing side, according to Allard Beutel, a NASA KSC shuttle spokesman.

“The technicians will scan the tops and bottoms of 50 support beams, called stringers, to confirm that there are no issues following the tanking test conducted by NASA this week at the launch pad”, Beutel said.

The reinforcing stringers were installed after minute cracks were discovered during the propellant loading of 535,000 gallons of super cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen into the fuel tank during the initial launch attempt of the STS-133 mission in November 2010. “No problems are expected and this work is just being done as a precautionary measure.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis sits atop Launch Complex 39 A at Sunrise at the Kennedy Space Center
The last ever shuttle flight will blast off on July 8. Credit: Ken Kremer

During the tanking test, a potential fuel leak was discovered in a hydrogen fuel valve in Space Shuttle Main Engine No. 3, the right most engine.

“Technicians will spend the next week swapping out the engine valve with a new one and conduct tests to verify the fix solved the problem,” Buetel told me. “NASA expects the work can be completed with no delay to the July 8 launch.”

Space Shuttle Atlantis is set to blastoff on July 8 on NASA’s Final Shuttle Mission; STS-135. Credit: Ken Kremer

The engine leak would have been a show stopper and scrubbed the launch if this had been the real countdown on July 8, said Beutel – to the huge disappointment of the 500,000 to 750,000 folks expected to pack the Florida Space Coast.

The hydrogen valve replacement and X-Ray scans are being completed in parallel out at the pad.

The STS-135 crew of four veteran shuttle astronauts is led by Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson. Also aboard are Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim.

The crew will fly to into the Kennedy Space Center from Houston aboard their T-38 jets on Monday for several days of pre-launch training.

I will be covering the STS-135 launch for Universe Today on site at the KSC Press site, location of the world famous countdown clock.

Ken Kremer and Space Shuttle Atlantis on top of Launch Pad 39A. Credit: Ken Kremer

Read my prior features about the Final Shuttle mission, STS-135, here:
Last Ever Shuttle Journeys out to the Launch Pad; Photo Gallery
Atlantis Goes Vertical for the Last Time
Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff