How Does the Shuttle Orbiter Get Attached to the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters?

Ever wondered how the space shuttle orbiter gets attached to the big external tank and the solid rocket boosters? This video shows the process — called “Lift and Mate” — where the shuttle Endeavour was put into a special harness, lifted high above the stacked ET and SRBs inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, and lowered into place. The orbiter is then bolted to the ET and SRBs. Endeavour’s Lift and Mate for its final flight took place on March 1, 2011. You can also see extremely high resolution, pan and zoom images of Endeavour lifted high in the VAB at the NASATech website. (High bandwidth warning! — but definitely worth it.) See the NASATech main page for the full variety of images.

Endeavour is scheduled to rollout to Launch Pad 39A next week for STS-134, with launch set for April 19. Even though this could be the final flight of the shuttle program (STS-135 is still not a certainty) many people are looking forward to this flight, as it will bring the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the ISS. AMS is a particle physics detector designed to search for various types of unusual matter by measuring cosmic rays.

Endeavour Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building for Final Flight

[/caption]NASA’s Space Shuttle Program is inexorably and swiftly headed towards its finale.

With shuttle Discovery orbiting some 200 miles overhead on her final flight, launch preparations for the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavour moved into high gear.

Endeavour was rolled a few hundred yards from her processing hanger at the Kennedy Space Center to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) where she will be attached to the external fuel tank (ET) and twin solid rocket boosters (SRB) which will power her final trip to space. See photo album below from Alan Walters and Ken Kremer.

NASA plans to transport Endeavour to Launch Pad 39 A on March 9 for the STS-134 missionand her 25th and final flight. Launch is set for April 19.

Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com

Endeavour and her six person crew will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $1.5 Billion particle physics detector designed to search for dark matter and determine the origin of the Universe. The crew will also deliver a platform that carries spare parts platform parts that will sustain station operations once the shuttles are retired later this year.

The quarter mile trip on a 76 wheeled transporter began about 7 AM this morning (Feb 28). The orbiter was backed tail first out of the processing hanger known as the Orbiter Processing Facility and then ‘rolled over’ to the VAB and parked close to the entrance doors.

Rollover marks the start of the final phase of launch preparations for the STS-134 mission. Hundreds of Shuttle workers who process the orbiters for flight were invited to witness the event and pose for photo ops with the spaceship. Most KSC employees never get the chance to glimpse the orbiters up close.

The next major milestone is for Endeavour to be hoisted and mated to the External Tank on Tuesday and prepare for rollout to the launch pad.

STS 134 astronauts pilot Gregory Johnson and Italian flight engineer Roberto Vittori watch Rollover of Endeavour on Feb 28. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com
Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com
Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Alan Walters - awaltersphoto.com
Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Ken Kremer

Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Ken Kremer

Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Ken Kremer

Rollover of Endeavour. Credit: Ken Kremer

Endeavour Comes Home to Kennedy Space Center

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Space shuttle Endeavour loudly announced its arrival with twin sonic booms, then two minutes later emerged like a phantom out of the darkness to touch down beautifully on runway 15 at Kennedy Space Center. The landing at 10:20 p.m. EST Sunday ended the two-week STS-130 mission to the ISS. After early concerns about the weather, conditions were almost ideal for landing.

“STS-130 is mission complete, and we’re safe on deck” said Commander George Zamka, speaking on the runway after the crew disembarked from Endeavour. “The Cupola is beautiful in both design and function, and Endeavour was perfect throughout the flight… Now it’s time for us to hit the showers and get used to life on Earth again.”

“It was really exciting to land on the first opportunity,” said astronaut Bob Behnken, “and we’re happy to put this capstone on such a great mission.”

Part of the convoy of vehicles heading out to service Endeavour after landing. Credit: Alan Walters

The STS-130 crew delivered the “room with a view” to the ISS – the Node 3, or Tranquility module with the attached Cupola that will provide astronauts with 360 degree views of Earth, space and robotic operations outside the space station.

At the post-landing press conference, mission managers echoed the astronauts’ sentiments.

“It was a fantastic landing day, and Endeavour’s landing here tonight at KSC capped off a perfect mission on orbit,” said Mike Moses launch integration manager for the space shuttle program. “The vehicle performed absolutely flawlessly, the crew did outstanding job,… the installation of Node 3 and Cupola all went perfectly. This just illustrates the great job the all the teams did. Just a spectacular mission.”

Space shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach also looked to what is ahead for the space shuttle program.

“One of the most magical things we get to do here is to walk around the space shuttle on the runway after a mission,” he said. “The shuttle looks outstanding out there, and we’re going to start the final processing flow of Endeavour tonight. So that will be a milestone for the space shuttle program, and we will go into that with our heads held high and we’re going to process the vehicle as we always do and be ready to fly her last mission. A little bit of a sad note, but a great ending to a great mission and we’re looking forward to the next one.”

With this mission the ISS is now 98% mass complete.

Next up for the shuttle and ISS programs is Discovery’s STS-131 mission, currently slated to launch on April 5, 2010.

While this marks the end of this mission — which Ken Kremer and I have been reporting on live from KSC — I will still be hanging around the Space Coast for a few more weeks, so look for more news (and launches!) coming up. And we hope to have photographer Alan Walters on location at KSC for Universe Today covering the final flights of the space shuttle program.

Spectacular SRB Videos from STS-130 Provide Night-time Shuttle Love

This may be the last time we’ll see this. Launch videos taken from the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters are incredible anyway, but add the fact the latest launch took place at night, and you’ve got a recipe for complete awesomeness! The SRB perspective of launch is unique, but go to about 2:05 in the video to watch the SRBs separate and you will swoon! Endeavour zooms away like something out of a science fiction movie. Then the sparks fly — literally and figuratively — as the SRBs fall away. Given STS-130 was the final scheduled night launch, don’t miss watching this one.

Pirouettes and Twitpics from Space

If you were watching NASA TV late Tuesday/early Wednesday you likely saw the beautiful backflip maneuver that space shuttle Endeavour performed before docking at 12:06 a.m. EST with the International Space Station. It was a striking sight to behold (see video above) as Commander George Zamka guided the orbiter through the nine-minute Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, rotating the orbiter backwards so that space station astronauts could take high-resolution pictures of the shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles. Meanwhile, the ISS astronauts not taking the hi-res images were busy taking pictures of the approaching orbiter and posting them on Twitter.

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See more Twitpics from @Astro_Soichi

The detailed images of the Endeavour’s heat shield were analyzed on Wednesday and showed that everything looked “nominal” in NASA speak, and that no further examinations are required until after the shuttle undocks with the ISS. There are two other minor problematic items that NASA is monitoring for the shuttle.

Endeavour approaches ISS. A Soyuz docked to the station above the shuttle. Credit: NASA

A round ceramic spacer near one of the cockpit windows is sticking out. And a thermal tile repair that was made before the flight has failed, and the original crack is back, right over the cockpit.

Mission management team leader LeRoy Cain said Wednesday that neither problem appears to be serious. But he said everyone wants to be “very vigilant and take a closer look” in case spacewalking repairs are needed.

The shuttle astronauts had to wait about an hour longer than usual before entering the ISS. The vibrations that normally occur when the two spacecraft meet up and dock lasted longer than usual. Space shuttle flight director Kwatsi Alibaruho said this was caused by the massive and unsymmetrical bulk of the joined space station and shuttle, as well as the constant pull of Earth’s gravity on the “stack.” “It certainly not unexpected,” Alibaruho said.

The ISS and shuttle astronauts are now working together, getting ready for taking the Tranquility Node from the shuttle payload bay to attach it to the station. the first spacewalk of the mission. Today Endeavour’s crew transferred supplies from the shuttle’s middeck to the space station, including spacewalking equipment. Tonight, spacewalkers Bob Behnken and Nicholas Patrick will sleep in the Quest airlock as part of the overnight “campout” procedure that helps purge nitrogen from their bloodstreams, preventing decompression sickness once they move out into the vacuum of space.

See this interactive Flash feature from NASA which highlights the activities for each day of the shuttle mission.

Hat Tip to Stu Atkinson on the Twitpics

RSS Rollback: Watch Endeavour Appear Before Your Eyes

This morning I had the opportunity to see up close the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure for space shuttle Endeavour on the launchpad for the STS-130 mission. The RSS protects the shuttle from any inclement weather while it is being readied for launch out on the pad. The rollback is the first big event in the cycle leading up to launch, so it means liftoff is not far away! The sight was absolutely amazing on such a beautiful sunny morning –albeit it was quite windy. I got chills when I first saw the right wing and the front windows of the orbiter appear (and it wasn’t because I was cold!) Currently, the wind is the only “if” about launching early Sunday morning at 4:39 am EST. Weather officials say there is an 80% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff. Since it is a night launch, it should be visible well up the East Coast of the US. I’ll have the good fortune to be just 3 miles away, about the closest anyone can be.