NASA Sets STS-133 Launch for February 24

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Following a Flight Readiness Review today, NASA and Space Shuttle Program managers announced that space shuttle Discovery is ready to launch next week Thursday to finally send the STS-133 mission to the International Space Station. Launch is now scheduled for Feb. 24, at 4:50 p.m. EST. “We had a really thorough review today,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Space Operations. “Things are looking pretty good.”

The STS-133 crew will bring the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) to the station. The PMM was converted from the multi-purpose logistics module Leonardo and will provide additional storage for the station crew. Later, experiments may be conducted in the module, in fields like fluid physics, materials science, biology and biotechnology.

The first human-like robot will also make the trip to the ISS. Robonaut 2 will become a permanent resident of the station. In addition, Discovery will bring critical spare parts and the Express Logistics Carrier 4, an external platform that holds large equipment.

Managers, engineers and contractors went over the detailed analysis and testing performed on the “stringer” or support beams of Discovery’s external fuel tank during the session and reviewed the repairs and modifications made.

Mike Moses, chairman of the Mission Management Team, described the fix as a “a big metal band-aid” to give the metal beams extra support.

The processes of the repairs and testing involved people throughout the agency and its centers, and the managers at today’s press conference lauded the teams.

“I can’t say enough about the work the teams have done,” Gerstenmaier said. “They’ve done just an outstanding job to get us to where we are now ready to launch.”

The crew also underwent a change recently when astronaut Steve Bowen was assigned to take the place of Tim Kopra who was injured in a bicycle accident.

“Overall the crew was in really good shape and felt really comfortable with this change,” said Moses.

The managers at the FRR approved the February 24 launch date even thought the European resupply ship – the ATV Johannes Kepler — is scheduled to dock at the space station just six hours before Discovery’s launch. Moses said they are confident the ATV will dock, but will be ready to modify the shuttle launch should there be any problems with the ATV.

“If they run into a problem in docking we will discuss the issue in real time,” Moses said at the press conference. “We still might launch that day, we might not, depending on the situation. But the space station program would really like to have the ATV docked during this mission.”

Discovery now sits on Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready for launch. The countdown will begin Monday at 3 p.m. “We’re in outstanding shape out at the pad,” said Mike Leinbach, shuttle launch director.

NASA Prepares for Extra Space Shuttle Mission

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On Thursday, the Space Shuttle Program set a target launch date of June 28, 2011 for the STS-135 mission, the “extra” shuttle flight that was approved in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The STS-135 mission – if not required as a “Launch on Need” rescue flight for STS-133 or STS-134 — would have the shuttle Atlantis and a 4-member crew carry a fully-loaded Raffaello multipurpose logistics module to deliver supplies, logistics and spare parts to the International Space Station. Whether the mission actually flies, however, depends on if Congress decides to approve NASA’s proposed budget for 2011. There has been rumors that NASA’s budget could be on the chopping block. But NASA needs to begin preparing in case the flight is approved.

According to Jeff Foust’s Space Politics, the House is expected to vote next week on a resolution to cut discretionary spending back to 2008 levels, a move that, if backed up by later appropriations legislation, would cut NASA spending from the $18.7 billion in FY2010 (and $19 billion in the FY11 proposal) to $17.4 billion. There is sure to be a battle, however, from congressional districts in Texas and Florida who worked hard to get the 2010 Authorization Act passed.

After the Act was signed last fall, in late December the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate requested the shuttle and International Space Station programs take the necessary steps to maintain the capability to fly Atlantis on the STS-135 mission.

The Authorization Act of 2010 directs NASA to conduct the mission, and scheduling the flight enables the program to begin preparations for the mission. This would be the 135th and final space shuttle flight.

If approved, the mission also will fly a system to investigate the potential for robotically refueling existing spacecraft and return a failed ammonia pump module to help NASA better understand the failure mechanism and improve pump designs for future systems.

The crew consists of commander Chris Ferguson, Douglas Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. The smaller crew size bypasses the need for a rescue shuttle, as if for some reason Atlantis is unable to return from space, the crew members would be rescued from the station using Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

As far as the next scheduled shuttle flight, STS-133, engineers continue to work on Discovery in the Vehicle Assembly Building Kennedy Space Center to modify the stringers on the external fuel tank. Discovery and its six astronauts are targeted to launch on Feb. 24.

With a bicycle injury to crewmember Tim Kopra, the crew is now joined by Steve Bowen, who flew on the on STS-132 in May 2010, as a replacement. He will be the first astronaut to fly on consecutive missions.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations said the astronaut office worked together to figure out who should replace Kopra and figure out the logistics so that the flight would not be delayed even further. “We’ve been working hard on this since Tim had his accident and we think we’ve got a good plan in place,” he said.

“Its was obviously a disappointment for Tim to not be available for this upcoming launch window,” said chief astronaut Peggy Whitson. “He understands that we have to be prepared to fly.”

Whitson said Bowen is a very experienced spacewalker, with five previous spacewalks and very capable in terms of qualifications in the EMU (NASA’s spacesuit). “We felt with a very few additional training runs, he could pick up the timeline, and be able to pull them off with only an additional two runs in the NBL (Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory for each of those two activities.”

The crew also will review robotics procedures today and review spacewalk timelines at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Asked if moral in the astronaut office was taking a hit, with Kopra’s injuries and the possibility of astronaut Mark Kelly stepping aside as commander for the STS-134 mission due to the shooting of his wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Whitson countered, “Moral here is maybe even better than usual since everyone is pulling together to help the crewmembers during their difficult times.”

STS-133 Astronaut Breaks Hip in Bicycle Accident

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The crew of STS-133 has had to cope with the numerous technical issues and delays for their mission, related to both the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate (GUCP) and to a larger extent the cracks that have cropped up on the shuttle’s external tank. Now they have a new issue to contend with – an injured crewmember.

Astronaut Tim Kopra was involved in a bicycle accident over the weekend and apparently broke his hip. Although NASA has not confirmed the injury, several news agencies have reported the news. More than likely, Kopra will not be able to fly with the rest of his crewmates when Discovery launches on her final mission, currently scheduled to liftoff on Feb. 24th. The accident took place on Jan. 15, leaving little over a month before the scheduled launch.

Kopra, 47, is part of a six member crew that will mark the final time that space shuttle Discovery will head to space. He was scheduled to be the primary spacewalker on the upcoming STS-133 mission, and is a U.S. Army colonel (retired). The spacewalks that NASA astronauts undertake take many months and in some cases years to prepare for.

Preliminary reports say that a backup astronaut has been chosen, but again, NASA has not confirmed the news. NASA does not routinely train backup astronauts for shuttle missions. UPDATE: NASASpaceflight.com is now reporting that astronaut Steven Bowen has been chosen as a replacement, and that the flight of STS-133 will proceed as scheduled.

UPDATE 2: NASA has confirmed Kopra’s injury and has announced that Bowen is the replacement for Kopra. “Tim is doing fine and expects a full recovery, however, he will not be able to support the launch window next month,” said Peggy Whitson, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “If for some anticipated reason STS-133 slips significantly, it is possible that Tim could rejoin the crew.”

In a press release by NASA, Whitson added that Bowen is an ideal candidate to replace Kopra. “We have complete confidence he’ll contribute to a fully successful STS-133 mission. He has performed five prior spacewalks. That extensive experience, coupled with some adjustments to the spread of duties among the crew, will allow for all mission objectives to be accomplished as originally planned in the current launch window.”

Bowen will begin training this week with the STS-133 crew, which includes Commander Steve Lindsey, Pilot Eric Boe, and Mission Specialists Alvin Drew, Michael Barratt and Nicole Stott. Bowen also will train to perform the two planned spacewalks of the mission. He will join Alvin Drew to move a failed ammonia pump and perform other external configurations to the station.

STS-133 is scheduled to deliver the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM). Contained within the PMM is the first humanoid robot to fly into space – Robonaut 2 (R2). Discovery will also transport much-needed spare parts to the orbiting laboratory.

Shuttle Discovery Launch Date Pushed Back Again

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NASA managers met on Thursday and ruled out any possibility of space shuttle Discovery’s external tank being ready in time for the launch window that opens on February 3. Now, NASA is shooting for the window that opens on Feb. 27, but is working to see if International Space Station on-orbit operations would allow a launch as early as Feb. 24. More will be known next week and managers hope to set a launch date by January 14.


The space agency reported that progress continues to be made in understanding the most probable cause of cracks discovered on Discovery’s external tank mid-section, known as the intertank. Cracks on support beams called stringers were found after the tank was loaded with cryogenic fuel for a subsequently scrubbed launch attempt on November 5th. Four additional small cracks were found during X-ray examinations of the backside of the tank after Discovery was returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building before Christmas.

Plans are for the repair work to continue through the weekend. The shuttle program also reviewed the plan to modify as many as 32 additional stringers with radius blocks, which will provide added structural support in areas known to carry much of the structural load of the external tank. These radius blocks essentially fit over existing stringer edges through which the securing rivets are installed to provide additional structural support. The radius block modification is a known and practiced structural augmentation technique used extensively on the intertank. This work should begin as soon as the repairs to the three stringers with the four additional small cracks have been completed, likely in the next day or so, and the modification of the additional 32 stringers is expected to be complete next week.

Whether further delays could cause a leapfrog of missions remains to be seen. Launch dates for Discovery and Endeavour will be discussed at the January 13 Space Shuttle Program Requirements Control Board meeting.

Shuttle Discovery’s Crack Woes Deepen

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Discovery’s woes deepened this week with NASA engineers finding even more cracks in the orbiter’s external tank. The first crack was noted shortly after a leak was discovered on the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate (GUCP) Nov. 5. After the first crack was found, technicians found a second and then a third. NASA found the crack on support beams dubbed ‘stringers’ around the intertank region of the tank. They applied what is known in the business as a doubler, a section of metal that is twice as thick as the original – this is done to strengthen the affected area.

On Dec. 17, a tanking test was conducted on the tank. Some 89 instruments were attached to the outside to monitor the tank as it was filled with super-cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen. The external tank can shrink by as much as an inch when these extremely cold liquids enter the tank. As one might imagine, this creates great stress on the tank, as such mission managers had the orbiter rolled back into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for X-Ray scans and other tests.

These tests are considered to be ‘non-destructive’ but NASA is not able to conduct them out at launch complex 39A. Testing started as soon as the full stack consisting of the orbiter, ET and twin solid rocket boosters were in the VAB.

It is unknown when Discovery will be back at LC39A for her final mission, STS-133. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/awaltersphoto.com

However, once these scans were completed – NASA had more problems, more cracks were found. Four cracks were found hiding beneath the foam on the side of the ET that faces away from Discovery. Mission managers will now weigh whether-or-not they will go ahead with repairing the damaged section of the ET. They are scheduled to make a final determination on Monday, Jan. 3. If they elect to do so, the repairs will be conducted inside of the VAB and not out at the pad.

STS-133 is a resupply flight to the International Space Station (ISS). When it does launch, it will carry the modified Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) to the orbiting outpost. Contained within that is the first human-like robot to fly into space – Robonaut-2 (R2). Currently, Discovery is scheduled to launch no-earlier-than Feb. 3 at 1:37 EDT. This mission will mark the 39th time that Discovery has taken to the Florida skies and will be the final scheduled mission in the orbiter’s career.

Discovery's final crew may have to wait a while longer before they can start their mission. Image Credit: NASA

Shuttle Discovery Rolls Back to Vehicle Assembly Building

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Overnight, space shuttle discovery left launch pad 39A and was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. There, engineers can use digital X-ray equipment to look at the external fuel tank and attempt to determine what caused the tops of two, 21-foot-long support beams, called stringers, on the outside of the intertank to crack during fueling on Nov. 5. Additionally, foam will be reapplied where 89 sensors were installed on the tank’s aluminum skin for an instrumented tanking test on Dec. 17. The sensors were used to measure changes in the tank last week as super-cold propellants were pumped in and drained out.

This rollback of Discovery was her sixth, and the 20th rollback in the space shuttle program. If everything checks out in the VAB, Discovery is slated to return to the launchpad around January 14, 2011. Discovery’s next launch opportunity is no earlier than Feb. 3.

Engineers also hope to verify their hypothesis that the stinger cracks occurred during cryogenic fueling because of unusual “stresses” on the support beams that took place during the tank’s construction.

And we’ve said it before: never say “last” when it comes to the space shuttle! Discovery’s “last” rollout to the pad was three months ago. And as Peter King from CBS news said on Twitter, not only do we get another rollout, we also get another “last” night launch if the date of February 3 holds. The original “last night shuttle launch” was the February 2010 launch of Endeavour, which I attended, but then the subsequent launch of Discovery in April ended up being a night launch because of delays. Looks likely we’ll have at least one more night launch that turns night into day at KSC.

Breaking News: Space Shuttle Discovery to Be Rolled Back from Launchpad

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NASA managers made the decision on Monday afternoon that space shuttle Discovery will be rolled back from the launchpad for inspections and/or repairs. There’s no word from NASA yet on the reason for the decision, but presumably it has to do with the cracks on the “stringers,” or structural ribs of the shuttle’s external tank. A tanking test was scheduled for today (Monday), but cold weather has delayed the test to no earlier than Dec. 17. According to reports on Twitter, the rollback will be done about five days after the tanking test.

The reason for the tanking test delay is that the sensors used to test the external tank won’t bond to the sides of the tank if temperatures are too low, and the current frigid conditions aren’t even close to being warm enough.

Additional word is that the shuttle is hoped to be returned to the launchpad by the middle of January in order to be ready for an anticipated launch in February. But that all depends on the nature of the work NASA engineers determine needs to be done. Since production of external tanks is now finished at the assembly facility in Louisiana, it would take at least two years — and probably more — for a new tank to be built.

More details have now emerged on the reasons for sending Discovery back to the Vehicle Assembly Building:

There, the engineers have better tools and better access to put the external tank through additional image scans. Once in the VAB, technicians would collect X-ray data on stringers on the back side of the external tank midsection, called the intertank, which is not accessible at the launch pad.

Additionally, the test instrumentation and foam insulation on those areas of the intertank would be removed and the area would be prepped again for launch.

Shuttle Launch Delayed to February of 2011

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NASA announced today that the launch of space shuttle Discovery for the STS-133 mission has been pushed back to no earlier than Feb. 3, 2011, to allow for more testing on the external tank stringers. Cracks on the stringers were found after the tank was loaded with cryogenic fuel for a subsequently scrubbed launch attempt in November.

“We’ve hit a point where there is no obvious answer for what has occurred,” said shuttle program manger John Shannon at a press briefing today, “so we have to take the next step and understand to very fine level the stress on the stringers and to find if that is a root cause of what happened to the STS-133 tank. I need to better understand the conditions to fly that fly tank confidently. It’s unfortunate we are not making the December launch window. But we want to make sure that we do this exactly right.”

The cracks appeared on two 21-foot-long, U-shaped aluminum brackets, called stringers, on the shuttle’s external tank. NASA repaired the cracks and reapplied foam to the exterior of the stringers. But they don’t understand the reasons the cracks appeared, and NASA managers feel this is likely a unique event.

“We don’t have any data that we have been flying with cracks all along,” said Shannon.

The launch window is open from Feb. 3 -10. This delay also moves the STS-134 launch from February to April.
This delay, however, doesn’t mean there won’t be any activity at the International Space Station. The crew for Expedition 26 launches on the Soyuz on Dec. 15, Japan’s HTV supply ship launches on January 20, a Progress resupply ship docks on Jan. 31, and ESA’s ATV resupply vehicle is scheduled for a February 15th launch.

NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier said the teams will try to replicate what engineers think is the most leading cause is of the failure. “They will build up a stringer panel and put some defects in, the manufactured tolerances, and try to replicate the crack we saw during cryo loadings,” he said. “We’ll also do a test at cape where we load tank with cryogenic propellant and put some devices on the tank to monitor how it loads up and that will serve to validate the math models and the environment we see during loading.”

Gerstenmaier added that between those two tests, they should be able to understand what caused the cracks, but there is now way they can do those tests before December 17, the data NASA had been shooting for to launch STS-133.

“The teams have done tremendous job, but it’s time to pursue a different path,” he said. He also provided a quote from former NASA pioneer Hugh Dryden, who said the purpose of tests is to separate real from imaged problems and to reveal overlooked and unintended problems.

Shuttle Launch Could Be Delayed Into Next Year

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While NASA managers have targeted space shuttle Discovery’s launch for no earlier than Dec. 17, they also said they don’t want to rush to any conclusions on the cracks found on the shuttle’s external tank. Therefore, shuttle program manager John Shannon said that if the team doesn’t completely understand the issues, they won’t launch until they do. That might mean mid-December, or it might mean they wait for the next launch window, which is in February of 2011 — or even later.

“It’s a complex problem,” said Shannon. “We really need to understand our risk. Clearly we’re not ready for the December 3 -7 window that’s coming up.”

“We are methodically looking at the data and we’ll let data the drive where we’re heading, drive when we launch,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations, speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday.

Engineering evaluations are ongoing of the four cracks on found on two 21-foot-long, U-shaped aluminum brackets called stringers on the shuttle’s external tank, and Shannon said they still need more analysis until they understand everything. The only previous time cracks like this have been seen are during the assembly process, or if the tank has been mishandled during assembly – cracks like this have never been seen at the launchpad before.

“We have worked hard to understand the exposure, and we want to understand everything,” Shannon said. “We’re looking at the fault tree from assembly, to how it gets foamed, to transport, to how it gets to KSC – every single part of that tank’s life is part of our fault tree analysis.”

It appears the biggest worry is not that the tank would fall apart during the stresses of launch, but that foam would be dislodged from the tank, which could impact the shuttle during launch. Foam from the ET is what damaged space shuttle Columbia, and caused it to disintegrate during reentry in 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.

If the teams feel their analysis is complete and they have the flight rationale to fly, the earliest launch date would be Friday, Dec. 17 at 8:51:53 pm EST.

A Soyuz is scheduled to dock at the space station at 3 pm EST that day, carrying three new crew members to the ISS.

No launch dates are available in January 2011 because of constraints with the orbit of the space station and conflicts with other unmanned cargo launches. The launch window in February opens on the 27th and closes March 6. Another window, Feb. 3 -10 could be available if the Japanese cargo ship, scheduled to arrive in late January, can be moved to another port on the space station.

We’ll keep you posted.

Structural Crack Found on Shuttle Tank

The chances of space shuttle Discovery launching on the STS-133 mission in 2010 could be in jeopardy. Cracked foam on the shuttle’s external tank was removed early Wednesday morning and underneath engineers found a structural crack on the tank itself. The serpentine crack is about 22 cm (9 inches) long and is located on a structural rib or “stringer.” Cracks like this have appeared on other tanks and were fixed at the production facility in New Orleans. But this type of repair has never been attempted at the launch pad.
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