Atlantis Rolls to Vehicle Assembly Building with Final Space Shuttle Crew for July 8 Blastoff


KENNEDY SPACE CENTER – The end of NASA’s shuttle era has begun as pre-launch preparations for the final shuttle flight by Space Shuttle Atlantis kicked into high gear. The STS-135 mission is set to launch on July 8 at about 11:40 a.m. EDT on a 12 day flight.

Shuttle Atlantis has been moved about a quarter of a mile from its pre-launch processing hanger – known as Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) – to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Check out our eyewitness photo album herein.

Atlantis rolls over from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, at right) processing hanger to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, at left) at KSC for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer

The four person crew of STS-135 was on hand to meet and greet and thank the big crowd of NASA managers and shuttle workers who are preparing Atlantis for the final spaceflight of the Space Shuttle Program after three decades of flight.

Atlantis’ crew comprises of Shuttle Commander Christopher Ferguson, pilot Douglas Hurley and mission specialists Rex Walheim and Sandra Magnus.

Atlantis atop 78 wheeled transporter during rollover from OPF-1 to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

More than a hundred photo journalists representing media worldwide gathered to watch this historic event – known as “rollover”. I had a chance to briefly speak and shake hands with Shuttle Commander Chris Ferguson and wish the crew good luck.

Under a gorgeous clear blue sky, Atlantis was hauled to the VAB – while bolted atop a 78 wheeled transporter – a key milestone setting a clear path to blastoff. Inside the VAB, the orbiter is mated to the external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters before rolling out to Launch Pad 39 A in about two weeks.

Atlantis Up Close on the path to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

Midway through the road trip, Atlantis was parked for several hours to allow KSC employees to pose for photo opportunities with the flight ready orbiter for the last time.

The goal of Atlantis mission is to carry the Raffaello multipurpose logistics module (MPLM) to the International Space Station (ISS) and stock up the orbiting outpost with science equipment, crew supplies, food, water, logistics, gear and spare parts before the shuttles are retired forever at the prime of their lifetime.

Check back later for more photos

The all veteran STS-135 crew poses with Atlantis during rollover to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis heads to the VAB for the last time in preparation for the STS-135 mission. Credit: Ken Kremer
Atlantis approaches the VAB for the final time. Credit: Ken Kremer
The Space Shuttle Program will be prematurely stopped after the STS-135 flight.
Lack of NASA funding from the US Federal Government is causing the retirement of the Space Shuttles although the orbiters are operating at peak performance. Credit: Ken Kremer
Ken Kremer and Space Shuttle Atlantis on the road to the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer

NASA Prepares for Extra Space Shuttle Mission


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.”

Additional Shuttle Mission Almost Guaranteed


For some time now there have been rumors and speculation that there will be an additional flight added to the two currently remaining on the shuttle manifest. With the passage of the Senate 2010 NASA Authorization Act (S. 3729) the mission which would be STS-135 – is now all but a certainty. The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Senate bill on a 304 to118 vote. The final hurdle will be the president signing the act into law. From all accounts however, as this bill largely supports the president’s agenda, this should not be a problem and STS-135 should launch during the summer of next year.

The orbiter that will likely fly this mission will be Atlantis, the workhorse of the shuttle fleet. For all intents-and-purposes STS-132, which flew this past May, was the last scheduled mission for Atlantis. However, mission managers were looking at either Discovery or Atlantis to fly the possible STS-135 mission. With Atlantis back at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) since May, the orbiter has had more processing time and it would be easier to prepare for launch.

The crew for this mission has already been selected. The crew will be comprised of Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim. All of these astronauts are space shuttle veterans. Currently they are training under the STS-335 designation which is a “Launch-On-Need” (LON) mission. In the event of an emergency on STS-134, Atlantis would launch to rescue the crew members. There have been LON missions for each post-Columbia flight.

“Having an additional shuttle flight will keep the national treasure we have in the space station very well situated in consumables and supplies, said Lori Garver, NASA’s Deputy Administrator, during a media briefing on Thursday. “I don’t see it as either a luxury or necessity, it us just making good use of a resource and doing it in a safe manner.”

If all goes well on the STS-134 mission, STS-335 will be converted to STS-135 and its mission will change from rescue – to resupply. If this does take place, the payload for this mission will be the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier (LMC).

STS-135 will be a resupply mission used to keep the International Space Station as well-stocked as possible when the shuttle program ends. Photo Credit: NASA

Outside of the fact that it will be the last mission of the shuttle program, the mission also bears one other distinction. With a crew of four, this is the smallest contingent of astronauts to launch on a space shuttle since STS-6 back in April of 1983.

The rationale behind such a small crew is two-fold. A smaller crew will allow NASA to maximize the amount of payload that is sent to the International Space Station (ISS). The weight of two or three extra astronauts will now go to additional supplies that can be flown to the ISS. In the event that STS-135 itself runs into trouble while on-orbit, the smaller crew would also allow for a rescue by the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft.

The ISS will more than likely be on-orbit until 2020 and possibly beyond. As such it was viewed as essential that as much supplies as possible were ferried to and stored on the orbiting outpost. The Rafaello MPLM will be maxed out with 16 resupply racks, the most the cargo container can handle, for this mission. The LMC will carry a new coolant pump. The External Thermal Cooling System (ECTS) Pump Module (PM) which dramatically failed recently and was swapped out by spacewalkers Tracy Caldwell-Dyson and Doug Wheelock last month.

NASA Managers Approve Additional Shuttle Flight


While the final decision on adding an additional shuttle flight rests on the political process, today NASA managers approved adding the STS-135 mission, from a safety and logistics standpoint. If Congress gives final approval for funding one more shuttle mission beyond the two that are currently on the manifest, space shuttle Atlantis would be targeted to launch on June 28, 2011. The STS-135 mission – if not needed as a “Launch on Need” rescue flight for STS-133 or STS-134, would have a 4-member crew and carry a fully-loaded multi-purpose Logistics Module (MPLM) and a Lightweight Multi-Purpose Carrier to the International Space Station.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel approved adding the flight from a safety standpoint. Having a crew of four means the crew – if stranded on the ISS – could stay on the space station and rotate coming back to Earth on the Soyuz spacecraft that serve as rides home/rescue vehicles , and NASA would not need another shuttle on standby for a rescue.

Originally, the Senate version of NASA’s 2011 budget included funding for an additional shuttle mission but the House version did not. However, reported that “The House authorization bill added the additional flight to mirror the Senate bill,” adding that the two bills differ in how the flight would be paid for.

Atlantis will be processed for the STS-335 Launch On Need mission, and the final decision on whether STS-135 becomes a reality remains to be seen. Stay tuned!