Mission preview: Atlantis to launch Russian mini module
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: May 12, 2010
The shuttle's six-man, all-veteran crew also will deliver needed supplies and equipment as NASA stages its final three shuttle missions to complete the assembly of the lab complex by late this year or early next.
"Twelve days, three EVAs, tons of robotics, we're putting on spares that will make us feel good about the long-term sustainability of ISS, we're replacing batteries that have been up there for a while, docking a Russian-built ISS module," said shuttle Program Manager John Shannon. "This flight has a little bit of everything.
On board for the 132nd shuttle mission will be commander Kenneth T. Ham, pilot Dominic A. Antonelli, flight engineer Michael T. Good, Stephen G. Bowen, Piers J. Sellers and Garrett E. Reisman, who spent three months aboard the space station in 2008.
Reisman, Good and Bowen will work in two-man teams for three planned spacewalks to install the backup antenna, the solar array batteries and other equipment. Sellers, who will operate the station's robot arm during the spacewalks, will assist Reisman on the arm during installation of the Russian mini-research module, or MRM-1, on the fifth day of the mission.
The 17,760-pound MRM-1, also known as "Rassvet," is packed with 3,086 pounds of NASA equipment and supplies and carrying an experiment airlock and European robot arm equipment that will be attached to other modules later. Docked to the Earth-facing port of the central Zarya module, MRM-1 will bring additional pressurized volume for research and stowage and provide needed clearance between the forward Russian docking port and a U.S. storage module scheduled for attachment later this year.
The Russian module's docking system is virtually identical to the systems used by Progress and Soyuz spacecraft that dock with considerably more force than NASA typically employs. The station's robot arm cannot match that docking force, but by precisely centering the docking mechanisms, engineers are confident the Canadian space crane can get the job done.
"This module was originally designed to fly up, like all the other Russian modules, and dock under its own power, autonomously," Reisman said. "The way they do that is they have big cone (on one module) and a big probe (on the other), they get a good running start and it's almost like bringing train cars together. I was inside the station a couple of times when dockings occurred and you can feel her come in. It's definitely an event.
"What we're trying to do here is very different. ... They call it 'mini' but like many things, it's actually very big," said Reisman, who stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and is jokingly known as "Big G." "To have it on the very end of the arm, with the arm fully extended, there are a lot of dynamics at play. So the arm can't get the kind of ramming speed it normally develops under its nominal means of docking. So we're going to be restricted to coming in approximately five times slower, and that's the fastest the arm can do safely.
"What we hope to do is have very fine control and have it come right down the middle. There are a lot of people who have worked really hard, did a lot of analysis to verify this is going to work. But the exciting thing is it's never been done before and so I'm sure we'll all be watching very carefully as we bring that in on flight day five."
Ham will be watching very carefully indeed. Making his first flight as a shuttle commander, he said "I hope that I'm the only person who's a little concerned about it, but I have to be, it's my job to worry."
"I think everything's going to work out just fine," he told CBS News. "But with any 'first' that you do, and this is the test pilot speaking, you've got to wonder about what is it that hasn't been thought about yet. And there are potentials in this scenario trying to get this on there with the arm. That makes it different."
MRM-1 complexities aside, the timelines for all three spacewalks are extremely tight and the excursions must be conducted in serial fashion.
During the first spacewalk on flight day four, Reisman and Bowen plan to install the backup Ku-band dish antenna atop an 8-foot-tall mast and mount an equipment support platform on a Canadian robot arm extension. During the second spacewalk, Bowen and Good will begin work to replace six 365-pound nickel-hydrogen batteries on the far left end of the station's main power truss.
"These aren't double As," Good said. "One of my brothers likes to give me a hard time about flying up in space and changing batteries, he thinks this is not a very difficult task, not a big deal. But these are like 400-pound nickel-hydrogen batteries, they're the size of a big suitcase, probably bigger than the airlines would let you take on without charging you extra. And they're pretty tricky. ... The alignment and the tolerances are very tight."
Again, the robot arm will be fully extended to position the battery pallet near the work site while Bowen and Good, and then Good and Reisman, swap out the batteries using new spacesuit gear specially modified to minimize the risk of electric shocks.
"EVA-1 is packed," Ham said. "Any little thing that goes wrong will slow the rest of the EVA down and it puts us in a very vulnerable spot. ... I don't want this to sound the wrong way, but it is a house of cards. if you don't get all the cards to line up just right, then all the EVAs fall apart. I trust these guys, they're awesome, they're great. But there are aspects of it that are mechanical that they cannot foresee or counter when they go wrong."
Launch from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center is targeted for 2:20:08 p.m. EDT, roughly the moment Earth's rotation carries the firing stand into the plane of the space station's orbit. If all goes well, Ham will guide the shuttle to a docking with the space station's forward port around 10:27 a.m. on Sunday, May 16.
The next day, Reisman and Bowen will stage the first spacewalk, followed by installation of MRM-1. The second spacewalk is targeted for May 19 with the third on May 21. Atlantis is scheduled to undock from the station around 11:20 a.m. on May 23, setting up a landing back at the Kennedy Space Center around 8:44 a.m. on Wednesday, May 26.
FINAL PLANNED FLIGHT FOR ATLANTIS
This will be Atlantis' final planned mission before the shuttle fleet is retired at the end of the year.
As of this writing, NASA plans to launch the shuttle Discovery on its final flight around Sept. 16 to deliver more supplies and equipment to the space station, along with a cargo module that is being modified to remain permanently attached to the lab.
The shuttle Endeavour is slated to close out the program in late November, delivering a $1.5 billion physics experiment to the station. Endeavour's flight could end up slipping to late February because of conflicts with other station missions and temperature constraints related to the station's orbit. NASA managers say they can stretch shuttle funding to late February if necessary without any additional appropriations from Congress.
As with all post-Columbia missions, NASA will be prepared to launch a shuttle rescue mission in case of any major problems that might prevent a crew from safely returning to Earth. For the final mission in November, Atlantis is the launch-on-need shuttle and it will be processed for flight as if it will actually fly.
And it just might get a "last hurrah," as veteran astronaut Jerry Ross put it during a recent news conference.
NASA managers are holding out hope they can win approval to launch Atlantis next spring or summer on what would really be the shuttle program's final mission, a flight to deliver a final load of supplies and critical equipment to the station. By launching Atlantis with a crew of four, NASA could avoid the need for a launch-on-need mission, using the space station as a safe haven until the crew could be rotated home aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Because of the projected multi-year gap between the shuttle's retirement and the debut of commercial rockets and cargo ships needed to replace it, NASA managers want to take advantage of every possible shuttle launch opportunity to stock the lab with supplies. One shuttle launch can carry the equivalent of multiple Russian, European and Japanese cargo flights.
While it is not yet clear whether Atlantis will get another flight - a decision is needed by the end of June or thereabouts - engineers have been marking the shuttle's processing milestones as if the current mission is, in fact, its last.
"I would liken it to the final season of a champion athlete," said Mike Sarafin, lead shuttle flight director for STS-132. "When a champion athlete announces their retirement, folks show up in large numbers to show their respect for that athlete. And we're seeing that right now with the space shuttle program, we're seeing a lot of interest from the public showing up for not only the launches, but also the other events, the rollout from the VAB to the launch pad, the landings. It's just an increase and an upswell in public interest and public support.
"That doesn't take away from the fact that we need to retire the space shuttle program. We are in the ninth inning. There is a possibility we'll have a launch-on-need flight, STS-135. Atlantis may go into extra innings, we don't know. We'll see how all that plays out."
Whatever the outcome, "she's been around a long time and a lot of us have known that ship for 25 years," said Launch Director Michael Leinbach. "So it'll be bittersweet to be sure."
"She's flown 31 times already, 115 million miles ... about a third of her design life," he said. "But our mission is coming to an end, so we're coming to grips with that. The team is very professional. We know it's the last one, probably, but that doesn't affect the way we process or launch this thing. We're going to do it safely and surely and we hope we do it next Friday."
ASTRONAUTS FACE TIGHT TIMELINE, CHALLENGING SPACEWALKS
As with all post-Columbia missions, the Atlantis astronauts will spend the second day of the mission carrying out an extensive inspection of the shuttle's reinforced carbon carbon nose cap and wing leading-edge panels, which experience the most extreme heating during re-entry, to make sure nothing was damaged during the climb to space.
Engineers on the ground, meanwhile, will be assessing launch-day video and still imagery, including footage from a camera mounted on the external tank, to look for any signs of foam insulation that might have come off, posing an impact threat.
On the third day of the mission, Ham will guide Atlantis to a point about 600 feet directly below the lab complex before executing a 360-degree back-flip maneuver to expose the shuttle's heat shield tiles to the station. Expedition 23 commander Oleg Kotov and flight engineer Timothy Creamer will photograph Atlantis' belly using digital cameras with powerful telephoto lenses to look for any signs of damage.
With the rendezvous pitch maneuver, or RPM, complete, Ham plans to guide Atlantis up to a point directly in front of the station before moving in for a docking with pressurized mating adaptor No. 2 on the front of the Harmony module.
"Rendezvous day is a great day," Ham said in a NASA interview. "I am really looking forward to that one, not just because I get to fly the orbiter this time. That first time, you get really busy in the cockpit during the rendezvous. There's a whole bunch of stuff you need to get done and at some point in there you actually look out the window when you're close, and you see this monstrosity that is out there orbiting the planet.
"There's that moment of 'Holy cow! What has humanity built up here?' It is amazing, and I'm looking forward to that because the station's even bigger than it was last time I was there, and it's just a neat thing to look at. It’s a reality check."
Waiting to welcome Ham and his crewmates aboard will be Kotov, Creamer, Soichi Noguchi, Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Alexander Skvortsov and Mikhail Kornienko. Kotov, Creamer and Noguchi are scheduled to return to Earth aboard the Soyuz TMA-17 spacecraft on June 1. They will be replaced by Douglas Wheelock, Shannon Walker and Fyodor Yurchikhin, who are scheduled for launch aboard Soyuz TMA-19 on June 15.
After a brief welcome aboard, the Atlantis astronauts will get to work. The first item on the agenda is for Sellers and Caldwell Dyson, operating the station's robot arm, to pull a pallet carrying the new high-gain antenna and solar array battery packs out of the shuttle's cargo bay. The pallet, called the integrated cargo carrier, or ICC, will be temporarily mounted on an attachment fitting at the base of a cart that moves the robot arm from point to point on the front of the solar power truss.
At the end of the day, Reisman and Bowen will "camp out" in the station's Quest airlock module at a reduced pressure of 10.2 pounds per square inch to help purge nitrogen from their bloodstreams. That will help prevent the bends when the astronauts spend the day working in NASA's 5-psi spacesuits.
"This mission is all rush, rush, rush," Reisman said. "It's going to be action packed. It was originally designed for one of the missions that has the capability to get power from the space station, so those vehicles can stay longer. We have the same content, the same mission to accomplish, but less time to do it in because Atlantis can't get power from the space station.
"So we're going to do our first spacewalk the day after we get there. We're going to arrive at the space station, we'll go inside for the first time then bam, we go inside the airlock, lock myself in with Steve and start doing our campout."
COMPLEX SPACEWALKS ON TAP
For the first spacewalk, Bowen, call sign EV-1, will be wearing a suit with red stripes around the legs. Reisman, EV-2, will be wearing an unmarked suit.
After exiting the airlock, the spacewalkers will make their way to the cargo pallet and install foot restraints, one on the pallet itself and one of the robot arm. The eight-foot-long boom that will support the spare antenna will be removed from the pallet, and Reisman, riding on the end of the robot arm, will carry it to the Z1 truss atop the station's central Unity module.
The spacewalkers then will secure the boom with two bolts. While Bowen is making electrical connections, Reisman will ride the arm in a windshield wiper-like trajectory back to the cargo pallet to pick up the six-foot-wide Ku-band antenna.
"The dish is pretty fragile and we're instructed not to bump that into anything," Reisman said. "Piers is going to be operating the big arm, and I'll be standing on the end of it while we bring the dish out. At that point, the dish comes very close to the boom of the arm.
"The worrisome thing for me is I can't really see it because I have a big face full of dish, and the boom is on the other side. So I'll be counting on Piers to talk me through it and give me nice calls. We'll have to coordinate very carefully. It's definitely an area of concern."
Reisman, holding the dish, will follow another windshield wiper trajectory back to the top of the Z1 truss where Bowen will help move it into position before driving four bolts to hold it in place and hooking up two electrical connectors.
After installing insulation around the base of the antenna, Reisman will ride the arm back to the cargo pallet to retrieve an equipment stowage platform that will be attached to the Canadian special purpose dexterous manipulator, or SPDM, robot arm extension. The platform will be used down the road to temporarily hold components that are being replaced by the space crane.
Once the platform is in place the astronauts will turn their attention to a get-ahead task if time is available, loosening the bolts holding the new batteries to the cargo pallet.
"While the pallet's based on the truss there, we can actually break all the torque on the bolts with a ratchet wrench instead of using this heavy torque multiplier," Reisman said. "Just like lug nuts on your car, we can do it very quickly."
Bowen said the key to the first spacewalk is "a very intricate choreography."
"And the reason for that is using the arm to remove the pieces off the pallet and then taking them all over station to install them. ... I get to climb all over, he gets to fly all over. But the choreography is key to EVA-1. If the choreography works and the timing works out and we complete all the tasks on EVA-1, we will be well set up for EVA-2.
"Everything has to work," he said. "Any one of these EVAs, a single bolt can put everything behind. So we have to be very efficient and hopefully get through our tasks in a very nominal timeframe so the next piece is ready to go."
With the first spacewalk out of the way, the astronauts will work the next day to install MRM-1, one of the more challenging robot arm tasks yet attempted by a station assembly crew.
There are two aspects to the docking procedure that are unusual, at least from NASA's perspective.
First, the module will be mated at a much lower velocity - five times slower - than typically used by Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft.
Second, commanding to the active side of the docking mechanism, inside the MRM-1 module, will be routed from a laptop computer in the U.S. segment of the station to a Russian central computer and then back through an ethernet link to the station's robot arm. Signals will move down the arm, through an electrically powered grapple fixture on the hull of the new module and then to an internal Russian computer.
On the positive side, Reisman and Sellers will be operating the arm and sending computer commands from the station's new multi-window cupola observation deck attached to the Tranquility module. Up until this point, the arm was operated from inside the Destiny lab module, using indirect television views to provide operators with views of various work sites.
For the MRM-1 installation, the arm will be operated from inside the cupola, giving Reisman and Sellers a direct view of the module and the Russian docking port where it will be installed.
"This is going to be something," Sellers said. "Because up to now, the operators of the arm have never seen it, they've only watched it all on their TV screens. This is going to be kind of a first in that I'll be able to look out the window and see what I'm doing directly. Not all the time, but some of the time.
"I think it makes a huge difference. Seeing it with your own eyes and being able to scan left and right and see the whole length of the arm makes a big difference. With TV, you can pan it this way, tilt it up a bit in order to look around. But somehow, to be able to see something with your own eyes, move your head around and look at it, seems to make a better model inside your head of whatever it is you're looking at. We're not looking at the toenail of the elephant here, we're seeing the whole elephant."
The direct view will help, but first, commanding through the Russian computer system must work properly.
"Getting data, power, communications, all of that is going through the arm," said station Flight Director Emily Nelson. "But the control goes from a laptop at the cupola robotic work station that Piers will be running that's connected through our ethernet connections on board all the way back to the Russian central computer and then comes back through the same ethernet connections, through the arm and into MRM-1. So all of that data's going through a pretty long path to get to where it's headed, which is new and different.
"Also, and I don't know how many of you have watched Progress and Soyuz dockings, but those vehicles don't come in slowly, they come in with quite a bit of force. There's a great deal of spring force in the probe head of the docking probe that has to be overcome, so we've also worked hard to ensure we've got the right rates on the arm, that the arm has sufficient rates to overcome those spring forces so that we can actually get the docking probe into the docking cone for the first physical mate."
The Russian docking system was designed to be tolerant of alignment errors. The approaching spacecraft's docking system features a long probe designed to fit into a cone-shaped receptacle on the target docking port. Once the probe is captured, hooks and latches are activated to firmly pull the two modules together.
"One of the reasons it's designed to bang together is then you can have tremendous errors in your alignment," Reisman said. "The receiving end is shaped like a cone. If you hit the side, with that momentum, the (probe) will just slide down the cone and end up in the hole."
The astronauts jokingly call themselves the "Rassvet rammers." But the station's robot arm cannot drive MRM-1's probe into the docking cone on the Zarya module with the same amount of force. It makes up for that with high precision.
"Even though we're coming in five times slower, if we come in five times more accurately - which puts a lot of pressure on me! - (it will work)," Reisman said.
Ham and Antonelli, operating Atlantis' robot arm, will pull MRM-1 from the shuttle's cargo bay and hand it off to the station arm, operated by Reisman. He then will maneuver it into position and attempt a docking.
"The first time, we're just going to go at ramming speed and try to bring her down as close to the center as possible," Reisman said. "That's basically the idea, to try to mimic what it is designed to do, which is go in as fast as possible. If that doesn't work, we have a couple of different options."
One such option involves disabling software that compares what the arm operator is commanding and what the arm is actually doing, automatically correcting for misalignments.
"Sometimes when you're up against structure that can actually get you into a little bit of a force fight," Reisman said. "So what we'll do the second time if it doesn't work when it's on, we're going to turn that algorithm off for the second attempt. And then finally, we'll come in at a slower speed but hopefully with a more fine alignment and hopefully some combination of those attempts will do the trick."
The module cannot be left at the station if the docking systems fail to properly engage. In that case, MRM-1 would be returned to the shuttle's cargo bay for return to Earth. But mission managers are confident it won't come to that.
Assuming a successful docking, the station crew will be in no rush to open MRM-1 and begin unloading the NASA supplies and equipment that are stored inside. Because of the tight timeline for the Atlantis astronauts, that work is planned for after the shuttle departs.
The day after MRM-1 is installed - flight day six - Bowen and Good (EV-3), wearing an unmarked spacesuit, plan to stage a six-and-a-half-hour spacewalk to begin replacing the batteries on the P6 solar array at the far left end of the station's power truss. The batteries are charged during daylight and provide the station's electrical power during orbital darkness.
The P6 array, one of four attached to the station's main truss, was launched in November 2000. Six of its batteries were replaced during a shuttle flight in July 2009 and the other six, well past their 6.5-year design life, will be replaced during Atlantis' mission.
The new batteries will be carried aloft attached to the integrated cargo carrier. In another challenging bit of robotics, Sellers will extend the station's robot arm to its maximum length to get the pallet as close as possible to the P6 array.
"This whole battery R & R is like a shell game, or one of those puzzles where you move the numbers around," said Lisa Shore, the lead spacewalk officer for Atlantis' mission. "The first thing you need to do is create an open spot to start the shuffle. So we'll install some handling aids onto the first battery we intend to remove. We're also going to install a ball stack, it's a metal tether that can be rigidized to temporarily stow the battery during the EVAs."
Good will be responsible for removing batteries from the truss and installing their replacements while Bowen moves batteries to and from the cargo carrier. After the first battery is removed from P6 and mounted on the ball stack, Bowen will pull a replacement battery from the cargo carrier. Both astronauts will carefully maneuver the massive power pack into place, taking special care not to damage fragile cooling fins on the back side.
Once the new battery is in place and electrically connected, the astronauts will move the old battery from its temporary mounting point and install it in the cargo carrier for return to Earth. That process will continue until at least three and possibly four batteries are installed. The remainder will be installed during the third and final spacewalk on flight day eight.
"It's all about batteries," Good said. "We're doing six of them on this flight and I get to do them all, with Steve on one EVA and Garret on the other. We've got to get them all done. They come up on a pallet in the shuttle's payload bay, the arm gets them out there to the very end of the truss on the space station, out there amongst the solar arrays. And that's probably got my biggest concern spacewalking wise, just getting through those batteries."
Lessons learned during the 2009 battery replacement work will be applied, but Good said problems are not unexpected.
"They got through them all, but they had a lot of curve balls thrown at them," Good said. "The batteries are out there on this pallet, and they're on the end of the arm, and it's stretched out as far as it can go to get them out there, just to get them close. It can't actually get them all the way out to where we're going to be installing them. So we're going to take them off the pallet, shepherd them over to where they're going to go in and out of the truss, and it's kind of tricky to get them in and out."
Each battery is held in place by two bolts and "it seems like it would be pretty simple just to put them in and screw two bolts in," Good said. "But they go in on these posts, and they have to align just perfectly, and you have to overcome a soft dock to get them set in there before you can drive the bolts. And if you don't get it all the way in there just right, you could drive that bolt all you want, but you'd never catch a thread to make it draw into the slot where it goes. So there's going to be some work there."
Said Bowen: "Once again, a single stuck bolt, something slightly misaligned (can cause problems). ... It's a very delicate task. Hopefully we'll learn from the first one we do, we'll get into a groove and just be able to work our way through each of the batteries. How many batteries we get done on EVA-2 really sets up EVA-3."
Assuming the battery work goes well, the integrated cargo carrier, loaded with six old batteries, will be returned to Atlantis' payload bay the day after the third spacewalk, and the crew will enjoy a half day of off-duty time, the second rest period built into the crew's flight plan. The next day, flight day 10, the combined shuttle-station crews will hold a joint news conference before sharing a final meal together.
After a brief farewell ceremony, the Atlantis astronauts will return to the shuttle, hatches will be closed, and Atlantis will undock. In keeping with shuttle tradition, Antonelli will oversee the undocking and a 360-degree photo-documentation fly around before departing the area for good.
The astronauts will carry out a final heat shield inspection on flight day 11 to make sure the carbon composite nose cap and wing leading edge panels have not experienced any orbital debris impacts since the flight-day-two inspection. Assuming no problems are found, the crew will test Atlantis' re-entry systems the next day and land back at the Kennedy Space Center around 8:44 a.m. on Wednesday, May 26.
With Atlantis' landing, only two shuttle flights will remain.
"I think the space shuttle, as a machine, is the single most incredible machine humanity has ever built," Ham reflected. "Space station might be right up there with it, but it is an incredible machine. The fact of the matter is, if we want to use our national assets to do space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, you can't do that in a space shuttle. So there's the logical side of all of us that realizes the program has to come to an end at some point. And it is an honor and a privilege for us to represent being part of that crew at the end."
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