Does shuttle Atlantis have one extra flight in her?
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: May 12, 2010
Could space shuttle Atlantis get a reprieve from retirement and fly again next year to truck a load of supplies to the International Space Station?
Well, no one knows the definitive answer yet. Many have urged NASA to do it. The program has the fuel tank and solid rockets to power the mission. But, thus far, the space agency hasn't formally started planning the flight, nor does it have the funding from Congress.
When Atlantis lands on May 26, ground technicians will put the shuttle back into the typical post-flight turnaround process to ready it for duty as the rescue ship for Endeavour's STS-134 mission, which is currently the program's final flight later this year.
"We need to go through the normal de-servicing steps, obviously, after the orbiter comes home...We have to prepare Atlantis and the stack as if we're going to fly again because it is (launch-on-need) mission," said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.
"We'll be processing her as if it's a real flight to begin with. Somewhere along the line we expect to hear whether we're going to launch or not, and at that point in time either press on or stop that processing. But in order to support that, obviously, we have press on when she gets home."
But with long odds that a rescue would really be required, there's a notion to fly Atlantis crewed by just four astronauts on a regular mission and a large logistics module to service the International Space Station with supplies and more science equipment.
Designing such a mission, getting the cargo pulled together and training a crew would take many months, so the clock is ticking for a "go" or "no go" decision.
"We kind of know what cargo we would fly, so we've got that kind of figured out. But if we're really going to do this, we need to know sometime in June," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of space operations.
With European and Japanese cargo freighters launching to the outpost late this year and early next, plus continued Russian resupply ships, the extra flight of Atlantis isn't desired until next summer, the International Space Station program manager, Mike Suffredini, says.
"So I was king for a day and you said, 'Mike, you can have this extra flight and have it anywhere I want to' I would ask for it in about the summertime next year. I have quite bit of logistics flights and capabilities between now and the next spring-ish timeframe. ...If somebody said, 'hey, you can have this extra flight' I'd tell 'em 'well, OK, but don't give it to me until next summer because that's when I could make use of it."
Stretching the shuttle program all the way to mid-2011 certainly isn't funded and would require Congressional orders. It could happen or it may just be a dream for those still wishing against retirement of the spaceplanes.
"We are in the ninth inning," said lead shuttle flight director Mike Sarafin. "Atlantis may go into extra innings. We don't know."
Ken Ham, commander of the mission launching Friday, says his crew isn't planning a lot of commemoration to Atlantis' potential finale because of the uncertainty about a future flight.
"We've come up with a tagline for you. This is the first last flight of Atlantis," Ham said. "We really don't know which she is gonna do next."
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