NASA managers re-think next shuttle launch date

Posted: September 16, 2003

HOUSTON -- In the coming weeks, NASA managers hope to establish a new target launch date for the resumption of space shuttle missions after they acknowledged Tuesday that a mid-March liftoff wasn't plausible.

While recently laying out its return-to-flight game plan, NASA said shuttle Atlantis could be launched as soon as March 11, 2004. But the space agency came under fire from lawmakers in Washington for a perceived belief -- correctly or not -- that shuttles were being rushed back into action.

Parsons briefs reporters at Johnson Space Center on Tuesday. Photo: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now
Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons told reporters here Tuesday that the winged spaceplanes wouldn't fly in March or April, and said NASA leaders will meet early next month to select the new target.

"Over the next couple of weeks we will be putting together all the rationale of when a good launch date might be appropriate. Right now, we are looking at all the different pieces of hardware that has to be developed, the different things we have to do," Parsons said.

The next available launch opportunity extends from approximately May 19 to June 28. By launching during that period, Atlantis will make its ascent and separate from the external fuel tank in daylight. As part of the return-to-flight philosophy, engineers want the best possible photographic coverage of the shuttle and jettisoned tank to look for any debris shed from the tank during the climb to orbit.

Another daylight launch period extends from approximately July 18 to August 26.

Atlantis' mission -- STS-114 -- was originally envisioned to launch about one month after Columbia's landing to ferry a new resident crew to the International Space Station. Columbia's tragic disintegration in the skies over Texas on February 1 changed all of that. Officials said Tuesday that Atlantis' mission was being revamped to only deliver critical supplies to the station, allow the astronauts to test shuttle inspection techniques and practice repairing thermal protection tiles during a spacewalk in the orbiter's payload bay.

Atlantis' four-person crew -- commander Eileen Collins, pilot Jim Kelly and mission specialists Stephen Robinson and Soichi Noguchi -- likely will receive two or three new crew mates to help with the flight's busy workload.

"The crew size and make up is being discussed," said Parsons. "We know there won't be a crew rotation on the next mission. So that is out. We also know it takes at least six crew members to do all things that we need to do safely."

The STS-114 crew: Kelly, Robinson, Noguchi and Collins. Photo: NASA
With shuttles grounded, the station's Expedition crews were slimmed from three to two people due to limited supplies aboard the station. But one astronaut launched on Atlantis could remain on the station to restore the outpost's full-time three-person staff.

NASA is also considering adding another shuttle test flight that would be inserted into the schedule following STS-114 and before station construction activities resume on STS-115 with the delivery of a massive, 35,000-pound solar array truss structure.

The extra flight, while conducting more shuttle test objectives, also would complete station tasks deferred from STS-114 and accomplish some "get-ahead" work slated for the logistics and crew rotation flight of STS-116, officials said.

"We've got to take this slow and easy. We need to understand what we're doing and how we're doing it before we go into some of these more complex station missions," said Parsons.

Station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier indicated that both STS-114 and the potential new flight -- pending final approval -- will carry Italian-built cargo modules. The so-called Multipurpose Logistics Modules are launched in the shuttles' payload bays and then mounted to the station to deliver supplies, hardware and experiments to the outpost. The reusable modules are brought back to Earth by the shuttle.

Starting with the solar array mission of STS-115, a half-dozen shuttle flights are planned to significantly grow the station and finish the U.S. core of the complex.

Building the station in space had progressed remarkably well over the past couple of years without any major hiccups. Prior to the Columbia accident, that "U.S. core complete" status was expected in February 2004 with the launch of the Node 2 module.

Gerstenmaier said the final push to finish the station was ready to begin once Columbia returned home from its 16-day science mission -- a rare non-station mission by the shuttle.

"As a program manager, I likened it to an athlete that was trained for a marathon. We were as poised at the beginning 2003 as we could ever be for this period of assembly. We had the right consumables on orbit, we had the ground teams trained, we had the hardware ready to go fly. We were ready, really ready. We were at our peak performance.

"Now, we are not executing and in this hold mode. So how do you keep that same level of preparedness during this expended period of time? What we have doing now is just backed off a little bit. We will pick the right point, once we are ready to get back into the assembly sequence, and we will start that building up again and honing to get ready to execute.

"That is why I think it is very helpful to get these two shuttle test flights that are more geared to shuttle than station. That gives us a chance to get back in the groove, get back into the assembly sequence. My challenge is how do we get ready to get back into assembly again when we don't know when that will be?"

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