Discovery heads for predawn touchdown in Florida
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: August 7, 2005; Updated with quotes from entry flight director
Shuttle commander Eileen Collins and pilot James Kelly tested Discovery's re-entry systems today while their crewmates packed up for landing Monday at the Kennedy Space Center. With forecasters predicting good weather, entry flight director LeRoy Cain said his team is psyched up and ready for NASA's first shuttle re-entry since Columbia disintegrated over Texas two-and-a-half years ago.
"It's great to be here. We've looked forward to this for a long time, we've looked forward to this mission for a long time, we've had a great test flight, we've learned a lot about the vehicle and as you know, in the past couple of years we've learned a lot about ourselves," Cain told reporters early today.
"There's been a lot of good change. We're looking forward, we're not looking back. The team is in great spirits, we're all very excited and anxious. We will come in and we'll do the job tomorrow just like we'd do on any entry and landing day."
Aboard Discovery, Collins and Kelly fired up one of the shuttle's hydraulic power units early this morning, moved the ship's big rudder, checked the operation of cockpit displays and test-fired 38 maneuvering jets to make sure all of the shuttle's critical re-entry systems are operational.
A few hours later, flying into sunlight 220 miles above the still-dark Florida landing site, Discovery and the international space station put on a spectacular pre-dawn show, passing close by brilliant Mars with the shuttle leading the brighter lab complex by about 20 degrees, or the width of two fists held at arm's length.
Cain said Discovery's systems checked out normally and that he weather appeared ideal with scattered clouds, light winds and only a slight chance of off-shore rain.
Assuming the forecast holds up, Collins plans to fire Discovery's twin orbital maneuvering system braking rockets for three minutes and 12 seconds starting at 3:39:43 a.m. Monday, slowing the ship by 220 mph and dropping the far side of its orbit deep into the atmosphere over Florida's East Coast.
Flying along a southwest-to-northeast trajectory, Discovery will pass above Central America, the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of Florida near Tampa as it glides toward touchdown at the Kennedy Space Center. Landing is expected around 4:46:44 a.m. Monday, closing out a 13-day voyage spanning 5.3 million miles and 201 complete orbits since blastoff July 26.
Cain served as ascent-and-entry flight director for Columbia's final voyage. He was asked today whether he might be nervous during Monday's descent.
"Butterflies? If I came in to do an entry and landing on this flight or any flight and I didn't' have butterflies in my stomach, I'd probably turn around and go back outside and find somebody else to do the job, quite frankly," he said. "I consider that to be part of my own personal preparation process. There are a lot of things to think about, a lot of things to worry about and that's what I get paid to do, is to worry. And I do it a lot. So quite honestly, if I didn't feel that way I'd be concerned that I wasn't in the right frame of mind."
Asked if his flight control team might be distracted by memories of Columbia, Cain said "we're ready."
"We've practiced this hundreds of times, literally hundreds of times, and this is one of the most capable teams I've been associated with personally in my 17 years of flight control," he said. "I will let them know I have complete confidence in them to do the job and that we're ready to execute and we will be very focused, I can guarantee that."
Because the forecast for California's Edwards Air Force Base is good for several days, Cain does not plan to activate the backup landing site Monday and will focus instead on getting Discovery back on the ground in Florida.
Along with costing about $5 million in added work, a landing in California would eliminate any chance of launching the next shuttle mission in late September even if NASA solves its external tank foam problem. The shuttle Atlantis only has a four-day launch window and if Discovery is diverted to California, workers likely would not have enough time to prepare that shuttle for launch on a possible rescue mission.
In any case, Collins and company have two Florida landing opportunities Monday, one at 4:47 a.m. and the other one orbit later at 6:22 a.m.
"We're just calling up KSC for tomorrow," astronaut Ken Ham radioed Discovery from mission control early today. "So barring any unforeseen failures, that's all we're looking at for tomorrow. The weather at the Cape, the official forecast is few (clouds) at 2,500 (feet), few at 10,000, scattered at 25,000 with good visibility. The winds are light and pretty much variable, mostly out of the west-northwest. There is a call out for a slight chance of rain showers within 30 (nautical miles) and those are mostly out over the Gulf stream and fairly light.
"The weather for tomorrow should be fairly similar to what we saw today and the day prior. If you were to have come home today, you would have been go for the deorbit burn. So we're looking like a pretty favorable condition for the Cape tomorrow. Additionally, for weather out west, Edwards looks good for now and for the foreseeable future, for the next few days anyway, looks fairly good in case we need to go that direction for Tuesday."
"We can't think of any questions," Collins replied. "Sounds like really great weather."
"Yeah, we're looking forward to it."
If the weather or some other problem blocks both Monday opportunities, Cain will keep Discovery in orbit an extra day, activate the backup landing site at Edwards and bring the ship down on one coast or the other Tuesday.
Cain said today many shuttle commanders prefer night landings over day entries because of the visibility of the brightly illuminated runway at Kennedy. He said it didn't matter one way or the other to Collins, who he described as "one of the most skilled and capable pilots that I've been associated with."
"She is very conscientious, she and I have sat down and talked a great deal about this entry and landing and so I am keenly aware of what her capabilities are as well as the other members of my team who are responsible in part for helping me figure out the best opportunities to present to the team from a deorbit and landing standpoint.
"I have complete confidence in Eileen's capability," he said. "Quite frankly, she's capable of landing the shuttle in conditions that are way beyond what I'm willing to put her in."
Here are all possible landing times for Monday through Wednesday, including targets for White Sands, N.M. (in EDT)
ORBIT...DEORBIT......LANDING...SITE Monday, Aug. 8 201.....03:40 AM.....04:47 AM...Kennedy Space Center 202.....05:15 AM.....06:22 AM...Kennedy Space Center Tuesday, Aug. 9 217.....04:05 AM.....05:08 AM...Kennedy Space Center 218.....05:37 AM.....06:39 AM...White Sands, NM 218.....05:41 AM.....06:43 AM...Kennedy Space Center 219.....07:11 AM.....08:13 AM...Edwards AFB, CA 219.....07:13 AM.....08:14 AM...White Sands, NM 220.....08:47 AM.....09:48 AM...Edwards AFB, CA Wednesday, Aug. 10 232.....02:50 AM.....03:53 AM...Kennedy Space Center 233.....04:25 AM.....05:28 AM...Kennedy Space Center 234.....05:55 AM.....06:58 AM...Edwards AFB, CA 234.....05:57 AM.....06:59 AM...White Sands, NM 235.....07:31 AM.....08:32 AM...Edwards AFB, CA 235.....07:33 AM.....08:34 AM...White Sands, NM
Here is a detailed landing timeline for the first opportunity into Kennedy. Major milestones from Columbia's last re-entry are provided as a reference for readers who might not recall the timing of major events. Columbia entry data is keyed to minutes and seconds after entry interface, the moment the shuttle reaches the discernible atmosphere at an altitude of 400,000 feet. These data are provided for reference only.
EDT...........EVENT 11:39 PM......Begin deorbit timeline 11:54 PM......Payload bay radiator stow 12:04 AM......Mission specialists seat installation 12:10 AM......Computers set for deorbit prep 12:14 AM......Hydraulic system configuration 12:39 AM......Flash evaporator cooling system checkout 12:45 AM......Final payload deactivation 12:59 AM......Payload bay doors closed 01:09 AM......Mission control 'go' for OPS-3 software transition 01:19 AM......OPS-3 entry software loaded 01:44 AM......Entry switchlist verification 01:54 AM......Deorbit maneuver update 01:59 AM......Crew entry review 02:14 AM......Collins and Kelly don pressure suits 02:31 AM......Inertial measurement unit alignment 02:39 AM......Collins and Kelly strap in; crewmates don pressure suits 02:56 AM......Shuttle steering check 02:59 AM......APU hydraulic power unit prestart 03:06 AM......Toilet deactivation 03:14 AM......Vent doors closed for entry 03:19 AM......Mission control 'go' for deorbit burn 03:25 AM......All other crew members strap in 03:35 AM......TDRS-West comsat acquisition of signal 03:34 AM......Single APU start 03:39:43 AM...Deorbit ignition (burn duration: 3:12; velocity change: 220 mph) 03:42:55 AM...Deorbit burn complete 04:15:07 AM...Entry interface (shuttle in discernible atmosphere) 04:19:37 AM...STS-107: EI+04:30 - 1st unusual data recorded 04:19:57 AM...STS-107: EI+04:50 - 1st unusual heating noted 04:20:07 AM...1st roll command to left 04:21:51 AM...STS-107: EI+06:44 - Start of peak heating 04:31:03 AM...STS-107: EI+15:56 - Last valid data 04:31:51 AM...STS-107: EI+16:44 - End of peak heating 04:33:26 AM...1st left-to-right roll reversal 04:40:22 AM...Velocity less than Mach 2.5 04:42:32 AM...Velocity less than Mach 1 04:43:26 AM...Shuttle banks and turns to line up on runway 04:46:44 AM...Landing
Earlier today, Collins and her crewmates fielded questions from reporters on Earth in a final round of media interviews.
Wendy Lawrence, who operated the space station's robot arm during three spacewalks and who helped orchestrate the station's resupply, told CBS News the mission was "the busiest flight I've ever been on."
"I think this crew has done extremely well in that regard. And of course, there are thousands of people on the ground who made this mission successful. Thanks to them and their great planning, we've been able to pull off a very, very heavy workload. I've had some email from friends who said 'you all have made it look so easy.' But that has not been the case. It's been a challenging mission, a difficult one, and the real tribute is to the folks on the ground who helped us be very, very successful on orbit."
Said Charles Camarda, "I think as a test flight it was very successful. We evaluated several different (heat-shield damage detection) sensor systems, we've even done a repair, I think we far exceeded what we would have expected for this flight. We collected a lot of data, there's a lot more to be done and when we get back to the ground, I'm sure people will continue to work until we have (certified heat-shield) repair techniques and we feel comfortable that we've completely fixed the (foam on the external fuel) tank."
Discovery's flight took on a "Perils of Pauline" sort of tone with concern about foam debris shedding during launch, the potential threat posed by gap fillers extending from the shuttle's belly and last-minute worries about a damaged insulation blanket just below commander Eileen Collins' left window.
With every possible problem being subjected to detailed analysis and debate, some observers have suggested NASA may be faced with "analysis paralysis" and that the post-Columbia safety pendulum may have swung too far. But Kelly disagreed, saying "I think just the fact that we're here means we don't have paralysis by analysis."
"I think the folks on the ground have done an absolutely great job trying to take care of everything they possibly can take care (of) without flying the flight," he told CBS News. "The fact that we're up here now talking to you (shows that) did not happen and hopefully, that won't happen after this flight. We've got a lot of data we need to reduce and take care of and figure out and some change will have to be made before we fly STS-121 (the next shuttle flight). But I think we're on our way there."
Astronaut Andrew Thomas agreed.
"I hope the legacy will be that we've shown we've been able to return the vehicle back to safe, operational flight," he said. "I think we've also shown that we don't have a full, complete understanding of the aerothermal dynamics of what happens around the tank during the launch phase and it's shown us that we need to do that."
Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi told his family, "See you tomorrow. It's been a great trip and we'll come back with lots of good stories."
See the Status Center for full play-by-play coverage.