Flight of the Phoenix

By Craig Covault
July 10, 2005
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Flight of the Phoenix

The future of the space program and lessons of history weigh heavily on shuttle’s return

This article appears in the 11 July 2005 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology

Reprinted with permission of Aviation Week & Space Technology – www.aviationnow.com

The $1-billion sweeping overhaul of flawed space shuttle management and engineering carried out over the last 2.5 years by 20,000 NASA and contractor personnel is moving toward test here this week for the hypersonic transport’s return to flight.

Weather permitting, Discovery and its seven-member STS-114 crew, commanded by USAF Col. (ret.) Eileen Collins, are aimed toward a liftoff at 3:50:47 p.m. EDT July 13 on 7.4 million lb. thrust (see p. 56).

Crew safety is paramount, but the immediate fate of thousands of shuttle related aerospace jobs across the U.S. is also quite literally riding on the success or failure of Discovery’s return to flight and subsequent shuttle missions.

And U.S. space program managers hope that, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, NASA will be reborn as a dynamic agency on the foundation of the painful changes forced by the Columbia accident.

Meteorologists here hoped the passage of Hurricane Dennis through the Gulf of Mexico would not affect launch timing, although late July 7, they made initial preparations for any potential rollback to the Vehicle Assembly Building and launch delay, if necessary.

The weather aside, critical countdown events, led by the 175-person NASA/United Space Alliance team in Kennedy Launch Control Center (LCC) Firing Room 3, were to be underway throughout this week. They are supported by another 175 or so technicians in the backup Firing Room 2. One of the most crucial events is the scheduled July 11 loading on Pad 39B of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen reactants into the orbiter’s electrical power-generating fuel cells, a major event early in the count.

Two new radars, more than 100 launch camera systems (many of them new), along with two WB-57 high-altitude imaging aircraft are undergoing final programming to image the launch in greater detail than any previous space mission (AW&STMay9 p. 50). This is part of a “defense-in-depth” approach to chart any debris-shedding events like those that doomed Columbia.

Likewise, U.S. military air, sea, land and space-based assets around the world, assisted by Spanish and newly added French support in key locations, are being deployed to their staging points to help in any contingency (see p. 26). They will remain ready to act throughout the July 13-31 launch period. This includes counter-terrorist operations related to shuttle launch in addition to search and rescue.

The same management and engineering reforms important for the remaining 1520 shuttle missions bear the same weight for development of safer, more efficient launchers and the new Crew Exploration Vehicle for Earth orbit by about 2010.

“We have no business moving out on the Exploration Initiative until we can prove we can safely return the shuttle to flight,” Wayne Hale, deputy shuttle program manager, said earlier.

A positive rebound from a major accident has happened before. The tragedy of the 1967 Apollo launch pad fire, which killed three astronauts here, spurred major reforms that led to the triumph of six U.S. manned lunar landings between 1969-72.

But the space shuttle itself has come full circle. Nearly 30 years ago—five years before the first shuttle launch— Aviation Week & Space Technology wrote, “Nobody is sure yet how the vital thermal protection panels will stand the wear and tear of repeated flight cycles and how much maintenance they will require” (AW&ST Nov. 8, 1976, p. 9).

The same question will remain for the shuttle’s last five years of operations, before phase out in 2010, following the 2003 loss of Columbia and her crew because of a debris inflicted panel breach.

Major changes to the Lockheed Martin external tank are designed to interrupt any chain of events that could lead to a similar accident (AW&ST Oct. 4, 2004, p. 57). But modifications to prevent insulation and any other debris sources, inspection and limited repair capabilities plus reforms in decision making all remain to be proven in flight.

So nearly 25 years after its first launch in 1981, the shuttle is this week on the threshold of another flight test.

“I think we have made this vehicle much safer than any other,” says NASA shuttle project manager William Parsons. “We have reduced the amount of debris, we have improved the tank and we have a lot of ways to inspect and understand if we have had any damage to the orbiter’s thermal protection system.

“But we need to get into the flight environment [to test the modifications]. Therefore, there is some risk in flying this tank. We have to accept that risk, then assess how well we did and address whether there are other improvements that we need to work on,” Parsons said.

And the world is watching this major U.S. aerospace event. More than 2,650 news media from around the globe have been accredited to cover the flight here.

Like the post-1986 Challenger return to flight 17 years ago, the orbiter doing the initial flight is again Discovery, being prepared for its 31st launch.

Avoiding a weather delay, Collins and co-pilot USAF Lt. Col. James Kelly will spend part of this week flying dozens of 20-deg.- steep shuttle approaches to the Kennedy runway in NASA Gulfstream II Shuttle Training Aircraft (STAs).

The runs would follow hundreds they have already done in the STAs since the Columbia accident to remain proficient in shuttle landings, to prepare for the real one. If Discovery is launched July 13, landing is planned here at the Kennedy Space Center at 11 a.m. July 25. But those runs are also to keep the pilots proficient for any dire Return-to-Launch-Site or transatlantic abort (TAL) landings.

Collins, Kelly and the other STS-114 crewmembers — Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence, Andy Thomas, Stephen Robinson, Charles Camarda and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi— about noon two days before launch will confer with Hale, who heads the Mission Management Team before the new, more highly organized MMT holds a key meeting 48 hr. before launch.

The mission is also a “return to assembly” of the International Space Station, says station program director Bill Gerstenmaier.

Carrying 15 tons of ISS logistics and maintenance hardware, Discovery is headed to a 400,000-lb. station composed of major Russian segments and manned by a U.S./Russian crew almost 30 years to the day after launch of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project that pioneered such cooperation. A launch July 13 would result in a station docking at 12:30 p.m. EDT July 15.

No matter when the shuttle countdown begins, key events include:

  • Launch minus two days: Final crew equipment will be stowed and Solid Rocket Booster master events controllers will be powered on. Critical pyrotechnic initiator circuits in Discovery and its SRBs will be verified with electrical and software checks. Power-on critical checks will also be made of the three Space Shuttle Main Engine computers. Several hundred pounds of first liquid oxygen, then liquid hydrogen will be loaded into the orbiter’s electrical fuel cell tanks.
  • Launch minus one day: By noon EDT, members of the Johnson Space Center Mission Control team for launch will be at their posts in Houston for communications checks from the cockpit of Discovery and final cockpit switch positioning by astronaut support pilots in the cockpit. Shuttle auxiliary power unit hydraulic system software and electrical tests will be conducted. The Pad 39B rotating service structure will be retracted about 7 p.m.
  • Launch day: The orbiter electrical fuel cells will be activated so Discovery can begin generating its own electrical power. Launch Pad 39B will be cleared of all personnel in preparation for propellant loading on the external tank. The shuttle Mission Management Team will hold a pre-dawn tanking meeting to approve or disapprove propellant loading.

About 385,000 gal. of -423F liquid hydrogen and 143,000 gal. of -297F liquid oxygen will be pumped into the newly upgraded external tank. This particular tank has never been fueled with cryogenics before, and an additional second test has been added to ensure neither it nor Discovery have a repeat of the hydrogen depletion sensor problem found on Discovery’s initial propellant test with a different tank.

Astronaut support pilots will return to the cockpit after propellant loading is in a replenishment mode. The Kennedy “Ice Team” will closely inspect the external tank with sensors to spot any ice debris.

The STS-114 crew is to enter Discovery 3.5 hr. before liftoff. Collins and Kelly are to climb into the commander and pilot seats, while Robinson climbs into the center seat flight engineer position with Noguchi to his right on the flight deck. Thomas, Lawrence and Camarda are to be seated in the middeck for launch.

The Johnson Space Flight Meteorology Group will make a recommendation on whether Zaragoza or Moron, Spain, or Istres, France, will be the primary TAL site.

The final “go” is to be given about 10 min. before launch for the final 9-min. countdown toward liftoff of the shuttle’s return to flight. Should launch slip beyond July 13, all events, including liftoff, would occur about 25 min. earlier each day.

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