NASA managers announced Thursday that they would press ahead with the first space shuttle launch of the year next week, three months later than originally planned because of a hail storm that pockmarked the spacecraft’s external tank.
After a two-day meeting at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA officials agreed to launch Atlantis at 7:38 p.m. EDT June 8 on a mission to deliver a new pair of solar arrays to the international space station.
“We’re good to go,” shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told reporters. “We have no show-stoppers ahead of us,” he told a news conference.
The launch had been set for mid-March, but a storm that droped golfball-sized hail on the launch pad damaged insulating foam on the external tank.
NASA managers are especially cautious when it comes to the external tank since a piece of foam fell off Columbia’s tank in 2003 and hit the spacecraft’s wing. Damage from the impact allowed fiery gases to penetrate Columbia during descent, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
After the hail storm, Atlantis was rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where technicians painstakingly repaired thousands of gashes in the tank’s foam. “I’m extremely confident that we have had perfectly good repairs,” Hale said.
Flight schedule pushed back
The postponement of Atlantis’ launch forced NASA to cut the expected number of shuttle flights this year from five to four and pushed back the flight schedule for the rest of the year.
While the shuttle was being repaired, NASA decided to use Atlantis to ferry a new crew member to the space station and bring home astronaut Sunita Williams, who has been aboard the outpost since December.
Originally, the crew swap was scheduled to take place during the second flight of the year, which now won’t occur until August at the earliest.
Also on Thursday, NASA released its final response to recommendations made by the board that investigated the Columbia tragedy. The agency estimated that total costs to recover from the accident would amount to about $1.2 billion. Most of the work is complete, with modifications to the shuttles’ fuel tanks consuming most of NASA’s attention and funds.
The fleet is due for retirement in three years, when space station assembly is slated to be finished. In addition to 15 flights to the station, NASA wants to fly a final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Almost as good as a regular tank
Mindful of Columbia, the damage to Atlantis’ tank struck a nerve, but NASA officials were confident it will be safe to fly.
“Even though there are a lot of dimples on the tank, they’re very low mass,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations. “It has a slightly higher risk due to the number of repairs.”
“It’s as good — almost — as a regular tank that we would go fly,” he added.
Another issue that was discussed during this week's flight readiness review had to do with potential corrosion in an assembly that holds a turbo pump in place inside each of the shuttle's main engines. Mission managers determined that the bolts posed no problem on Atlantis, and the issue will not hold up next week's scheduled launch.
NASA will be able to make launch attempts through June 12, but then the shuttle team would have to wait a few days to allow time for a previously scheduled military satellite to be launched from the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The Air Force base and NASA share support services, such as radar and ground tracking, which take about two days to reconfigure for different launch vehicles.
Atlantis’ seven-member crew is scheduled to arrive in Florida on Monday for final flight preparations. The three-day launch countdown would begin Tuesday evening.
This report includes information from The Associated Press and Reuters.