With the successful Wednesday landing of NASA's shuttle Atlantis, the stage is set for a busy year of construction at the international space station (ISS).
The seven-astronaut crew of Atlantis delivered the European-built Columbus laboratory to the ISS in the first of up to six shuttle flights — the most in a single year since 2001 — to continue station assembly and overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope.
"I can't think of a better way to start this year out than this wonderful flight we just had," said William Gerstenmaier, NASA's space operations chief, after Atlantis touched downat 9:07 a.m. ET here at the agency's Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
Commanded by veteran shuttle flyer Stephen Frick, Atlantis' STS-122 crew installed and activated the 23-foot long Columbus laboratory for the European Space Agency (ESA). The astronauts also performed maintenance work and swapped out one member of the station's Expedition 16 crew. But even before Atlantis returned to Earth, its sister ship Endeavour rolled out to the launch pad for a planned March 11 liftoff to haul a Japanese module and two-armed Canadian robot to the ISS.
"It feels really good to be having missions back-to-back like this again," NASA launch director Mike Leinbach said.
Endeavour's STS-123 mission will deliver the first segment of Japan's three-part Kibo laboratory to the ISS along with the Canadian Space Agency's Dextre attachment for the station's robotic arm. NASA pushed a third flight, initially slated to fly April 24 aboard Discovery, to May 25 due to delays in the preparation of its external fuel tank, but the move is not expected to impact the agency's shuttle lineup.
"We're just going to work these flights one at a time," Gerstenmaier said. "We've got good plans in place. We'll see how things work."
In addition to the next three shuttle missions, NASA plans to launch an August flight to Hubble and two other flights, slated for October and December, respectively, to rotate crewmembers, haul cargo and deliver new solar arrays at the ISS.
"It's just going to be a joy to get through this year with five more launches," said Leinbach, adding that there will be little time for complacency among his launch teams.
NASA's international partners also have a busy few months ahead. ESA officials plan to launch Jules Verne, the first Automated Transfer Vehicle cargo ship, to the ISS on March 7 while Russia is set to launch a new station crew to the orbiting laboratory on April 8. Discovery has until about March 23 to launch in between those two flights, mission managers said.
Gerstenmaier said the U.S. military's plan to shoot down a failing spy satellite laden with a half-ton of toxic rocket fuel should not pose a debris risk to the Endeavour's March launch, which is now less than three weeks away. The U.S. Navy was waiting until Atlantis landed before going ahead with a missile launch to knock down the bus-sized reconnaissance satellite later this week.
"We don't think it'll be a problem, but we'll continue to analyze it to make sure that it's not a problem or a concern to us," Gerstenmaier said.
Leinbach said Atlantis and its astronaut crew are in fine shape after their landing earlier today. In addition to delivering the station's new Columbus lab, Atlantis astronauts returned U.S. spaceflyer Dan Tani to Earth to end his four-month stint as an ISS Expedition 16 flight engineer.
"He's doing great," Gerstenmaier said, adding that, like all long-duration astronauts, Tani will spend the next few weeks recovering from months of living without gravity. "He's in great shape."
ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts of France relieved Tani and will stay aboard the station until his own replacement arrives next month. Atlantis' STS-122 mission marked NASA's 121st shuttle flight and the eighth to fly since the 2003 Columbia accident.