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Shuttle schedule faces blackouts

NASA requirements for daylight launches could create more flight delays and add to deadline pressures, officials warned Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A new NASA safety rule restricting shuttle launches to daylight hours will lead to more and longer flight delays and, unless the space agency is strong enough to resist, deadline pressures similar to those that contributed to the Columbia disaster, officials warned Wednesday.

More than half of any given calendar year will be blacked out for launches under the new guideline, sometimes for months at a time.

The new rule, prompted by the Columbia disaster, was dictated by the need to photograph each shuttle at liftoff in order to document any damage from flying debris, and to check the external fuel tank for any missing foam insulation.

John Shannon, manager of shuttle flight operations and integration, said everyone inside the space agency will have to resist the urge to meet what few launch dates might be available in any given period.

“We have to guard against that,” Shannon said. “Everybody who’s worked here for a long time looks at that thing (blackout chart) and says, ‘Wow, we need to get something going here and here and here.’ And you say, ‘No, we are not going to do that. That is not the way we’re going to operate.’”

Better pictures required
A chunk of foam slammed into Columbia’s left wing during liftoff in January and left a hole that later let in the deadly gases of re-entry. NASA had no good pictures of the strike or the gashed area and concluded during the flight that no significant damage occurred. All seven astronauts were killed, just 16 minutes away from their Florida homecoming.

For the next launch, dozens of additional cameras will be positioned throughout the launch area. In addition, extra cameras will be installed on the shuttle to document its entire eight-minute ride to orbit, and the astronauts will use a digital camera to photograph the empty fuel tank as it falls away.

Daylight will be required not only at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, but also far out over the Atlantic so the fuel tank is visible when it tumbles away.

At a return-to-flight seminar at Johnson Space Center, the chief of the shuttle ascent and descent dynamics branch, Greg Oliver, said these daylight launch restrictions will reduce the number of launch opportunities by more than half. And that does not take into account the usual delays caused by weather, meteor showers and other factors.

On any given day, NASA has just five minutes or so to launch a shuttle to the space station, the predominant destination for astronauts. That brief window represents the time that the imaginary corridor to the space station passes over the launch site, and takes into consideration the amount of fuel needed to reach the outpost given the weight of the shuttle cargo.

With the daylight restrictions, NASA will have about a month, from mid-May to mid-June next year, to launch Atlantis on the next shuttle flight — provided the space agency can fulfill all the necessary redesigns and requirements outlined by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Then the space agency would have to wait a month, before trying again in mid-July. That window would last until mid-August, then it would be another one-month delay.

If Atlantis is not off the ground by mid-October, NASA would have only three to six days in November to launch the shuttle. In December, no days are available and, in January, just a few. Then the space agency would have to settle in for an estimated 2½-month wait.

This will have a huge effect on space station construction, already on indefinite hold because of the grounding of the shuttle fleet. Of the 16 shuttle flights so far to the international space station, six of the launches occurred in darkness. Of the 113 total shuttle launches, 28 have been at night.