NASA Leaders Sound Optimistic Note, Atlantis Readies for Docking

NASA Leaders Sound Optimistic Note, Atlantis Readies for Docking

The STS-135 Atlantis crew completed an inspection of the orbiter’s heat shield using the shuttle’s robotic arm today. The images will be analyzed on the ground to determine if there was any damage during launch yesterday.

Docking is scheduled for Sunday.

President Obama issued a statement of congratulations, saying that while this is the final space shuttle mission, it is the beginning of “the next chapter of our preeminence in space.”

That certainly was the theme reiterated again and again by NASA leaders in Florida in the days leading up to and including the launch as it has been in Washington for many months.

At the post-launch press conference yesterday, NASA Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Bob Cabana struck a determined note to emphasize that although change is hard, it is necessary. “Change is difficult. But you can’t do something else, you can’t do something better, unless you go through change.” Taking issue with those who feel that the human spaceflight program is directionless now, he said “we do have a plan” with commercial crew and the International Space Station and a new heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) to go beyond low Earth orbit. He pointed out that one of the two space shuttle pads, 39B, is being upgraded even though there are no funds for a similar upgrade of pad 39A from which Atlantis was launched. He sees KSC as a “multiuser” facility in the future. He later added that the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) was in no danger of being bulldozed. NASA will need it for the HLLV and commercial companies may also want to use it, he said.

Many of those in attendance at the launch were surprised to see Atlantis lift off almost on time. After a very rainy day on Thursday and early on Friday, the weather improved and looked promising for the launch itself. Cloud cover was problematical, however, for the extremely unlikely Return to Launch Site (RTLS) abort scenario in which all the main engines fail and the shuttle is forced to return to KSC within about 30 minutes of launch. KSC is in charge of the shuttle up through launch. It then hands off control to Johnson Space Center (JSC), so it was JSC that had to decide if the cloud cover and possibility of showers fit within the RTLS guidelines.

At the press conference, shuttle launch integration manager Mike Moses revealed that “we took a bit of an exception” with the rules, convincing themselves that if rain showers did develop, they would be so localized that they would affect only one end of the runway and Atlantis could land at the other end. An RTLS was not necessary – it never has been in the history of the shuttle program – and no showers developed in any case.

A glitch 31 seconds before launch almost spoiled the day, however. As explained at the press conference by shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, a signal was not sent to computers to indicate that the arm for the “beanie cap” – or gaseous oxygen (GOX) vent arm — had retracted and locked. The beanie cap prevents liquid oxygen vapor that vents from the External Tank (ET) from turning into ice. It is attached to the ET until the final minutes before launch. Engineers were able to use a closed circuit camera to ascertain that it had, in fact, retracted, and the countdown proceeded. Launch occurred three minutes late, at 11:59 am EDT, with only 58 seconds left in the launch window.

The celebratory mood of a successful shuttle launch definitely was dampened by the knowledge that many of those working the launch would soon lose their jobs. NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Bill Gerstenmaier was asked about the criticism by some of the human spaceflight program’s most legendary members, including Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, that the program is adrift. If NASA cannot convince them that the program has a promising future, how can it convince the public he was asked.

Gerstenmaier acknowledged that NASA needs to better communicate with those individuals on the work being done on the new HLLV and the Orion crew capsule since much is being done in-house and has not been made public. “Those were my teachers, those were my mentors … so I think I incorporate everything that they bring to us in terms of concerns, but we need to communicate with them. … They may not particularly like it. … They want us to do even more.” He later added that this point in time is not an end, but a transition and NASA needs to explain the new direction to get others “excited with us.”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.