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article imageNASA looks to turn year around with Atlantis launch

By Carpenter S. Newton     Jun 5, 2007 in Science
News hasn’t been kind to NASA the first half of 2007. From a kidnapping scandal to a workplace murder to extensive hail damage on an orbiter and a train derailment, the agency hopes to get things back on track with Friday’s anticipated launch.
Carpenter Newton reporting for Digital Journal –– By most accounts, it has been a horrible year for NASA.
In February, the space agency had to deal with astronaut-gone-astronut Lisa Nowak, a Mission Specialist who flew aboard space shuttle Discovery in 2006. Nowak was charged with kidnapping and burglary after she allegedly traveled from Houston to Florida wearing an astronaut diaper in an attempt to confront a woman involved with her zero-gravity love interest William Oefelein.
Later that same month, a freak hail storm caused significant damage to the external fuel tank on space shuttle Atlantis, sending the orbiter in for repair and postponing its planned March 15 liftoff to early June.
In May, there was a murder-suicide at Johnson Space Center and a train carrying space shuttle components derailed.
Finally, due to the modified shuttle launch schedule, a seventh crew member had to be added to the STS-117 mission. Clayton Anderson, originally slated to go up on shuttle Endeavour, was placed on the 117 crew to replace astronaut Sunita Williams in the International Space Station. Williams was originally scheduled to come home in June, but aboard Endeavour, not Atlantis.
One would be remiss in not accentuating the positive: Engineers worked painstaking hours to repair the hail damaged external fuel tank, sanding out the damage on the massive piece and using foam to repair it. The largely experimental process took less than two months to complete.
“They have shown real American grit in being able to face adversity and keep on doing what needs to be done to advance the American space program,” shuttle manager Wayne Hale recently commented to the Associated Press of the technicians who repaired the tank.
In addition to the external fuel tank, the STS-117 crew has faced major hurdles, particularly Clayton Anderson. Anderson, who had trained to take part in a later mission, had to retrain in order to be up to snuff with what was going on during 117. This led to longer hours for everyone involved.
Complicating matters even more, the 117 crew faces a task that was accomplished on the previous 116 mission, but perilously. In December, NASA had to add a fourth spacewalk to STS-116 in order to fold up a stuck solar array -- an unplanned move that involved making a set of impromptu tools out of whatever happened to be lying around.
The crew of STS-117 think they are well prepared to fold up a second set of solar arrays. “We get to learn from the challenges that other crews have faced,” said Mission Specialist Patrick Forrester at a recent press conference.
Still, NASA is leaving open the option of extending the mission by two days and inserting a fourth spacewalk, if necessary.
And if it couldn’t get anymore complicated, the space agency had originally planned to have five shuttle launches this year, but has trimmed that breakneck count down to four. The space shuttle program will expire in 2010 and hopes are to have the International Space Station completed before the longtime orbiters are retired.
Looking Up
At Tuesday’s countdown status briefing at Kennedy Space Center, NASA officials were upbeat that a successful mission would turn things around for the agency.
“All our systems right now are in great shape and we’re tracking no constraints that are show stoppers,” said Test Director Steve Payne. “Everybody’s eager to launch and we’re looking forward to a successful assembly mission.”
Even the weather looks to be cooperating. Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters projected only a 30% chance of a scrub on Friday evening due to possible thunderstorms around KSC. Weather at emergency landing sites in California and Spain also looks to be golden. “We do expect to see some afternoon thunderstorms in the area on launch day but by launch time, all that weather should move inland with the sea breeze,” Winters said.
The official countdown for Atlantis is slated to begin at 9 p.m. EDT tonight. The clock will start running at T-43 hours, with 28 hours of built-in hold time, leading to a launch of 7:38 p.m. on Friday evening.
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