RTF milestone achieved as Discovery arrives at the VAB

by Chris Bergin

Space Shuttle Discovery finally left the confines of her Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) in the early hours of cold March 29th, as United Space Alliance workers carefully guided the multi-billion dollar vehicle along the quarter-mile route into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), achieving a major milestone in NASA’s progress towards their Return To Flight mission, STS-114.

A large amount of journalists and camera crews – in attendance at the Kennedy Space Center to report the event – were made to wait patiently through the night for the first public glimpse of the Shuttle departing the OPF, as a series of delayed ensued – due to problems aligning and attaching the transporter the belly of the Orbiter. However, by 1:30am local time, Discovery started to move – tail first – out of the building she’s called home for the past few years.

Discovery is tasked with leading the Shuttle Fleet on their much-awaited Return to Flight, with the test flight mission ‘STS-114’ – currently being pencilled in for a May 15 launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

It’s been well-over two years since Discovery and her two sisters Atlantis and Endeavour were grounded – following the loss of Shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven in February 2003 while on re-entry.

To return the fleet back to flight following the disaster, NASA was tasked with carrying out the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) – a body which was set-up to determine the mishap that caused the loss of Columbia.

The lengthy CAIB report confirmed that a piece of insulation foam – that had broken away from the External Tank (ET), in itself an often-seen event during launch – impacted and breached the leading edge of the Orbiter’s left wing, not long after “throttle up” on the flagship’s ill-fated launch. Super-hot gases – experienced on re-entry – entered the internal structure of Columbia’s left wing, ultimately leading to the break up of the Orbiter – high over Texas, less than half an hour before she and her crew were due to land at the Kennedy Space Centre.

With a redesigned ET – as well as the bolted on twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) – waiting for the Orbiter in the 52-storey VAB, Discovery will find herself lifted up vertically by a giant crane – up and over the ET and SRBs stack – and gently lowered into position for mating, making the Space Transportation System (STS) that will carry Commander Eileen Collins and her crew of six to the International Space Station (ISS) in what will be a test flight for the host of modifications made since the break up of Columbia on STS-107.

Once stacked, Discovery will head out to the launch pad early next week, atop of a Mobile Launch Platform, carried by one of NASA’s two giant Crawlers that the Kennedy Space Center has at its disposal. Both Crawlers – which painstakingly transport the stack to the pad at a dizzy one mile per hour – have been re-fitted with new tracks during the Shuttle-less 26 month period in which the fleet has been grounded.

A series of critical tests will be carried out once at the launch pad. Those tests in themselves will be one of the major determining factors on whether Discovery will lead Return to Flight within the May 12 to June 3rd window.

One of the other critical elements – that will decide the timing of STS-114’s launch – will be the processing status of Shuttle Atlantis, as she prepares for mission STS-121 – targeted for July of this year. Atlantis has to be in a position to be available for a rescue mission, designated STS-300, within a maximum allowance of a one month accelerated processing-to-launch window proceeding Discovery’s lift-off on STS-114.

Shuttle manager Bill Parsons recently noted to reporters that an update on when the agency expects to launch Discovery on STS-114 will be noted in the middle of April.

NASA Space Flight would like to thank and accredit Justin Ray’s updated coverage of the rollover of Discovery to the VAB on http://www.spaceflightnow.com/ for contributing towards the information used in this report.

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