STS-300 – Kelly good to go

by Chris Bergin

Navy Commander Mark Kelly has no hesitation when it comes to the decision of being part of a four-man crew on board Atlantis – on a mission that everyone at NASA hopes will never be required….STS-300.

Atlantis – currently in preparations for STS-121 in Orbiter Processing Facilty-1 (OPF) – is set for a July launch on the second Return to Flight (RTF) mission. However, the contingency in place for the next two launches will firstly see Atlantis being on standby should there be a critical failure during Discovery’s mission.
‘If seven friends were up in space and needed to get home,’ Kelly said. “I’m willing to take a lot of risk to do that, and I understand that, and it’s not a decision I will have to make later. I’ve already made that decision.’
As a space flight rescue mission, the prospect of STS-300 is as vital to plan for as it is unthinkable to envisage. The team’s commander, Air Force Col. Steven Lindsey said “It’s a place where we don’t want to go. We’re training for a mission we never want to fly.” Lindsay however, added with some conviction “I’ll tell you what, if we aren’t absolutely as confident as we possibly can be that we have fixed the tank, which is our primary rationale to go forward, then we have no business in launching.” 

Lindsey has promised his wife and three children if he senses anything unsafe for this mission or any other, “I’ll walk, I won’t fly.”

As NASA sees it, the possibility of Discovery being covered in foam debris from the fuel tank at liftoff and leaving its seven astronauts stranded at the space station, is very remote.  This is due to the extensive improvements in science, technology, checks and testing since the Columbia tragedy two years ago.

‘Hopefully, the probability is so low that we are just covering ourselves,’ said Wayne Hale, deputy director for NASA’s shuttle program, at Johnson Space Center.

‘We are still going to fly with some risk,’ Hale added. ‘To characterize it otherwise would be inappropriate.’ 

The likelihood of Atlantis incurring any complications herself on such a rescue mission is an issue which hasn’t gone unnoticed by NASA. Hale remarked ‘If we had a catastrophic failure with Discovery, we’d need to figure out how to prevent that same problem from occurring on Atlantis.’
NASA’s deputy director for the Shuttle Program then added ‘We have looked at that and it is a do-able thing but the margins are small. It’s better to have a plan, than to not have one.’
Indeed the prospect of STS-300 is a do-able thing.  Yet if the mission was to go ahead and worked as planned, Atlantis would return to Earth holding an unprecedented eleven people.  But where risks are the very part and parcel of space flight, it is important to acknowledge them but take as many steps as possible to ensure they are reduced.
As Commander Kelly stated â€œI’m ready to do it and I figure probably in that one-month period, I wouldn’t go home anymore, probably sleep in my office.’

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