Two Shuttle missions in two months planned

by Chris Bergin

Despite only two launches in three years, NASA is aiming to launch both Discovery and Atlantis just two months apart next year – should STS-121’s test flight go to plan – as the US agency looks to get back to a regular launch schedule.

A report in US newspaper Florida Today notes that Atlantis’ STS-115 mission will restart the international Space Station (ISS) construction missions.

While both May and July are not fixed dates, it was reported that Shuttle manager Wayne Hale has requested for information on the possibility of achieving both launch windows.

STS-121 – commanded by Steve Lindsey – will be the second test flight since the loss of Columbia on STS-107 and is being tagged as RTF 3 (Return to Flight 3). Should all go well, STS-115 – commanded by Brent Jett – will see Atlantis (ready to launch due to STS-300 requirements in support of Discovery) launch on the Nineteenth station flight (12A), with the P3/P4 arrays in the payload bay.

Also noting good news, NASA has confirmed that the troublesome PAL (protuberance air load) Ramp will be removed from the External Tanks – with a solution coming in the form of replacing the area with a new foam and process of application. It is understood the “Chicken Wire Mesh” solution has been rejected.

The inspection process “Shearography” may also be modified to try and spot problems with the foam – now believed to have missed problems with a previous repair on ET-121.

It was ET-121 – which flew with Discovery on STS-114 – which shed a large piece of foam from its PAL Ramp shortly after Solid Rocket Booster separation (SRB Sep) on assent.

ET-119 has now begun its journey to the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans on a barge that left Port Canaveral this week – the first of the three ETs to be sent back to MAF. ET-120 was destacked from Shuttle Atlantis at the start of the month and joins ET-117 in the checkout cells inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

With Endeavour also returning to the launch processing fray – following her successful power up this week – NASA has a very good opportunity to make it three launches in 2006.

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