Excited about going down to the wire

by Chris Bergin

NASA managers are still hopeful they will make the May launch window for STS-121, while explaining they aren’t yet in a position to announce an official launch date for Shuttle Discovery’s mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

A number of issues remain before the launch can be confidentily announced, not least the need for wind tunnel results on models of the PAL ramp-less External Tank (ET), the full scale flight version of which is currently heading to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) – set to arrive on Wednesday.

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Managers briefed the media today at KSC, in a conference that saw Shuttle head Wayne Hale explaining where the program currently stands with its processing flow towards the second test flight of the Space Shuttle, post STS-107.

While NASA is aiming for a window of May 10, through to May 23 on the latest manifests, Hale emphasising the old adage that they won’t launch unless it is safe to do so, admitting the lack of contingency days in the flow continue to stranglehold the confidence in announcing, officially, the May date.

‘We will run right down to the wire,’ said Hale, adding,'(but my) observation is the engineering will always go down to the wire, no matter what schedule you set out with.’

Issues, such as finalising the gap filler replacement program on the TPS (thermal protection system) for all three orbiters, plus other issues – such as contamination found on SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) seals – will be continually assessed by program managers at their weekly PRCB (Program Requirements Control Board) meeting.

‘We are going to review the May 10 launch date on Thursday (at the PRCB),’ noted Hale. ‘I suspect there are going to be some poke outs – and we’ll see if we can mitigate them.

‘We’re going to have a very interesting discussion Thursday, but we’re not going to announce a launch date.’

Self proclaimed as an aggressive schedule to make the May window, Hale remains optimistic it can be achieved.

‘The workforce is working towards a May launch,’ he said. ‘The processing, the stacking of the SRBs, the ET, we think all of that is a somewhat aggressive target and that can met the window at the end of May. We’re processing towards May. I remain optimistic.’

Shuttle launch director at KSC Mike Leinbach agreed that the schedule is tight to make May, but while acknowledging the lack of contingency built into the schedule, he also has confidence in seeing Discovery lift off the pad in just a few months time.

‘This time when the ET turns up, it is in the critical path to get to a May launch window,’ noted Leinbach, referring to the ET normally already being in the checkout cell in the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) much sooner in the flow than it will be for STS-121.

‘We have no contingency in this path scheduled into it, (but) it’s an exciting schedule, rather than aggressive.

‘We feel pretty good about May in the schedule.’

Further articles will follow…

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