No panic over STS manifest

by Chris Bergin

NASA administrator Mike Griffin believes launching the Shuttle up to 19 times before their 2010 retirement won’t be a problem, citing the launch frequency needed to fulfil the remaining manifest is in line with the average over the past 25 years of Shuttle operations.

With 17-19 flights remaining in the manifest, the first step will be a “clean” STS-121, currently No Earlier Than (NET) May 10 – and it appears all efforts are being focused on that flight, with no news on the shipping dates past External Tanks ET-118 and ET-119.

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ET-119 will fly with Discovery on STS-121 and will arrive at KSC on March 4 – after new information today pointed to shipping date of Feb 28 – up from Match 3.
ET-118 will fly with Atlantis, on her STS-115 assembly flight to the International Space Station – and supporting STS-300 role. ET-123 – currently in Building 103, Cell 2 at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) – is expected to be the third tank to head to KSC, although no shipping or processing timelines have been noted by MAF at time of publishing.

That could point to only two flights being on track for 2006, leaving NASA with a tight schedule of launches until the end of Shuttle operations.

However, Griffin is rightly unconcerned, with the main problem being the current lack of Shuttle launches – just one in three years – making it easy to forget that NASA has managed a launch frequency of over four and a half flights per year – which includes two major ‘groundings’ post Challenger and Columbia disasters.

‘What we need is to stay with our average statistics over 25 years of shuttle flights,’ he said.

‘As of April 12, 2006, NASA will have been flying the shuttle for 25 years exactly. We will have flown, to that point, 114 missions in 25 years. That works out to an average of 4.56 missions per year on average, even taking into account two accidents and all the downtime that we have had.’

Griffin also made a point of how recent stagnation in the launch manifest has its upside, with Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour all in prime condition to carry out their remaining roles as spaceships.

‘When we return to flight, it will be with three fresh orbiters out of depot maintenance. It will be to return to flight with greatly increased knowledge that we have never had before. Yet, all we have to do is execute our average performance over those 25 years in order to be able to complete the station.’

Finishing the ISS is the primary role of the Shuttle fleet, bar STS-121’s test flight and the un-named STS flight for a final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Confidence is high that the remaining manifest of flights won’t be hijacked by another problem of foam liberation from the ET.

‘It has been a problem getting back to routine flight to understand what has caused the foam to come off and how to mitigate it,’ added Griffin. ‘We thought we’re there after that one test flight last August (STS-114).

‘We think the second one will bear us out and then we expect to get going and finish the station.’

Live updates on Discovery’s processing

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