NASA likely to order rollback of Atlantis

by Chris Bergin

With Monday’s launch attempt officially cancelled by NASA managers, Shuttle Atlantis now faces the direct threat of Hurricane Ernesto.

The launch complex and Shuttle systems have now been cleared, following a lightning strike late last week. However, latest forecasters show Ernesto making a beeline for Florida, which would require Atlantis to be rolled back to the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building. A decision will be taken on Monday morning.


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UPDATE: Shuttle manager Leroy Cain noted that the storm would have to take a significant turn from its current path, which is deemed unlikely, to avoid the order of rollback being taken tomorrow.

Earlier news:

Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier noted that NASA is evaluating two options: One, to go see if they can safely press ahead with a Tuesday launch attempt, and secondly to prepare for a rollback of the vehicle to the VAB.

Rollback is currently the likely option, as the Hurricane continues to show it is heading towards central Florida.

‘We have two competing objectives. One we want to get the vehicle ready to go fly, the other objective is we want to get the vehicle ready to go rollback to the VAB,’ said Gerstenmaier. ‘And those options are not compatible.

‘Those are two totally different objectives, and at some point of the sequence you have to give up on either one of the other, but that point in time hasn’t occurred yet.’

That ‘point in time’ will be midnight tonight, after managers meet to discuss both the state of the testing that has been on-going with the vehicle over the past 24-48 hours, and to assess the latest weather data.

Unless the hurricane makes a large move to the west in the tracking, or slows down considerable in its move towards Florida, it is highly unlikely NASA will be happy to leave Atlantis on the pad, due to wind strength constraints for the Shuttle.

The transporter-crawler, which will head to the pad in the event of a rollback, has been in action today, in case the call is made. The huge vehicle will take a few hours to get to launch pad complex 39B, ready for what would be an expected rollback late Monday night, early Tuesday morning.

‘You’re going to see conflicting things,’ warned Gerstenmaier. ‘If you look around the space center you will see the crawler-transporter actually running around today, operating to see if it’s ready to go.

‘You’ll also see us attaching the mid-orbiter umbilical, ready for PRSD system, in preparation to offload (the fuel cell reactants) – that’s all counter to what you would be doing for preparing for a launch. But that is an item you want to do if you are ready to drainback (ahead of a rollback). However, you will see activities that go both ways.

‘If you look at that, you might think we’ve lost our minds, but we really haven’t lost our minds, we’re just protecting both options.’

A rollback would also see the STS-115 launch attempt move to October, unless NASA can either turn around the return to the pad before September 7 – which is deemed to be very tight – or NASA can work with the Russians to delay the launch of their Soyuz vehicle.

The problem there is related to the International Space Station only being able to take one vehicle at a time. Thus the Shuttle has to launch before the end of the first week in September to comply.

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