STS-125/Hubble may switch to Atlantis

by Chris Bergin

Following the confirmation that NASA will undertake one final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, work continues to move at full pace to confirm the launch slot for STS-125.

One major element of those evaluations includes the possibility of moving the flight to Atlantis, handing her a star role send-off, prior to her subsequent retirement.

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The amount of planning that has taken place ahead of Tuesday’s announcement of STS-125 has been huge, especially on the LON (Launch On Need) rescue requirement. Had the LON plan failed to prove its viability, the Hubble mission would not of been approved – sources insist.

In the end, the LON plan’s 15 percent reduction in overall mission risk proved to be enough.

While Constellation will suffer around a one year hit to their Pad 39B modification plans for the Ares I-1 test flight, the dual pad approach also allayed fears that the single pad (l-t-l) possibility was simply too ambitious.

The official announcement of the Hubble mission also followed with near perfect synergy in the details acquired by this site of the meeting that took place last week. However, it would appear NASA is looking to change one of the factors that Administrator Mike Griffin relayed to workers and followers of the program on Tuesday – namely the orbiter that would be tasked with the final mission to Hubble.

Currently – and as announced – Discovery will fly on STS-125, but NASA are looking at the possibility of moving the mission to Atlantis, in what would be her first ever flight to Hubble – but also her final trip to space.

‘Working hard to get data on potential sixth flight of Atlantis to use for possible Hubble mission,’ noted a NASA memo acquired by this site, giving the first indication that Discovery might not get STS-125 after all.

Atlantis is due to retire in 2008, given she would be due to enter a Major Modification Period – a pointless two year exercise, given the Shuttle fleet’s retirement date is 2010. However, stretching Atlantis’ operation lifetime is under evaluation – with the below points listed as ‘in need’ of rationale:

‘There are 3 main items from the Orbiter side. 1. RSB (Rudder Speed Brake) which we had a 5 flight limit on the actuators due to inspection and corrosion that was found. We are looking at that for possibility to stretch our rationale for 6 flights and will give more time to look at it and my need more testing and inspection.

‘2. Wiring on 104 is the only vehicle that did not have a complete vehicle wire inspection after the STS-93 incident. Looked at as much as possible during turnarounds but it never had the inspections the other vehicles got and we need to determine what is left there to be done.

‘3. Have been working on OMDP (Orbiter Maintenance Down Period) Reset and some requirements that would not have to be done again given there were no more OMDP’s if 104 were to fly longer. May have to go look at some of the requirements again. Think (we) have a good pitch for Orbiter Project to present.’

Why NASA would wish to move the flight to Atlantis is unclear, although it could relate to aiding the required manifest alignment, which will involve taking a current International Space Station (ISS) assembly flight as the standby LON rescue mission, in standby support of STS-125, before being cleared to carry out its primary mission.

As is always the case with NASA flight manifests, changes are common place, although – from a sentimental viewpoint – handing the Hubble mission to Atlantis would be fitting send-off for the first orbiter to retire from the fleet.

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