Discovery would have been ok at WSSH

by Chris Bergin

Had shuttle orbiter Discovery landed at the White Sands Space Harbor, the vehicle would not have suffered damage to her water and hydrazine lines from the cold weather, according to new documentation.

Thankfully, Discovery landed at the Kennedy Space Center last week, ending all concerns – most of which related to the turnaround of the orbiter.

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The timescale in bringing back Discovery to her home base in Florida was the over-riding concern, had she of landed at White Sands. However, the freezing weather at the New Mexico facility was also the center of NASA evaluations on the best way to protect Discovery’s systems.

That was the basis of a NASA presentation titled ‘Impacts of Cold Weather upon Landing at WSSH,’ which evaluated the potential of damage to Discovery’s water and hydrazine lines from the overnight freezing conditions at White Sands.

‘Approach: Model results from payloads model for lower equipment bay shows internal environment lags external environment (effect biased high due to radiator flow simulation for fuel cell operating question),’ listed the presentation’s overall findings.

‘Forecast shows favorable conditions (38 to 43 degrees F). Expect internal aft and mid compartments to be no colder than 5 degrees F warmer than lowest external air temperature, including ‘high’ external convection

‘Results: Using forecast -5 degrees F indicates no issue for water and hydrazine lines. Subsystem heater models with no power show very little time to limit even if environment falls slightly below limit (0.5 to 1.0 hr) with a few hrs from onset of freezing to a solid plug. Friday Landing: At landing + 6hrs, local weather predicted to be 38 degrees F: no issue for water and hydrazine lines

‘Conclusion: Risk of reaching freezing points for hydrazine or water is low unless forecast worsens.’

The allowance of getting all the required support in place before the temperatures dipped below allowable limits mitigated the fear of damage. With support equipment including heaters and power supply units, Discovery would have been able to enjoy her stay in New Mexico until she was able to head back to Florida.

Still, White Sands was the subject of a number of concerned NASA memos in the lead up to Discovery’s return, one of which noted they were ‘praying’ KSC would become favorable, but NASA administrator Mike Griffin played down the difficulties of opting to use the third choice landing site.

‘With regards to White Sands, I don’t think we’re in a position where landing there would be detrimental to the program,’ said Griffin. ‘We flew some equipment out on a C-17 and we were prepared to look after Discovery if she had landed there, just as we have done at Edwards many times.’

The difference between Edwards – second choice behind KSC – and White Sands is the facility itself, which has only been used once before, on STS-3, and doesn’t have a hanger to house an orbiter during post-landing processing.

A large tent-like cover would have been placed over Discovery, with a wait of up to 60 days before a series of cranes could have lifted the orbiter on to the back of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) for transport back to KSC. Only Edwards has the giant crane that can lift the orbiter on to the back of the converted 747.

Griffin noted that upgrading White Sands to mitigate such issues would add an unnecessary strain on a Shuttle budget that is going to start phasing out in 2010, when the Shuttle fleet are retired.

‘Budgets are very tight,’ added Griffin, ‘but as long as we can get by without building a more permanent installation at White Sands or any of our 200 contingency runways around the world, I think we’ll stay the course with where we are.’

In the end, KSC was the final destination for Discovery at the end of STS-116, and she is now safed inside her OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility) for preparations ahead of her next mission, STS-122.

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