Atlantis set for express trip home – more TPS results

by Chris Bergin

NASA are discussing the potential of returning Atlantis back to the Kennedy Space Center over the space of just a single day, with an early morning flight on Friday arriving back in Florida the same evening.

Atlantis is undergoing preparations for her ferry flight from the Dryden Flight Research Center, which has revealed further reports on the status of her Thermal Protection System (TPS) following STS-117.

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Atlantis, set to leave Dryden at Edwards Air Force Base on Friday was initially set to arrive back at KSC on Sunday or Monday, although NASA are now looking to utilize the long summer day’s daylight.

‘Current Ferry Flight plan has wheels up from Dryden scheduled for early Friday and landing at KSC Friday afternoon, weather permitting,’ noted processing information on Wednesday.

Post launch operations are proceeding on schedule, with the hazardous operation known as SCAPE – where the toxic hypergolic propellants are removed from the orbiter’s OMS and RCS engines – completed on Tuesday night. The protective tailcone – used to reduce the drag the orbiter adds to the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft – will be installed on Thursday, depending on the weather.

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Atlantis is also in the midst of a level of TPS evaluation and cosmetic work ahead of her trip back to Florida, with the port OMS Pod blanket now removed ahead of rebonding for the cross-country flight.

That blanket was seen protruding during the early flight days of STS-117, ultimately causing a temporary repair on orbit during EVA-3. While that blanket peeled up slightly during the latter parts of Atlantis’ return to Earth, the repair was deemed highly successful, as observed by what seems to be a clean graphite expoxy shell, which the blanket protects against intense heat of re-entry.

‘Leading edge of repaired LH OMS blanket had lifted approximately 1 inch. There was a small gap visible between the inboard adjacent blanket and the tile,’ mentioned the latest post-flight TPS evaluation presentation. ‘The blanket was later removed for failure analysis prior to ferry flight.’

These initial evaluations recorded between 176 and 292 hits to the orbiter from visual inspections, 17 of those being greater than one inch in diameter. This is likely to be updated again once engineers receive Atlantis back in her OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility) in a few days time.

‘The Orbiter TPS sustained a total of 292 hits – with an attached graph showing 176 hits – of which 17 had a major dimension of one inch or larger. This total does not include the numerous hits on the base heat shield attributed to SSME vibration/acoustics and exhaust plume recirculation,’ added the presentation.

‘There is a large concentration of debris hits between the main landing gear and the ET doors. This may be an event caused during landing. Samples were taken from two debris locations forward of the body flap just inboard of the LH elevon that match up with a debris strike seen from the LH SRB camera looking aft.’

A full sweep of the orbiter listing areas of interest, although all appear to show Atlantis enjoyed a very clean flight. The only highlighted area was a tile at the aft of the orbiter.

‘There was a fuselage stub tile at the body flap interface that lost the entire corner, approximately 4” by 2”,’ the report added, although this did not appear to cause any issues during re-entry.

Once Atlantis is back in her OPF, repairs will take place – as is normal for all post flight processing – in tandem with preparations for her December 6 flight on STS-122.

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