STS-120 countdown begins – new FRR process praised

by Chris Bergin

The countdown clock has started ticking down ahead of the launch of shuttle Discovery on STS-120 next Tuesday, as S0007 operations begin a complex ballet of pre-launch processes.

The launch is going ahead following the removal of all pre-launch issues, which included the “final” Flight Readiness Review (FRR) – part of a new approval structure that earned praise from shuttle manager Wayne Hale.

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The countdown, which is debuting a 30 minute change to mitigate ice build up on the External Tank on launch day – following the STS-118 debris event – will tick down to the 11:38am lift-off on Tuesday, although weather remains a concern, with a 40 percent chance of it being a constraint to launch.

S0007 operations are constantly refined, depending on how engineers proceed with the elements involved. The first major event of the operation is the loading of reactants into Discovery’s power generating systems.

‘We’re tracking no issues at this point. The orbiter’s midbody and aft are closed out for flight,’ noted NASA Test Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson. ‘Shortly after the start to the countdown, we’ll configure our avionic systems. We’ll also start our preparations for the loading of our onboard reactants for our power generation system, which will pick up at 10am.’

The main topic of pre-launch conversation has revolved around Tuesday’s FRR, which discussed a recommendation from NESC (NASA Engineering and Safety Center) to rollback and replace three RCC panels on the leading edge of Discovery’s wings.

‘After a lot of discussion, the board was asked their opinions. Most seemed to be in favor of using flight rationale to fly as is. One member (NASA HQ’s Chief Engineer) showed a preference for roll back. The crew was in-line for fly as is also,’ noted an FRR round-up memo acquired by this site.

‘HQ S/MA (Safety and Mission Assurance) weighed in that the risk was yellow, but that there were higher risks in the program and the risk to ISS crew needed to be considered as well – training to do the stage EVA work and waiting months to perform. Also, the highest probable spalling event would be cool down and therefore accepted risk.

‘Associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier is ready to fly, based on flight history and the fact that ground testing found the 8R anomaly before it was a problem. He also emphasized his opinion that the spalling would be much more likely to occur during cool down as supported by flight data and credible forces driving the failure.’

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Presentations and notes of NESC’s recommendations to the FRR (on L2) show a luke-warm argument, based heavily on a root cause that is not fully understood or confirmed. It was also revealed that NESC compared some of their data with panels on another vehicle (Endeavour) which reduced commonality and flight history relevance.

‘Gerstenmaier would also like to see the high value 105 (Endeavour) panel replaced, root cause testing to continue, and better understanding of NDE parameters,’ added the round-up, which downplayed NESC’s recommendation.

‘NESC offered that their recommendation was probably wrong in that it made a program decision and should have stuck with a technical recommendation for testing and root cause analysis. Board poll was completed with all parties go less the NASA HQ Chief Engineer.’

New panels have been ordered, and Discovery will undergo replacement of her three panels in question once she’s back on the ground after STS-120.

‘Sent formal request regarding RCC to Lockheed Martin on Wednesday to obtain data for procurement of additional panels in hot areas (8 through 10; both sides),’ noted United Space Alliance Logistics at KSC. ‘Effort is in work.’

The new FRR process, which saw the bulk of the overview being conducted the week before, was supposed to lead to a half day process for the Agency level (SOMD) FRR. However, due to NESC refusing to back down earlier in the meeting, the FRR went on longer than expected.

While the new FRR process may be refined still further ahead of STS-122, Hale was pleased with the process, which ensured all parties got to have their say.

‘Mr. Hale assigned an action to Program FRR and Executive/HQ FRR participants to submit comments, suggestions or observations on how to improve new FRR process,’ noted the latest Shuttle Stand-up/Integration report.

‘Bill Gerstenmaier asked Mr. Hale yesterday for recommendations on how Program thought new process went and proposals to improve it. Mr. Hale thought was good FRR. Topics addressed properly and received proper attention.

‘Technical experts allowed to express concerns on the one controversy and help management understand how much risk Program is incurring by proceeding to fly as is. This was very helpful. Will need to continue to watch Shuttle, understand its safety and how to be safer in future. Don’t think was anything wrong with process, although it took longer than normal.’

Yesterday, the crew arrived at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) ahead of the launch. They’ve spent Saturday carrying out further training runs in the STA (Shuttle Training Aircraft), which they had arrived on from Houston.

In a buoyant mood, the crew introduced themselves to the awaiting media, before Commander Pam Melroy spoke of her fondness for Discovery and her eagerness for the mission to begin.

‘To us, Discovery is a very personal vehicle, she will be our home for two weeks. But the space shuttle is yours too,’ noted Melroy. ‘This program is about everybody here.

‘The space shuttle and the International Space Station are the world’s program and we’re very proud to be a part of it – and we’re ready to go do it!’

L2 members: All documentation and quotes – from which the above article has quoted snippets – is available in full in the related L2 sections, updated live.

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