STS-122: Real launch date is early February – Koerner

by Chris Bergin

While some level of confusion in the media was caused by deputy shuttle manager John Shannon’s January 24 reference last week, STS-122 will “definitely” get another “work to” launch date in around a week’s time.

NASA, United Space Alliance and Lockheed Martin schedules show STS-122 is currently NET (No Earlier Than) February 2, leading to Flight Director Cathy Koerner to send out a memo of clarification that the launch is tracking the February timeline – not January.

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Shannon himself noted that early February was the realistic launch date target for Atlantis, while January 24 was the ‘earliest possible’ date they could launch, if they could save time via weather and the related cure time of the foam that will be reapplied to External Tank ET-125.

However, schedules show that the special team from the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) won’t even begin the process of closing up the LH2 Feed-through connector area of the tank for foam curing until January 24, making the same date to launch impossible.

The only possibility of taking Atlantis back into a launch posture in time for January 24 would be a full acceleration of the schedule, finishing the physical installation of the replacement connector hardware at least a week ahead of the schedules.

Due to paper work, certification, Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) testing and the actual repair process, this is deemed hugely unlikely – as per official NASA schedules.

The problem relating to last Thursday’s teleconference reference to a January 24 potentially opens NASA up for more negative media, feeding off ‘delay’ headlines, when the next re-alignment to February is officially announced. This is despite the fact last Thursday’s PRCB (Program Requirements Control Board) meeting produced schedules to show that February 2 had become the new NET date.

Some of the confusion surrounded the fact that January 24 is not a NET date, rather a ‘work to’ date, which the program sends to various centers, such as the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as periodic ‘bumps’ to milestone requirements.

The mistranslation that the program is now aiming to launch Atlantis on January 24 – and STS-123 with Endeavour on February 28 – required clarification, which came in the form of an e-mail sent by Koerner, and acquired by L2.

‘SSP (Space Shuttle Program) has given MOD (Mission Operations Directorate) and FCOD (Flight Crew Operations Directorate) updated ‘work-to’ dates of 1/24 for STS-122/1E and 2/28 for STS-123/1JA. These are NOT official ‘NET’ dates. They’re dates to give us relief on our milestones,’ noted Koerner.

‘All of the schedules presented (Thursday) show us marching to an EARLY FEBRUARY launch – but there’s plenty of wiggle room in the dates and they assume no unexpected findings in the testing.

‘Absolutely everything would have to fall the right way and we’d have to make up time in the proposed schedules to meet 1/24. I expect an updated real launch date within the next two weeks. If not, then we’ll definitely get another ‘work-to’ date.’

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On Friday, the issue with the ATVC (Ascent Thrust Vector Control) Box, requiring replacement at the pad, immediately made February 2 as the absolute earliest date STS-122 can shoot for, as per documentation.

It should also be stated that February 2 – without a tanking test, or February 8 – with a tanking test, are dates that could yet move slightly more to the right, dependant the installation at the pad, and the testing at MSFC – the latter required to confirm the initial findings that the external element of the LH2 Feed-through connector is at fault.

Thus, an element of ‘programmatic risk’ is associated with this forward plan, which will also be mirrored on Endeavour’s tank (ET-126) – currently residing inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

A decision on the new NET for STS-123 won’t be forthcoming until after Atlantis launches, though the only constraint relates to the five weeks of turnaround (one week of post launch pad work, prior to four weeks of pad integration with the STS-123 stack at 39A.)

‘They’re proceeding with the redesign on ET-125/STS-122 with the knowledge that they are accepting some amount of programmatic risk by not having completed the testing on the removed connector. As the testing and redesign are proceeding in parallel, things might change or have to be redone on ET-125,’ added Koerner.

‘Also approved was the removal of foam and connector (external and feed thru) on ET-126/STS-123 to set up for modifying that tank as well. Note that even with no impact to the ET work on STS-123, that launch date will slip day for day with the STS-122 launch date because of pad turn around constraints.’

Meanwhile, Atlantis has been powered up at the pad, allowing for the hydraulics tests related to an IPR (Interim Problem Report) on the ATVC Box 2, due to erratic measurement on RH (Right Hand) Solid Rocket Booster’s TVC (Trust Vector Control).

A replacement ATVC 2 unit was installed over the weekend, with the process of installation completed ahead of the deadline for allowing the required full retesting procedures – for a February 2 NET launch date. Any delay would have caused a day-to-day slip from that date onwards.

Power up was slightly delayed due to a minor issue that was reported by engineers, requiring the ‘retaking of mold impressions for cold plate issues.’ Current processing shows Atlantis will be powered back down late on Sunday.

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