Discovery early rollover confirmed – off-nominal Soyuz investigation

by Chris Bergin

Shuttle managers have confirmed an earlier than planned rollover of Discovery next week, as STS-124 remains right on track for the targeted May 31 launch date.

Meanwhile, Russian officials are claiming an off-nominal landing of Soyuz TMA-11 – which endured a high G forces for its crew of three during a ballistic return to Earth – was caused by the vehicle’s guidance system, which “down-moded” the entry to ballistic mode.

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Soyuz TMA-11 Landing:

Landing some 260 miles off course, Soyuz TMA-11 provided a nervous return to Earth for those observing the re-entry, as the air-to-ground loop suffered a prolonged LOS (Loss Of Signal). An audible sigh of relief was obvious when Russian flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko managed to raise rescue crews via a satellite phone.

Early information claimed engineers were uncertain as to what caused ballistic return – the third such descent, following Expedition 6’s with Soyuz TMA-1 and TMA-10 with Expedition 15 – though it was later confirmed that the guidance system made the decision, unbeknown to Russian controllers. The vehicle’s systems will be investigated once returned to Moscow.

However, and most importantly, Malenchenko, along with South Korean bioengineer Yi So-yeon and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson are all understood to be in good health despite their experience.

‘After 192 days in space (190 docked to ISS), Soyuz TMA-11/15S, carrying two-thirds of the Expedition 16 crew plus the South-Korean SFP, landed successfully this morning at 4:30am EDT in the steppes of Kazakhstan, with the crew in excellent condition,’ noted Saturday evening’s ISS Status Report.

The capsule actually landed near the Russian city of Orsk, as opposed to the nominal landing site near the town of Arkalyk in Kazakhstan. A ballistic recovery team eventually spotted them from the air, before helicopters arrived on the scene to recover the crew.

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The Soyuz separated from ISS at 1:06 am using the docking system springs. Three minutes after initial separation an automatic separation burn was performed by the Soyuz vehicle. A 4 minute 18 sec de-orbit burn was initiated at 3:40 am EDT.

Controllers appeared to be unaware of the switch to a ballistic re-entry – from which the crew could have expected to endure around 10G during descent – which is one of the reasons rescue crews took a while to appear on the scene of the landed spacecraft.

‘During descent, the vehicle’s guidance system down-moded to a ballistic entry mode,’ added the report, which confirmed the crew was in good health. ‘The satisfactory condition of the crew was confirmed by Malenchenko when he made contact with TsUP-Moscow via the 15S Iridium satellite phone.

‘Russian SAR (Search & Rescue) helicopters from the ballistic staging area, including a NASA crew surgeon, reached the crew approximately 30 minutes after landing, and reported the crew to be in good health.

The crew was transported to Kustenai, Kazakhstan via helicopter and departed for Star City, arriving at approximately 1:00pm EDT, where they were received by a welcoming NASA delegation headed by Christopher Scolese, Michael Ryschkewitsch, and William Gerstenmaier.

‘Post-flight analysis of data from the descent module systems will be conducted after the module is returned to Moscow.’

Further updates will be published when new information is available next week.

STS-124 Latest:

Meanwhile, Discovery was awaiting a Monday decision on when she’ll be departing her barn for the short trip to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB).

As previously reported on this site, fine work by engineers mating ET-128 with the twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) have come across no issues, opening the possibility of gaining a day at the pad.

“Work going well in VAB with SRB and ET closeouts. On Monday morning will review whether or not it’s possible to do Orbiter mate on April 27 instead of 28. Still tracking to May 31 launch,” noted the latest Integrated Flow Status. “Orbiter Rollout Review was held on Monday. Have no issues for rollout.”

No further work is being conducted on Discovery over the weekend, as she’s all but ready to leave the OPF (Orbiter Processing Facility) for mating. One week of work will be conducted in the VAB ahead of rollout to Pad 39A.

“Final tire pressurization for flight and T-0 umbilical disconnects completed,” added processing info. “Orbiter jack down and WT&CG (Weight Transfer and Center Of Gravity) operations conducted Friday. Orbiter Transport System (OTS) pre-ops conducted Friday. No planned weekend work.”

The earlier rollover date is all but certain, based on the latest processing information in the VAB on ET-128’s mating with the SRBs.

“External Tank: ET-128 / BI-134/RSRM-102 (VAB HB-3): Lower strut closeouts: LH (Left Hand) is complete less final RTV cure; RH (Right Hand) is ready for acrymax paint.  Upper strut closeouts: LH/RH RTV in cure  Flapper valve access port closeouts.”

External Tank Latest:

While Atlantis (STS-125) and Endeavour (LON for STS-124/125 and primary mission STS-126) continue through their dual processing in their respective flows, the focus remains on their External Tanks, the critical path for the downstream launch dates.

A huge effort is continuing at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF), which reports from Lockheed showing they are finding ways to mitigate the constricted processing timelines.

“ET-127: This is the last tank to do ice/frost ramp extension sprays on. Setting up to do these sprays. Nosecone fit checks are complete. Machining and venting is 50% complete. Did bipod proficiency sprays. Performed clevis PDL pours. Prepping to do closeout sprays.

“Working way through longeron sprays. Eliminated mockups of this application for this tank. Getting ready to do last D pocket spray. Installed aft double bellows feedline. Setting up yokes for feedline installation. Recirculation line installation is in work.

“ET-129: Progressing with intertank machining and venting. All LH2 ice/frost ramp BX spaces were trimmed except for two which had corrosion. Working through these. Should be doing aft interface installation cooling on Saturday.

“Making changes in longeron application by combining pockets and doing pocket sprays which should mitigate impact of delayed aft interface and allow them to move into critical area at back of tank more quickly.”

Lockheed/MAF are around two weeks away from giving an updated status report to shuttle managers on the latest expected delivery dates, which will aid a further refinement of the downstream manifest.

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