Shuttle managers evaluating advancement of STS-125 launch date

by Chris Bergin

In a surprise move – mainly thanks to the fine work by the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) – shuttle managers are evaluating the possibility of moving up the launch date for STS-125.

Based around the projected External Tank deliveries for ET-127 and ET-129, an advancement of between a few days and a week is being worked, with a decision to be taken in July.

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Both tanks are required to arrive at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) during the dual flows of Atlantis (STS-125) and Endeavour (STS-400/STS-126), allowing for both shuttles to be on pads 39A and 39B respectively, as per Launch On Need (LON) requirement.

While the ETs continue to move to the left in their shipping schedule, managers are working on a plan that pre-empts the best case scenario for the launch of Atlantis on STS-125 – which is currently scheduled for October 8. The best case scenario would allow for an October 2 launch date.

‘(A request was) relayed by (shuttle manager) John Shannon to look at what can be done to take advantage of the improved delivery schedules anticipated for the ET’s for STS-125 and STS-400 to allow potentially moving up the 10/8 launch for STS-125,’ noted a memo from Chuck Shaw Mission Director, Hubble Servicing Mission 4.

The benefits of advancing Atlantis’ launch date relates to Endeavour’s role after being stood down from LON (STS-400) requirements, specifically her STS-126 mission.

Given she is scheduled to launch just over a month after Atlantis, the ability to add some distance between the two missions would help avoid any potential slips.

A slip to STS-126, for whatever reason, could push STS-126’s launch date closer to November 25 – which is the last opportunity available in the launch window ahead of the Beta Cutout date.

‘The earliest the potential ET schedules would allow moving things would be 10/2, and John Shannon (noted) any progress earlier would be of great benefit in mitigating the concerns of getting OV-105 (Endeavour) turned around and configured for STS-126 in time to launch before the Beta Cutout launch date constraint of November 25th.’

The evaluations, brought forward to the related departments on Tuesday and Wednesday, won’t lead to a decision until next month, when ET-127 is due on dock at KSC, and more will be known about the status of ET-129’s shipping date.

As of Wednesday, ET-127’s status was reported as stable, with around two weeks to go before the tank finally makes its way out of the doors at MAF, ahead of a five day barge journey from New Orleans to Florida.

‘External Tank: ET-127 (MAF): Processing at MAF continues with no technical issues to report. Pegasus Barge is scheduled to be moved out of the VAB Turn Basin today; transport to MAF will be underway Thursday,’ noted Wednesday processing information.

‘Planned departure from MAF is 7/10 with the possibility of leaving as early as 7/7. Expected on dock at KSC no earlier than 7/15.’

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The current status shows the dates very close in relation to being able to advance the launch date, based on MAF’s ability to get the tank on to the barge by July 8, along with confidence that ET-129 can make some inroads into the current shipping date of August 2.

‘The decision would not be made to actually move the date forward until July 8th, which is the anticipated date for the ET for STS-125,’ added Chuck Shaw’s memo.

‘The STS-400 ET is not anticipated to be ready till August 2nd, so a decision to move earlier on July 8th would be based on looking at whether the STS-125 ET made the July 8th date, and whether their was confidence the same process was going to give confidence the STS-400 ET can make its earlier date of August 2nd.

‘The improvements to the ET delivery schedules came about as a result of changes being made in the processes for the future tanks that saved manpower, and changes in moving some of that work to KSC.

‘The combined result evidently allows more resources to work on near term tanks being finished up (like for STS-125 and STS-400), without compromising anything in the building and finishing of the tanks.’

The stressing that no pressure is being placed on MAF is backed up by Shaw’s comment that the advancements already made by MAF in allowing for a number of contingency days in the KSC flow is the main factor for ‘adding to the pot’ the amount of days they may be able to advance STS-125’s launch date.

‘Since the HST troops have a very full and challenging schedule ahead of them for getting the flight hardware shipped to KSC, we agreed that the ship dates for their hardware would remain on the current schedule,’ Shaw added. ‘So the only acceleration they can support is whatever contingency days are in their flow at KSC.

‘If there is nothing already earmarked for needing to use those contingency days, I would like to put those in the community pot for contingency ops. If they are needed, we would simply slip operations to allow their use.

‘(However), if they are not needed, there is no reason to sit on the ground and give up valuable time that could help deal with problems that might happen later in the flow for getting STS-126 launched.’

Shaw added that based on contingency days alone, available in the KSC flow, the current status shows they may be able to advance STS-125’s launch date by two to three days.

‘Taking that approach, (it is) believed the maximum (KSC) could support would be 2-3 days earlier than 10/8. So that is what we are currently ball-parking. Could turn out to be longer, but we will see.

‘At this stage, this is a high level assessment on trying to ballpark what could be supported, and what that would mean to support it, assuming the decision was made on July 8th. We are simply looking for long poles in the tent as a function of earlier dates.’

The evaluation was a surprise, based on an earlier threat STS-125’s launch date may have slipped around a week, based on the progress with ET-127 and ET-129. However, the fine work by MAF has allowed for the turnaround into possibly advancing the mission to service Hubble for a final time.

Interestingly, the evaluations come just days after managers slipped all missions in 2009 and 2010 to align with April’s original delay of STS-125.

This major push of eight missions in 2009 and the first part of 2010 was characterized as a ‘mind numbingly complex problem’ – thus any get-wells with the short term manifest will prove to be priceless, should the 2010 retirement date for the shuttle fleet remain in place.

‘The Shuttle schedule to fly out the rest of the manifest and complete the ISS within the timeframe allotted is a mind numbingly complex problem to make happen, so the SSP certainly appreciates anything you can do to buy a little mitigation towards helping this process!’

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