STS-125 likely to slip a few days – Shuttle to 2015 assessment

by Chris Bergin

Shuttle managers are “likely” to slip STS-125’s launch date to October 10 or 11, after the loss of processing time – relating to Tropical Storm Fay and the LH2 ET Umbilical work – placed strain on the flow to launch.

Meanwhile, NASA managers have begun assessments into the possibility of flying shuttle to 2015, based on the assumption the Iran/North Korea/Syria Agreement (INKSA) waiver won’t be extended in 2011 – leaving the US with no capability for manned access to the ISS.

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Atlantis/STS-125 Latest:

Engineers managed to fix repair issue with the LH2 umbilical – suffered during mating last weekend – with approval for flight gained by the Program last night.

‘Stress analysis on the LH2 umbilical has been completed and the results show positive margin in the plate,’ noted processing information on Friday. ‘The new aft pyro can has been installed and the two other pyro canisters on the LH2 Umbilical were borescoped.

‘No debris was found. Normal LH2 umbilical mate operations have resumed.

However, contractor Boeing have noted a secondary problem with the connecting studs between the orbiter and the External Tank on the LH2 side – specifically the tension measurements that were taken last night.

‘S0004 Orbiter/ET Mate: LO2 umbilical plate stud tensioning is complete; ultrasonic measurements are good. LH2 umbilical plate stud tensioning is complete. Ultrasonic measurements on the aft and outboard umbilical are out of tolerance. Evaluation is in work.’

Two of the studs recorded values above nominal 55K lbf load – coming in at 56.6K and 55.2K. The original spec written for these tensions is in the range of 44K to 61K. However, Boeing are evaluating whether they wish to keep the two studs below 55K lbf – due to the issues with the original mating operation.

Engineers are considering the possibility of unloading the studs, before retensioning the hardware. This would depend on Boeing’s evaluations on whether they can accept the current tension readings as acceptable for flight – which is deemed as likely.

Atlantis’ STS-125 flow originally gained 11 days of contingency time – a major achievement based on the tight External Tank delivery times for both ET-127 and the Launch On Need (LON) tank, ET-129. However, mother nature decided she would throw in the additional challenge of TS Fay.

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However, added to the recent engineering issues with processing, contingency time remaining was brought down to around one or two days, based on rollout next Tuesday.

Along with the dual processing flow relating to Endeavour and STS-400, contingency in the milestones has additional complexity built in – and this is likely to have proven to be too close to allow the October 8 launch date to stand.

‘Tropical Storm Fay cost HST processing four days; as a result, the launch date for STS-125 is likely to slip to October 11,’ noted shuttle manager John Shannon. ‘We can’t change the weather – all we can do is secure our equipment and protect our people.’

It is also likely that the likely slip will knock on to STS-126’s November launch date, though this will be assessed further into STS-125’s flow.

L2 Members: Refer to TAG keywords ‘STS-125’ for related L2 presentations, and live processing information, etc.

Shuttle Extension Assessment:

Mr Shannon also made a reference to a large scale study that started this week (memos and letters on L2) relating to the possibility of keeping the shuttle fleet flying through to 2015.

The primary reason noted relates to manned access to the International Space Station (ISS), which is currently tasked to the Russian Soyuz vehicle for around five years, from 2010 when shuttle is due to retire, to 2015 when Orion reaches IOC (Initial Operational Capability).

However, doubts remain on whether that is achievable – with notes (L2) showing the Orion Preliminary Design Review (PDR) is being delayed again – possibly by six to 12 months.

The concern is based on the recent disagreements between the US and Russian over the Georgian conflict, and any potential fallout relating to extending the Iran/North Korea/Syria Agreement (INKSA) Waiver.

This waiver is required to allow NASA to purchase Soyuz flights through ‘the gap’, thus retaining a US presence on the ISS. Should political tensions continue between the US and Russia, the resulting possibility of losing access capability is a major concern to NASA.

‘The Iran/North Korea/Syria Agreement (INKSA) Waiver expires in 2011. While this sounds far off, due to the three-year lead-time required for Soyuz production, this issue is a pressing matter now,’ noted Mr Shannon on the latest Shuttle/Stand-up/Integration report.

‘The question to be answered is: if the waiver is not extended, how will we return our astronauts from the ISS? How will this affect U.S. presence on the ISS? This topic is at the front of everyone’s mind due to the conflict between Russia and Georgia.’

Several potential solutions could be initiated – such as an additional COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) effort based around manned access to the ISS – though only the shuttle can provide immediate confidence in being able to carry out the required tasks.

As a result, the assessments are based solely on evaluating whether shuttle can safely continue flying through the gap – or until a short term solution can follow on from shuttle, until Orion is ready to take over the role.

Issues with extended shuttle are obvious, ranging from using the vehicles in a reduced capability – as an ISS taxi, the major budgetary challenge of continuing to push forward with Constellation development, and the safe upkeep of the vehicles via maintenance in the Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs).

‘NASA has been tasked to study options regarding extension of the SSP (Space Shuttle Program) to support the ISS,’ added Mr Shannon. ‘The problem is that the Shuttle was never designed as a primary crew return vehicle. Soyuz-type vehicles are needed for this type of mission.

‘The key item to keep in mind is that whatever is decided cannot impact the Constellation transition.’

For now, managers have requested that evaluations take place without being concerned about the budgetary pressures. The current outline refers to flying two orbiters, twice a year, to 2015.

Under evaluation will be challenges relating to the safe flight of the vehicles, notably based around the Orbiter Maintenance Down Period (OMDP) solutions installed into Atlantis’ additional two years of flight.

The creation of ‘mini-OMDPs’ for Atlantis was approved to allow her to avoid retirement after STS-125. This involves prioritizing and carrying out required maintenance procedures in-between flights – avoiding the large downtime a full OMDP would normally require, and which is no longer viable based on the current 2010 retirement date.

Should these ‘mini-OMDPs’ prove to be an adequate solution to keeping two orbiters flying for an additional five years, the possibility of avoiding a 2010 end to the shuttle’s flying days – pending budgetary issues – will be very much on the cards.

Regardless, at this stage, the process is just an assessment – the traditional back up plan NASA always has to hand.

Another article based on the full outline of the assessment will follow next week.

L2 Members: Refer to TAG keywords ‘Constellation’ – ‘Orion’ – ‘Soyuz’ – ‘Gap’ for related L2 presentations, and live processing information, etc.

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

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