NASA’s Shuttle, Satellite, and Space Telescope fleet triumph in 2009

by Chris Gebhardt

For NASA, 2009 proved to be a stellar year, one filled with five extremely successful Space Shuttle missions (one of which repaired the Hubble Space Telescope), the test flight of the Ares I-X rocket, the launch of the Kepler Space Telescope, the launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and companion spacecraft the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), and the launch of the WISE spacecraft earlier this month.

In all, the first half of 2009 proved an extremely challenging and rewarding time for NASA. Form January to June, NASA completed a complicated analysis of the Space Shuttle fleets Flow Control Valves, launched the Kepler Space Telescope to search for extra-solar Earth-like planets, conducted the STS-119 Shuttle mission, performed a dual-pad flow for STS-125 and STS-400 and the subsequent and highly successful STS-125 mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, and launched LRO/LCROSS.

In a recent interview with, Space Shuttle Program Launch Integration Manager Mike Moses talked extensively about the incredible year the Shuttle processing teams had and their ability to accomplish everything they did in 2009.

“It was all about the teams and their ability to create triple and quadruple redundancies in schedules,” Moses said.

“On the surface, it didn’t appear that we had all that challenging of a year. But if you take it month by month you can really see the issues the teams worked through and the amazing jobs those teams did to get us into a launch posture six times this year.”

Flow Control Vales Investigation:

This ability to create multiple processing scenarios was first seen during the Flow Control Valve (FCV) investigation following the STS-126 flight of Endeavour in late-2008.

Click here for articles on the FCV issue since STS-126.

A2While 2009 began in earnest for NASA with the mating of Space Shuttle Discovery to her External Tank for the STS-119 mission to the International Space Station in February, the small crack and liberation from one of Endeavour’s (STS-126) Gaseous Hydrogen (GH2) FCVs kicked off an investigation into the integrity of the fleet’s FCVs, prompting NASA to delay Discovery’s mission.

As noted by the Safety Engineering & Integration document for the STS-126 In-Flight Anomaly (IFA) review, “During 2nd stage, there was an uncommanded drop in SSME (Space Shuttle Main Engine) #2 hydrogen outlet pressure. Data indicates FCV #2 opened without removal of close command. Valves #1 & 3 compensated.”

Furthermore, “During ascent and after the thrust bucket, the E2 (Engine #2) GH2 outlet pressure had a 200 psi step down without a corresponding ullage pressure signal conditioner command change,” noted the Orbiter and GFE (Government Flown Equipment) IFA review presentations for STS-126. “The delta outlet pressure for this FCV position was 260 psi during previous command changes before the thrust bucket.”

While the anomaly did not have an impact on ascent performance of STS-126, it did create a constraint to the launch of STS-119 because any failure of the GH2 FCVs is a 1R/2 condition: a condition that must be explained/corrected prior to the next Shuttle launch.

As such, NASA initially delayed the launch of STS-119 by one week, from February 12 to February 20 so engineers could complete an investigation and safety analysis on the FCVs. As the investigation continued and engineers determined that more time was required to adequately complete their investigation and analysis, NASA further delayed STS-119 to February 27, before eliminating a No Earlier Than target launch for STS-119 until all engineering departments arrived at a Flight Rationale acceptance plan.

This decision to postpone the launch of STS-119 until a resolution to the FCV issues could be obtained highlights NASA’s strict attention to safety for the crews of Space Shuttle missions – a theme that pervaded 2009.

A3Aided by eddy current investigation tactics, NASA engineers were able to create a screening processing for the Shuttle fleet’s FCVs, enabling NASA managers to have the best information possible on the condition of each GH2 FCV prior to and following flight.

Following the implementation of this eddy current inspection procedure, and subsequent testing of various sized FCV liberation pieces, technicians at the Kennedy Space Center replaced all three FCVs on Discovery with FCVs that were deemed “good” via eddy current inspections.

Furthermore, Discovery’s Main Propulsion System (MPS) plumbing was beefed up via the addition of a “doubler” around a 90-degree elbow joint located downstream of the FCVs to ensure that – in the event of the FCV liberation event – any liberated piece of FCV would not cause series damage to the MPS plumbing.

Through these final efforts and analyses, NASA set March 12 as the new No Earlier Than (NET) launch date for STS-119 – a launch date that was eventually advanced to March 11 thanks to the superb efforts of all the engineers and technicians involved in completing work and final analyses ahead of schedule.

NOAA-N Prime, Orbiting Carbon Observatory, & Kepler:

While the investigation into the FCVs took place, NASA proceeded with two satellite launches: the NASA NOAA-N Prime satellite on a Delta II rocket and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) aboard a Taurus rocket, both from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

The NOAA-N Prime satellite was successfully placed into orbit on February 4 while the OCO’s launch unfortunately ended in failure when the pyro bolts used to separate the rocket’s fairing failed to detonate.

As a result, the fairing remained attached to the Taurus rocket, creating an insufficient thrust to weight ratio for the rocket and its engines. The upper stage of the Taurus rocket, with the OCO and fairing still attached, was destroyed when it impacted the Southern Ocean north of the Antarctic ice shelf about 17-minutes after liftoff.

The failure of the OCO mission prompted NASA and its ULA (United Launch Alliance) partner to conduct a thorough investigation into the pyro bolts used on the veteran Delta II rocket’s payload fairing prior to the early March launch of NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

A4This investigation, called mainly because of the similar nature of the pyro bolts on the Taurus’ and Delta II’s payload fairings, revealed that all pyros on the Delta II’s fairing surround Kepler were acceptable for liftoff.

Nevertheless, the resultant investigation pushed back the launch of Kepler by one day. Liftoff occurred on time on March 6 at 10:39:57p.m. with the Delta II rocket placing the Kepler telescope into a Earth-trailing solar orbit.

Dedicated to the detection and study of extra-solar terrestrial planets that orbit their parent stars inside the habitable zone, the Kepler mission is the first in a proposed series of missions that will study the characteristics of Earth-like extra-solar planets.

Unlike previous observations conducted by orbital and ground-base telescopes, Kepler continuously observes approximately 100,000 stars at one time looking for the tell-tale “dimming” effect caused when a planetary body passes in front of its parent star – a detection method known in the scientific community as the transit method of detection.

The Kepler telescope began its official mission two months after its launch. The first results from the Kepler mission will be announced at an American Astronomical Society meeting on January 4, 2010.

STS-119 Launch Campaign:

With the launch of the STS-119 mission postponed until mid-March at the earliest, NASA – once the FCV issue was adequately resolved – began to assess the launch opportunities for Discovery in relation to the Soyuz crew rotation mission to the International Space Station (ISS) later that month.

Click here for articles covering STS-119

Since Shuttle and ISS Program Flight Rules prohibit the docking and undocking of any spacecraft to/from the ISS while a shuttle orbiter is docked, Discovery/STS-119 was faced with either a three day launch window (March 11 – 13) to ensure full mission duration, or the deletion of mission content and EVAs (spacewalks) for launch attempts from March 14 – 17.

In the end, mission planners and NASA decided that it was in the agency’s and the ISS Program’s best interest to launch STS-119 prior to the Soyuz crew rotation – even if launching in March meant the deletion of up to four Flight Days and three of the mission’s four EVAs to ensure that the S6 truss was delivered to the ISS and Discovery undocked prior to the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft.

This plan – the creation of multiple scenarios to ensure maximum performance from all partners during STS-119 – exemplifies the commitment of all departments in conducting the best mission possible.

A5Furthermore, due to the multiple plans put in place for contingency launches up to March 17, Shuttle Program managers and launch officials had a clear forward path to follow upon scrubbing the March 11 launch attempt due to a Gaseous Hydrogen leak from the Ground Umbilical Carrier Plate (GUCP) between the External Tank and Gaseous Hydrogen vent line on the launch pad.

In response to this leak, engineers determined that the best option for correcting and eliminating the issue would be to remove and replace (R&R) the GUCP Quick Disconnect seals – the suspect cause of the leak.

Undertaking this effort while launch personnel retargeted STS-119’s launch for March 15 proved to be yet another tremendous demonstration of the team’s abilities. Encountering some problems with alignment of the pivot assembly on GUCP, engineers found themselves eight hours down on the GUCP seal R&R timeline just two days prior to the retargeted launch date.

Nonetheless, engineers successfully completed repairs to the GUCP and the leak did not repeat itself during the launch campaign on March 15.

As a result of all the hard work from engineers around the country, STS-119 and the Space Shuttle Discovery was successfully launched on March 15 at 7:43p.m. in what Launch Director Mike Leinbach described as the “most visibly beautiful Shuttle launch.”

In all, STS-119 was successfully accomplished in 14 Flight Days and three EVAs – two days and one EVA shorter than originally planned. Despite some disturbed weather in the area – which prompted the Entry Flight Director in Mission Control to wave off Discovery’s first landing attempt on March 28 – the vehicle and her seven member crew successfully landed at the Kennedy Space Center on March 28 on their second deorbit and landing opportunity of the day.

STS-125/STS-400 Operations:

Three days after the successful landing of Discovery/STS-119, the flagship mission of the final shuttle flights was transported to Launch Complex 39-A. Atlantis and the STS-125 stack were rolled out to the sea-side launch pad approximately 40-days before the scheduled launch of the fifth and final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.

Click here for articles covering STS-125 – and STS-400 Launch On Need

A6Two weeks later, the Space Shuttle Endeavour and the STS-400 stack (the Launch On Need rescue flight for the STS-125 crew) was rolled out to Launch Complex 39B, marking the 19th and final time in Space Shuttle Program history that that both KSC launch pads were occupied at the same time.

In fact, Endeavour’s rollout to Pad-B came just days before the scheduled delivery of the STS-125 payload to Pad-A and one day before a KSC Open House for employees and their families. This provided an even rarer moment of both Rotating Service Structures being retracted from both Endeavour and Atlantis at the same time, giving KSC engineers and their families the opportunity to see both Atlantis and Endeavour on Pads-A and -B in all their glory.

Furthermore, the rollout of Endeavour to Pad-B and the delivery of the STS-125 payload to Pad-A represented the first step in the culmination of a near 3-year effort on behalf of various NASA agencies in what would prove to be the second the final launch campaign for the Hubble servicing mission.

However, while the sight of two shuttles on both pads and the spectacular flight of STS-125 might have been the visual coup de grace of the compilation of the Hubble mission, it is the behind-the-scenes work for thousands of engineers, technicians, and the astronauts that brings to light the true sense of pride and accomplishment felt by all during and after the Hubble flight.

A8In fact, work on HST-SM4 (Hubble Space Telescope Servicing Mission 4) began long before the cancellation of the mission by then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe following the loss of Columbia in February 2003.

In an interview with, engineer Ed Rezac with the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland stated that HST-SM4 had been in the works for several years and that engineers even began looking at a non-Shuttle way to reach Hubble for servicing after the initial cancellation of the SM4.

“All along the program had been working on SM4 and when we got the news that we might not see another Shuttle flight because of Columbia, the program immediately started looking at other ways to get to the telescope to service it.”

But despite the long lead time in terms of the number of years SM4 had in the planning community, the fact that the mission would be the final servicing mission to Hubble drove engineers to replace and/or fix/repair as much as possible on the telescope to leave it in the best possible condition.

This plan included the addition of two late repairs/replacements – one of which caused NASA to delay the launch of STS-125 by seven months just weeks before the mission was supposed to launch in October 2008.

This delay was caused by the failure of the A-side of the Science Instrument Command and Data Handling Unit (SIC-DH) on September 27, 2008. Even though engineers were able to restore command function via the B-side of the SIC-DH, all redundancy for the system had been lost.

As such, the decision was made to delay the launch of STS-125 until a replacement SIC-DH unit could be ground tested and flight rated for installation to the Telescope – thereby restoring full redundancy to the system.

“There were a couple things that came up at the last minute,” said Ed Rezac. “The SIC-DH had to be replaced and the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) went out in the midst of our planning and we were able to demonstrate a feasible plan to Headquarters for fixing both components.

“At the same time we carried over previous things from other servicing missions that we knew we wanted to accomplish on those missions but couldn’t. So we really made a good effort to leave Hubble in the best possible condition at the end of this mission.”

A10Furthermore, STS-125 and all the engineers and astronauts involved benefited from a two and half year training period – a training period significantly longer than standard ISS missions.

In fact, this translated to multiple runs of the various EVAs (Spacewalk) in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at the Johnson Space Center.

As Ed Rezac states, “We had two repairs on the ACS and STIS instruments that necessitated the removal of non-captive parts. So there was a lot of development that went into capturing these pieces and getting an astronaut into the tight confines of the aft shroud. These instruments were never designed to be serviced on orbit, so the NBL was an invaluable tool in helping us develop and refine our procedures.”

Nonetheless, the teams’ ability to create multiple scenarios for the different repairs, as well as the difficulties the astronauts could face once on orbit, allowed ground engineers to trouble-shoot – in real time – during the mission’s five back-to-back EVAs.

It was this type of dedication and forethought that permitted the STS-125 crew to work through a few issues on orbit during the servicing mission – one of which required Mike Massimino to physically break off a handrail on the Telescope in order to gain access to Hubble’s ACS instrument.

A9In all, STS-125 was a highly successful mission in which all of the mission’s EVA objectives were accomplished. Atlantis was launched from Pad 39-A at 14:01:56 EDT on May 11 and rendezvoused with the Telescope on May 13. The next five days were spent conducting the mission’s five EVAs.

The STS-125 crew released Hubble back into its orbit on May 19 and, after two days of weather wave offs, landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base, CA on May 24 at 11:39:05 EDT – capping a 12-day 21-hour 37-minute 9-second mission.

STS-125 was the first solo flight of Atlantis (meaning it was the first mission for Atlantis that did not involve docking with a Space Station) in 14-years since her STS-66 mission in November 1994. The mission was also Atlantis’ 30th voyage to space and first voyage to the Hubble Space Telescope – which had previously been serviced twice by Discovery and once each by Columbia and Endeavour.

In the end, the STS-125 campaign represented a tremendous effort for all involved. Atlantis was not only successfully processed for STS-125 in April and May but Endeavour was also processed at the same time for her role on STS-400.

A7In fact, STS-400 was processed out to the L-7 point (Launch minus seven days) at the time that Atlantis launched. This would have allowed NASA to launch Endeavour as early as seven days after the launch of STS-125 should Atlantis have incurred serious Thermal Protection System damage during ascent.

Still, Endeavour was kept on stand-by throughout STS-125 to further act as a quick rescue vehicle in the event of Micro-Meteoroid Orbiting Debris damage to Atlantis.

Once Atlantis safely landed in California, engineers at the Kennedy Space Center deconfigured Endeavour from her launch-ready condition. Endeavour and the STS-400 stack were then re-designated as the STS-127 stack and rolled around from Pad-B to Pad-A for final preparations for the mid-June target launch of STS-127 to the Space Station.

This launch campaign for STS-127 would mark the beginning of the second half of 2009 for NASA.

A second Year in Review article pertaining to the second-half of 2009 for NASA will be published in the coming days.

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