SSP remaining cautious over political decision on funding STS-135

by Chris Bergin

A major milestone is upcoming for Atlantis’ final role with the Space Shuttle Program (SSP), with the crew selection of four – from a pool of 11 – astronauts, set to take place in less than two week’s time. However, SSP manager John Shannon outlined caution on STS-135 biggest milestone – becoming funded, as the prospect of a Continuing Resolution (CR) adds a level of uncertainty.

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As reported by this site, STS-135 took a major step forward from an internal planning standpoint, when NASA aligned Atlantis’ initial role – as STS-335, the Launch On Need (LON) support for STS-134 – with the manifested launch date for the notional STS-135.

“The date for STS-335 has been moved to be consistent with STS-135. This really helps us with our workforce ‘smoothing’, so we are not driving people to milestones and not having peaks in the workforce needed,” noted Mr Shannon on the latest Shuttle Standup/Integration report (L2).

This decision came after safety reviews passed the key stage that was required in the bill language created by the US Senate’s refinements into the FY2011 budget proposal – which calls for STS-135 to be added – mirrored by the House version’s ‘agreement’ to utilize Atlantis for an extra mission to the International Space Station (ISS),

“The NESC (NASA Engineering and Safety) review was completed, and was accepted by Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations),” added Mr Shannon.

“The direction he gave to the Programs was to go off and assess the recommendations NESC made for the overall flight, specifically on some of the details on the Russian Soyuz rescue that was required. (Mr Gerstenmaier) asked the NESC to put it in a white paper, and the Programs to respond to it so that it could be submitted to Congress and the White House.”

As noted previously, NASA can’t simply go fly STS-135, as the authorization and allocation of funding is required before the flight can be manifested. Also, technically Atlantis will remain as STS-335 until Endeavour – on STS-134 – safely lands, releasing her older sister from the supporting role.

“The point is that moving the date helps, and the NESC study is good, and a crew will be selected for the LON mission and to preserve training, which all preserves options for us. But this does not guarantee that the STS-135 mission will fly,” Mr Shannon continued.

It is hoped that the refinements and negotiations relating to the FY2011 budget will be agreed on in time for a speedy and smooth implementation. However, if time runs out, NASA’s budget will be forced into a Continuing Resolution, which clouds just exactly what NASA can do next year, obviously causing fallout when it comes to the required funding for STS-135.

Until then, SSP will continue to map out STS-135 via planning, allowing for the quick inclusion of the mission into the manifest if and when the funding is approved. The fear, Mr Shannon noted, is that it may take until the start of next year before that situation is resolved one way or another.

“It is unknown what will be in the CR, and right now there is no funding to fly it. There are several different options out there for how that might happen, but we are just preserving the options in front of us. We could be in limbo on STS-135 until the New Year starts, until we see what the CR language is, talk about funding, and talk more about mission content.

“The team should really focus on making sure we have preserved the options, and have done the work required to be able to fly. Actually getting the agreement among all the different stakeholders to go fly it is still a ways away.”

And the teams are doing just that, with managers working through the NESC safety assessment findings and potential routes into workable operational solutions, in the event of a Continuing Resolution.

“Working on their response to the MOD recommendation to the NESC on flying STS-135 in June 2011. Had a good discussion this week on artifacts, so will schedule meetings with each of their recipients to talk cost estimates and define the agreements that will be documenting the Space Act Agreements,” noted Mission Operations on the Standup report.

“Will be supporting with Headquarters ESMD (Exploration Systems Mission Directorate) and SOMD (Space Operations Mission Directorate) on how they will execute the Program under a continuing resolution,” added the Business Office on the same Standup report.

“The agenda includes results coming out of the NASA Capabilities Forum, any issues or gaps with STS-135 or STS-335, and an update on how ESMD is going to be able to deploy their Program under a continuing resolution. Are trying to come to an agreement on the assumptions and execution plan for the first two quarters.”

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Almost as if she knows it would be helpful to remain on her best behavior, in order to gain the extra trip into space, Atlantis isn’t providing any issues for her engineers inside her Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1).

Even before talk of STS-135 picked up, Atlantis was always going to be processed to at least the point of rollover in the flow, as part of her STS-335 LON requirements.

“OV-104 (Atlantis): ODS (Orbiter Docking System) pressure dome leak checks wrapped up this week. Also completed RMS (Remote Manipulator System) testing,” noted Ground Operations on the latest Standup. “Continuing testing on installation of the RCCs (Reinforced Carbon Carbon); have 2 of the 11 remaining to install.”

Atlantis will be powered up on Thursday, as engineers continue to work on her Thermal Protection System (TPS), work that is being aided by the pristine condition of her heatshield, following a very “clean” STS-132 mission.

“OV-104 (OPF Bay 1): Drag chute installation was completed Tuesday. Orbiter ground cooling T-0 were disconnected in support of a filter R&R (Removal and Replacement). Filter R&R was successfully completed and ground cooling T-0’s were connected in support of Thursday’s vehicle power up,” noted the NASA Test Director (NTD) processing update (L2).

“The nose landing gear was raised Wednesday to support TPS work. Both ET doors closed on Wednesday to support TPS work.”

Over in the Rotation Processing and Surge Facility (RPSF), operations are continuing to build-up the boosters that have been allocated to aid Atlantis’ first stage flight, ahead of stacking in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) next year.

“SRB BI-146 / RSRM 114 (RPSF): Left Aft Booster build-up: Case Inspection; ETA Ring Stubs are in work,” added the NTD processing update. “Exit Cone offloads are complete, Inspections are next.”

Should STS-135 receive the required funding, it is likely the new ET-138 would be allocated to Atlantis, moving ET-122 to STS-134 with Endeavour. The ‘old’ ET-122 – which was damaged during Hurricane Katrina – has almost completed its repair and processing requirements at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.

“On ET-122 in Building 420, making good progress. The LH2 PAL (Protuberance Air Load) ramp base repair spray and IFR (Ice Frost Ramp) extensions are sprayed and trimmed,” noted Lockheed Martin/MAF on their latest status report (L2).

“The LH2 IFR PAL ramp base spray is done. The IFR extensions are still to be trimmed out there. Making their way out of the intertank in good order. Have the top two levels of scaffolding down. Stopped with the lower two levels of scaffolding. Have one test left to do before finish backing out.

“Were waiting for the bipods to get sprayed. Both bipods were sprayed as of last week. Various closeouts on the tank are going on pace. Repairs around the acreage are on schedule. TPS NDE (Non Destructive Evaluation) is 75-80 percent complete.”

The tank is tracking a completion date of the third week in September, with its five day trip by barge to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) set to set sail shortly after.

“Have targeted a September 17 complete on the tank. Right now, holding to that date,” added the MAF report. “Will be coordinating with Logistics on this target date.”

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