Mid-2010: Atlantis’s First Last Flight and NASA’s Uncertain Future

by Chris Gebhardt

If the first third of 2010 represented an outstanding and unwavering commitment to safety and technical investigation/understanding, the middle portion of 2010 would bring with it not only a continued commitment to safety, but also a great deal of uncertainty over launch schedules, payload readiness, the status of orbiter Atlantis, and NASA’s overall future and direction.

*Click here for Part 1 of the 2010 Review*

Atlantis’s Retirement? The First Last Flight of OV-104:

As 2010 began, space enthusiasts grappled with the knowledge that this was the year in which all three Space Shuttle orbiters were scheduled to take their final flights to space. With STS-130 and STS-131 complete, attention turned to the upcoming STS-132/ULF-4 flight of Atlantis – a mission to deliver the Russian Mini-Research Module 1 (MRM-1) Rassvet to the International Space Station.

A bitter sweet moment, the flight of STS-132 was (and technically still is) the 32nd and final flight of orbiter Atlantis, a vehicle which entered into service for the world community on Oct. 3, 1985 with the launch of STS-51J.

Nearly 25-years later, NASA prepared Atlantis for one last mission, a mission that would see resounding success and, though unknown at the time, represent the 3rd and final Shuttle mission of 2010.

After returning from her previous flight (STS-129) in late-November 2009, Atlantis was processed through a multi-month OPF flow which included both standard and non-standard turnaround work.

Given Atlantis’s age – and the upcoming requirement to perform an Orbiter Modification Down Period (OMDP), a multi-step and intrusive inspection of Atlantis’s numerous systems – flow director Angie Brewer and the Atlantis team undertook the continued inspection of Atlantis’s spar structural fittings underneath her RCC (Reinforced Carbon-Carbon) WLE (Wing Leading Edge) panels.

While the need to perform a full-up OMDP was set aside by a program decision reached after a year-long investigation into the flight number/year requirements for OMDP, the decision was made to incorporate some of the less intrusive and necessary flight safety OMDP inspections during the standard flow turnarounds for Atlantis – a process which began in 2008 when Atlantis was rolled back from Pad-A following the multi-month delay to the Hubble Servicing Mission.

STS-132 Specific Articles: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-132/

While all of Atlantis’s Spar Structural fittings were not inspected prior to STS-132, a majority inspection allowed NASA to cleared Atlantis for flight based on the extremely positive results from the spar fittings inspections performed both in her flow toward STS-129 and toward STS-132.

With these inspections in place, the Atlantis team completed OPF processing in early-April.

As day broke across the Kennedy Space Center on April 11, Atlantis was rolled from OPF-1 (her dedicated OPF) down a quarter-mile stretch of road toward the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Walked from the OPF by her processing team, technicians stopped Atlantis half-way down the transfer lane for a special photo op for all interested KSC employees and media officials present. The special photographic opportunity allowed KSC workers time to reflect on the nature of Atlantis’s numerous missions – of which a vast majority were dedicated to the pursuit of international interests – and the overwhelming history of the orbiter herself.

After a three hour stop, Atlantis was moved the rest of the way into the VAB and mated to her ET/SRB stack.

With Discovery touching down at the Kennedy Space on April 20 to end the STS-131 mission, and following three days of weather delays, Atlantis began her 3.4 mile trek to Launch Pad 39A just before midnight on April 20, arriving at Pad-A in the pre-dawn hours of April 21, leaving workers only 23-days (with only one contingency day) to process her for a targeted May 14 launch – a timeline that led NASA managers to state in no uncertain terms that they WOULD slip the launch date if needed to ensure that all necessary work was completed in a safe manner.

In the end, the requirement to slip the launch date proved highly unnecessary as Atlantis sailed through her pad flow with only one noteworthy issue encountered during hypergolic propellant loading in late-April.

With no issues on Atlantis, and quick understanding of Discovery’s Ku-Band antenna issue identified by ground processing teams, NASA managers officially cleared Atlantis for launch on May 14.

As the countdown began, no issues of note were reported with Atlantis and with a Program record low number of IPRs, only 46 IPRs to her name for the entire processing flow (Nov. 2009-May 2010), Atlantis lifted off right on time at 14:20 EDT on her very first launch attempt.

The amazingly clean nature of Atlantis’s STS-132 launch campaign led Russian Space Agency official Alexey Krasnov to state in the STS-132 Post-Launch News Conference that this entire launch flow was Atlantis’s way of screaming “use me again!”

After arriving on orbit, hand-held and orbiter ET umbilical well camera photographs revealed an extremely clean External Tank, paving the way for the clearance of Atlantis’s TPS (Thermal Protection System) for reentry.

During the course of Atlantis’s docked mission – her 11th trip to the International Space Station and her 18th overall docking to an orbital space station – her crew installed a new Space to Ground Antenna on the ISS, installed the MRM-1 to the ISS, and replaced six batteries on the P6 solar array truss of the Space Station.

Adding to the amazing nature of the STS-132 mission is the fact that all EVA objectives were accomplished even though additional EVA tasks were added to the crew’s work schedule in order to manually manipulate a cable on the OBSS (Orbiter Boom Sensor System) that was inhibiting the movement of one of the OBSS sensor packs necessary for complete inspection of the vehicle’s WLE and Nose Cap RCC.

But it wasn’t just the amazing and outstanding success story on orbit that highlighted the Atlantis mission, it was also the extraordinary work on the ground by the imagery analysis teams that shone through during the May flight.

In this manner, it was the extensive and prolonged imagery evaluations obtained on FD-2 and FD-3 (Flight Day 3) of the mission that allowed flight managers to press forward with a standard OBSS late-inspection of Atlantis’s TPS.

Initial thoughts of implementing a modified OBSS late-inspection to counter the images obtained or not obtained during the FD-2 inspections when the OBSS cable was snagged around the instrument platform were discarded thanks to the work performed on the ground.

After a week of docked operations, Atlantis and the ISS bid farewell on May 23rd. Three days later, Atlantis glided through the crystal clear Florida sky, dropping to runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center to wrap up the STS-132 mission.

With completion of this mission, Atlantis crossed the 120 million mile mark in terms of miles travelled over her storied career.

With 18 space station dockings to her name, Atlantis holds the record (one she will keep for a very, very long time) for most dockings to a space station by a single vehicle.

An additional milestone for Atlantis included the honor of being the most international space vehicle in history, with 23 of her 32 missions dedicated to international pursuits.

In all, Atlantis has deployed two interplanetary probes, deployed 12 satellites, conducted 7 straight dockings with the Russian MIR space station, serviced the Hubble Telescope once, and conducted 11 International Space Station construction flights (including STS-132) in her 25 year career.

Her service is one that could not have been done without and is one that has paved the way for unprecedented international cooperation both now and for the future of space exploration.

But with Atlantis’s landing on May 26th, the question immediately arose as to what Atlantis’s future would hold. After being towed off the runway and back into her OPF, Atlantis began a sluggish processing flow toward the STS-335 LON (Launch On Need) rescue mission for the final planned Space Shuttle mission: STS-134 on sister Endeavour.

But even that role was in question in the first few weeks following the completion of STS-132 as internal NASA documents routinely placed Atlantis’s status as “Under Review” instead of in processing. At work here was more than just a simple uncertainty of Atlantis’s future, but an overall uncertainty of NASA’s future.

In the end, Atlantis would officially gain the role of LON vehicle for STS-134, a role she is currently in processing for in OPF-1. Carrying a target launch date of June 28, 2011, STS-335/Atlantis would ONLY launch with a four person crew (Commander Chris Ferguson, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Mission Specialists Rex Walheim and Sandy Magnus) to rescue Endeavour’s STS-134 crew in the event that Endeavour became disabled during the 134 flight; the mission would also deliver thousands of pounds of replacement supplies to the Station to make up for those used by the STS-134 crew.

STS-134/Endeavour or STS-133/Discovery: Which Mission Flies First?By the time Atlantis launched on STS-132, uncertainty was already building as to whether or not the STS-134 payload would be able to meet a target launch date in July 2010 because of an anomalous heating signature in the superconducting cryogenic magnet system that had been developed for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 02 (AMS-02).

The anomalous signature was discovered during what was supposed to be final flight testing in the Netherlands and would have placed a higher demand on the cryogenic cooling system of AMS-02.

This discovery caused an initial delay to the delivery date of AMS-02 as teams worked to understand the issue. Then, as the timeline for the delays became clearer, NASA decided to swap the mission order of the final two planned Space Shuttle missions.

The changes resulted in the moving of STS-134/Endeavour out of the July launch window and initially into the November launch window (a slot initially held by the STS-335 LON rescue flight). STS-133/Discovery remained in its previously planned mid-September launch window but moved head of STS-134 on the launch manifest. STS-335 was then initially penciled into a December launch window before quickly moving in 2011.

Furthermore, as President Obama’s plan to extend the operational lifetime of the International Space Station rose to prominence, the AMS-02 team, in conjunction with NASA, decided to replace the superconducting cryogenic magnet with a permanent magnet that will allow AMS-02 to remain operational through the intended end of the ISS program.

This decision, along with the desire to make the most use of Discovery’s docked time at the ISS on STS-133 led to a further realignment of the launch manifest, pushing Discovery/STS-133 to November 1 and Endeavour/STS-134 to February 27, 2011.

STS-134 was subsequently advanced by one day to February 26 before moving to April 1 as a result of continuing safety-conscious delays to the STS-133/Discovery mission.

With these delays, the Space Shuttle Program officially moved into 2011, a move that caused initial concerns over whether the program would have the money to execute a full-up flight in 2011 with the proposed FY2011 budget from President Obama.

However, NASA, ever diligent, created a plan to save money and create a monetary cushion to allow STS-134 to fly in the 2011 timeframe.

The Fight for NASA’s Future:

As the year began, NASA and space enthusiasts alike waited word from President Obama as to his vision for NASA’s future – a vision many had been waiting for for nearly a full calendar year.

On February 1, President Obama unveiled his FY2011 budget proposal… a proposal that included his vision for NASA – a vision that quickly garnered significant scrutiny and reactions from across the political spectrum.

While many expected the Ares I and Ares V rocket architecture to be scrapped in favor of a more direct Heavy Lift launch vehicle, the complete cancellation of the Constellation Program, delay of an initial design cycle on a Heavy Lift rocket until a date to be determined later, and a heavy reliance on commercial companies proved quite startling and surprising and would in fact come to dominate the debate on NASA’s future, and indeed the future of U.S.-based space exploration, within the American and International space communities as well as the U.S. Congress itself.

However, while these issues of manned U.S. space exploration were certainly the most controversial talking points of the President’s proposal, it is just as important to note the utmost and high support the President showed for the International Space Station, interplanetary robotic exploration missions (specifically designed as precursor missions for manned planetary exploration), and both land-based and space-based medical research – support which, to some, was equally surprising but highly welcomed.

A month and half after the release of the President’s proposal, President Obama visited the Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to attempt to rally support for his plan – done mainly through an address to select space center workers and a visit to the SpaceX facility.

However, by this time, it was clear that the President’s proposal was highly unpopular, demonstrated mainly by the compromises already in place – the most visible being the retention of the Constellation Program’s Orion crew capsule for extremely stripped-down use as a life-boat on the ISS and a 2015 “decision” date on a new Heavy Lift vehicle.

Not surprisingly, the address did little to rally support and by the end of July/beginning of August it was abundantly clear that Congress had other, more concrete and immediate approaches to NASA’s future – including immediate work on a new Heavy Lift launch vehicle for NASA, a stepped approach to the use of commercial companies for manned access to space (mainly to be considered only after the companies in question had proven their reliability and capability), and the inclusion of enough funds to transition STS-335 into a full-up mission (STS-135) to launch No Earlier Than June 1, 2011.

Nonetheless, both the Senate and House had, not surprisingly, different visions for this future.

To this end, both the House and Senate passed different bills initially. Since, under U.S. law, both bills would have required reconciliation into one bill – approved then by the House and Senate – before being sent to the President’s desk for approval or veto, a compromise in the bicameral legislature was proposed and submitted for review by the House Committee on Science and Technology.

The 168 page compromise bill, released by the House Committee on Science and Technology which is led by Rep. Bart Gordon from the state of Tennessee, stated: “In the 50 years since the establishment of NASA, the arena of space has evolved substantially.

As the uses and users of space continue to expand, the issues and operations in the regions closest to Earth have become increasingly complex, with a growing number of overlaps between civil, commercial, and national security activities. These developments present opportunities and challenges to the space activities of NASA and the United States.”

Nonetheless, the Senate refused to even consider the compromise bill, forcing the House to vote on and approve the Senate version since, as many House members stated, “a future for NASA, even a flawed one, is better than no future at all.”

But with all things political, the fight for NASA’s future would not end with the passage of and signing into law of the 2011 NASA Authorization Act. Since Congress could not pass the necessary funding bill for FY 2011 (Fiscal Year 2011) before the start of the FY on October 1 (a date which seems to surprise Congress each year), a Continuing Resolution – funding NASA at the previous FY’s level – was passed by the House and Senate.

This Continuing Resolution took NASA through mid-December, but greatly inhibited the agency’s ability to move forward on the initial designs of a new Heavy Lift Vehicle as well as officially adding the STS-135 mission to the launch manifest.

Since, during the lame-duck Congressional session in December, the Senate and House also failed to reach a compromise on the FY2011 budget, another Continuing Resolution was passed to fund the U.S. government and its agencies into March 2011 – thus leaving the new Congress, which convenes next week, to tackle the FY2011 budget.

Thus, as it currently stands for the Space Shuttle Program, STS-134/Endeavour will be the final Program flight. While many are confident that the Continuing Resolution to March 2011 will provide NASA the money needed to transition STS-335 into the full-up STS-135 mission, NASA has not made any leanings in that direction just yet.

The last official word from NASA was that the agency would make a decision by mid-January on whether or not to add STS-135 to the official manifest, though statements have been made by NASA officials that the agency could go as far at late-March before making the STS-135 decision.

(Images: Larry Sullivan, MaxQ Entertainment/NASASpaceflight.com, L2 Presentations, NASA.gov, US Congress).

Related Articles