STS-135: Atlantis preparing for rollout amid pride and disappointment

by Chris Bergin

Managers are reviewing one item of interest – relating to an ascent observation during Endeavour’s ride uphill – ahead of Atlantis’ rollout to Pad 39A next week. As one of the milestones for the final shuttle mission was completed – the S0044 Launch Countdown Sim – Launch Director Mike Leinbach received a standing ovation from the teams as he pulled no punches about his thoughts as the Shuttle Program ends.

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Atlantis has come to the end of her processing flow inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), following mating operations with her External Tank (ET-138) and Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) stack in High Bay 1 (HB-1).

The main focus of the final ever Orbiter mate was to transition Atlantis over from the Transfer Aisle – following rollover from her Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) – over to HB-1, where she was greeted by the waiting stack.

Once in position, engineers soft mated the orbiter to the tank, followed by LO2/LH2 T-0 umbilical mechanical mating, Orbiter/ET umbilical ordnance installation and stud tensioning, followed by LO2/LH2 monoball installation and electrical connections.

Once closeouts had been completed, the stack was put through a standard S0008 Shuttle Interface Test operation, testing the connections throughout STS-135 stack and the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) she is sat on.

Showing the value of this test, an electronics card in the MLP flagged what has been the only Interim Problem Report (IPR-38) to be charged against the flow for some time. The issue, caused by a Ground Support Equipment (GSE) power supply, is undergoing retests.

Other operations carried out during the late VAB flow included V1149 tasks associated with the T-0 Umbilicals and Orbiter/ET Interface Leak Checks, the replacement of a Recovery Battery in the Right Hand SRB, along with the Orbiter/ET cavity purge operation.

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Engineers also completed the GH2 Flow Control Valve (FVC) retest successfully, after the three valves were installed into Atlantis’ aft during her VAB stay.

On Thursday morning, the STS-135 S0044 Launch Countdown Certification runs were conducted in Firing Rooms 4 and 2 of the Launch Control Center (LCC). This was the last ever certification run for the Space Shuttle Program.

Three full runs were conducted where simulated failures are processed by the entire team for a final resolution in a launch environment. Inbetween the normal rounds, the teams are put through “bonus” rounds, where failures are simulated with only the formal call out response from the system console, without the need for simulated troubleshooting.

At the end of the runs, Launch Direction Mike Leinbach – highly respected throughout the Shuttle community – addressed the entire team, telling them he knew what everyone was going through with the end of the program imminent, before going further by noting how he was “embarrassed” with the political and administration leaders for not transitioning the space program on to a new endeavor, as has been the case in the past.

Mr Leinbach received a well deserved standing ovation from the teams.

With Atlantis now fully processed for her ride on the Crawler Transporter to Pad 39A on Tuesday, the large platforms which surround the stack are already undergoing retraction work.

“OV-104 (STS-135) Completed all the planned pyrotechnical testing for the vehicle. Starting preps for roll of vehicle to the Pad. Will be pulling platforms and will wrap that up Tuesday. The plan is the roll to the Pad Tuesday at 20:00,” noted KSC Ground Operations (L2).

“Pad A turnaround activities to support roll on Tuesday, are in good shape, everything is proceeding as planned. MLP-2 was moved off the Pad earlier this week and it is in the VAB at this time.”

However, managers were being careful not to advance the retraction of the platforms, as evaluations continued into what was an unusual observation during her younger sister’s ascent.

“The ERB (Engineering Review Board) is scheduled to meet to discuss the results of the additional inspections that were performed as a result of the debris concerns regarding the object seen after SRB separation on STS-134,” noted the first reference to the incident via the NASA Test Director (NTD) report (L2).

The discussions focused on a piece of cylindrical debris which was seen to float away from the right-hand SRB/ET attach point during SRB separation, resulting in additional checks into the STS-135 stack whilst in-situ inside the VAB.

“The ERB looked at what that might mean before rolling out the STS-135 stack. The teams are still doing all the IFA (In Flight Anomaly) investigation, but went off to come up with what type of inspections could be done and also reviewed all the closeout procedures and closeouts,” added the Launch Integration Manager, who referenced any further inspections won’t affect rollout and will be conducted at the Pad.

“It is a very well documented process with photos to go along with it, and very clear strong controls to show no FOD (Foreign Object Debris) was in place in those interior cavities when those areas were closed out for flight. The team saw no need to go back in and re-inspect those areas.

“There will not be any type of internal inspections. The team is still working on what type of external inspections could be done at the Pad. The view and access to this area is very difficult; are looking to be very creative to ensure the vehicle is FOD-free after it gets to the Pad.”

The liberation is believed to be specific to the External Tank side of the SRB/ET attach point, with the Lockheed Martin adding that the first priority is the clear STS-135 to roll out, then to go back and go into the STS-134 investigation.

Currently, the STS-134 post flight IFA review – which will be conducted at the Program Requirements Control Board (PRCB) level – is scheduled for June 16.

Marking the final flight’s historic nature, Space Shuttle Program (SSP) manager John Shannon also noted Johnson Space Center (JSC) workers will be able to watch Atlantis’ landing via a big screen.

“If STS-135 launches on July 8, landing will be early in the morning. There will be a big Jumbotron television in front of Building 1,” Mr Shannon noted on the Shuttle Standup/Integration report (L2). “Employees can invite families in, there will be breakfast, astronauts will be narrating what is going on and will sign stuff. There will be more information on this; it should be a really good time.”

July 8 was set as the preliminary launch date, after schedules continued to jump around almost by the day. Dates ranging from July 4 to mid July were being passed around the workforce at both KSC and JSC, prior to a managerial meeting which set July 8.

The confusion could be seen in memos on the day July 8 was set, with one manager citing documentation which showed a July 6 NET (No Earlier Than).

“Update for the team – we’re getting word that the STS-135 launch date has not quite crystallized yet. So for the record, here’s what the latest documentation has: The shuttle program has set a launch date of NET July 6 for STS-135,” cited the memo (L2).

“This provides welcome schedule relief for crew training and other work that was being driven by the old June 28 date. An FIDP was released with NET July 6. We should work to this ‘no earlier than’ date for now.

“The exact date to target will be refined in the next few days. It may well end up being July 8, but that decision has not been made as of yet. The good news is that our schedule is no longer driven by a fictitious launch date. We will be revising deadline dates and other prelaunch milestones accordingly, and will communicate that to the team.”

However, it was July 8 which came out of the managerial meeting, with STS-135 Lead Shuttle Flight Director Kwatsi Alibaruho – one of the stars of the Mission Operations Directorate (MOD) – confirming the new date, adding it remains a tight schedule.

“Many of you have asked (several times a day in fact) about the STS-135 / ULF-7 launch date. Just this morning, our partner programs have selected Friday, July 8th, 2011, as our target launch date,” noted Mr Alibaruho’s memo (L2).

“This, obviously, will put us on a somewhat aggressive pace to accomplish our remaining pre-flight R&D and reviews; however, we have set ourselves up well to meet this challenge without significant problem.”

The actual launch date, as per usual, won’t actually be set until the Agency Flight Readiness Review (FRR), which is scheduled to take place on June 28.

Mid June will also be an important period for STS-135, with the major FRRs – such as the MOD FRR on June 14 and the SSP FRR on June 21 – leading up to the Agency review, by which time the result of the Tanking Test on ET-138 will be known.

The Tanking Test is set to take place on June 15, testing ET-138’s intertank stringers, following the observation of cracks on the LO2 flange during STS-133’s scrubbed countdown. ET-138 is a close relation to Discovery’s ET-137, which is the reason for the Tanking Test.

(Images: L2, Further updates on STS-135’s status will be provided as information arrives, driven by L2’s new and expanding STS-135 Special Section.)

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