For Atlantis, the last decade of her career would be marked with many more triumphs as she joined her sisters in the most ambitious project in space to date: construction of the International Space Station. This would mean dodging the order for retirement a whooping two times to become the only Space Shuttle orbiter with three penultimate flights and two “final” flights.
Part 3: Atlantis’ Final Flights: Pushing Forward Despite the Odds:
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After completing her seven straight trips to the MIR space station, Space Shuttle orbiter Atlantis (OV-104) entered what would be the final chapter of her career. Firstly, Atlantis was taken out of service for her second Orbiter Modification Down Period (OMDP).
During this OMDP at her construction facility in Palmdale, CA, Atlantis received all the necessary upgrades to enable her to fly construction missions to the International Space Station (ISS).
After the OMDP, Atlantis was returned to the Kennedy Space Center in September 1998 and moved into OPF-2 for processing for her STS-101/2A.2 resupply mission to the ISS.
Originally targeting launch in August 1999, subsequent delays to the ISS assembly schedule caused by the need to inspect wiring across the Shuttle fleet after a launch event on Columbia in July 1999 delayed the launch of the STS-101 mission until April 2000.
In August 1999, Atlantis was temporarily stored in the VAB to make room in an OPF for her sister Endeavour.
Atlantis’s STS-101 mission then slipped to March 16, April 17, and April 24. The last slip to April 24 was done to let the mission’s Commander have more time to train for the mission following an ankle injury.
On April 24, all proceeded well, but at 16:17 EDT, the launch team officially scrubbed the launch due to out-of-limit crosswinds at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF).
The count was recycled for the following day. But on April 25, the launch was scrubbed at the T-38min and counting mark due to high winds at the SLF and launch pad.
On April 26, the 3rd consecutive launch attempt, launch was scrubbed at T-9mins and holding due to unacceptable weather at all of the mission’s three Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites.
The launch was reset for May 18, but postponed on May 17 due to the 24-hr launch delay of an Atlas III rocket.
It was also the 1st launch of a Space Shuttle orbiter with the new glass cockpit.
Following docking at 00:30 EDT 20 May 2000, Atlantis began assembly of the Strela crane on ISS, the installation of additional handrails on the outside of the ISS (Unity and Zarya modules) via one EVA by two of her crewmembers, and the set-up of the center-line camera cable – a future vital part of ISS/Shuttle docking operations.
The mission also delivered numerous supplies to the ISS via the SPACEHAB double module and the SPACEHAB Integrated Cargo Carrier pallet located in Atlantis’s Payload Bay. Some of these supplies included film and video equipment, office supplies, personal items for the upcoming crew of the Station, crew health maintenance items, and medical support supplies.
Atlantis also boosted the Station’s orbit from 230 miles to 250 miles. After 9 days 21 hours 10 minutes and 10 seconds, Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center, FL at 02:20 EDT on May 29 on Runway 15.
However, post-flight inspections of Atlantis revealed a very serious issue with the vehicle’s Thermal Protection System.
Upon post-flight inspection of Atlantis after STS-101, it was discovered that a damaged tile seam had allowed superheated plasma from reentry to enter the vehicle’s left wing. The gas did not penetrate deeply into the wing structure and all the damage was repaired before Atlantis’s next flight.
Nonetheless, the damaged tile seam and hot gas penetration into the orbiter – had it penetrated more deeply than it did – could have led to wide-spread internal damage and the potential for the loss of the vehicle and her flight crew during reentry.
It would be a hot gas penetration into her sister Columbia’s left wing on February 1, 2003 that would lead to the loss of Columbia and her flight crew.
On August 7, 2000, Atlantis was moved to the VAB and then out to Pad-B on August 13 for final processing for the STS-106/2A.2b mission. At the Flight Readiness Review, launch was set for September 8.
On September 6, the lighting mast on Pad-B was hit by lightning, but an engineering review quickly cleared the vehicle for flight.
The mission marked the ONLY time in Program history that Atlantis flew on back-to-back missions for the Shuttle program. With this flight, all four of the original orbiters in NASA’s Shuttle fleet completed back-to-back flights for the Program.
Only Endeavour never flew back-to-back mission for the Shuttle Program.
During STS-106, Atlantis delivered tons of supplies to the still un-crewed ISS and paved the way for the arrival of Expedition 1 to the ISS in the fall of 2000.
Supplies for the ISS were brought up by Atlantis via the SPACEHAB double module and the SPACEHAB Integrated Cargo Carrier. Supplies were also unloaded from the Russian Progress M-1 spacecraft at the end of the Zvezda Service Module.
The goal of the STS-106 mission was to make final preparations for the arrival of the first crew on the International Space Station and the start of permanent human settlement on the outpost later that year.
Atlantis undocked from the Station successfully and returned to Earth on September 19 with a 03:56 EDT landing at the Kennedy Space Center. It was the 23rd consecutive Shuttle landing at the Kennedy Space Center, the 30th Kennedy landing in the last 31 flights, and the 52nd overall landing at Kennedy.
It was also the 15th night landing in Program history.
Atlantis was moved into an OPF later that day and spent 2.5 months processing for her next mission: STS-98.
During rollout operations, the primary computer processor on the crawler malfunctioned and NASA decided to roll Atlantis back to the VAB after only an hour of rollout operations.
The second crawler was brought in immediately and Atlantis was successfully rolled out to the pad the same day and launch remained set for January 19.
However, questions over cables running throughout the Solid Rocket Boosters across the Shuttle fleet led to the inspection of the cables on Atlantis’s SRBs while at the launch pad.
The inspections were positive, but continued concerns prompted Program managers to air on the side of safety and ordered the rollback of Atlantis to the VAB for more thorough testing.
The rollback decision was made on January 15 – just hours before the launch countdown was scheduled to begin. Atlantis payload was rolled back January 20. It was the 14th rollback in program history. Cable tests in the VAB provided excellent data and the cables were cleared for flight.
On Jan. 25, Atlantis’s launch was reset for February 7, and Atlantis was returned to Pad-A on Jan. 26.
On launch day, the launch team briefly discussed an irregular voltage on one of Atlantis’s Multiplexer-Demultiplexer units. It was determined to be a sensor issue and nothing more.
At 18:13.02 EST on February 7, 2001 – 2 mins after the planned liftoff time – Atlantis lifted off from Pad-A to begin her 23rd mission and the 102nd flight of the Space Shuttle Program.
Liftoff of STS-98 marked the first Space Shuttle flight and the first world-wide manned spaceflight of the 21st century – with Atlantis holding the honor.
This means, that coupled with the STS-97/Endeavour mission of Nov./Dec. 2000, that the Space Shuttle fleet conducted both the last manned spaceflight of the 20th century and the first manned spaceflight of the 21st century.
Following docking, the Atlantis crew delivered and attached the premiere US science laboratory to the Station: the Destiny module.
This marked the first of three times that Atlantis would deliver a permanent pressurized module to the International Space Station – tying her with sister Discovery for the most permanent pressurized elements delivered to the International Space Station.
The mission also brought forth the 100th spacewalk in U.S. spaceflight history.
After two days of weather wave offs at Kennedy, Atlantis landed safely at Edwards Air Force Base on February 20 at 15:33 EST for a total mission duration of 12 days 21 hours 21 minutes and 00 seconds.
Engineers moved Atlantis to the VAB on May 29 and mated her with her ET/SRB flight stack. Shortly after her arrival in the VAB, the International Space Station experienced a problem with its new robotic arm.
Launch of Atlantis was then delayed until No Earlier Than early-July to allow engineers on the ground time to fix the station’s arm.
Mating of Atlantis to her ET proceeded without delay, though, and the entire stack remained in the VAB until a new launch date was selected.
On June 19, a July 12 launch date was selected for Atlantis and the vehicle began its rollout to Pad-B the following day. However, lightning soon moved into the area and the rollout was cancelled and Atlantis returned to the VAB.
Atlantis was completely rolled out to Pad-B on July 21. During the pad flow, technicians replaced and retested one of Atlantis’s Mass Memory Units.
Liftoff marked the 24th flight of Atlantis and the 105th flight of the Shuttle program. It also marked the second and last time that a Space Shuttle orbiter flew a numerically designated mission that matched its airframe number: OV-104/Atlantis on STS-104. Discovery, OV-103/STS-103, was the other occurrence.
The launch also debuted the use of the new Block II Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) in one engine location on this flight. During nominal Main Engine Cutoff, an anomaly was detected in the shutdown sequence of the new engine. A mitigation plan was worked an implemented on the STS-108/Endeavour flight in December.
During STS-104, Atlantis delivered the Quest Airlock to the ISS. Delivery, installation, and activation of the Quest Airlock marked the transfer to the ISS from the Space Shuttle of primary ISS EVA egress and ingress access.
The mission also marked the first use of Quest for an ISS assembly EVA (spacewalk #3 of the mission).
Atlantis was moved into an OPF the following day and then out to the VAB on March 6, 2002 for ET/SRB stack mating.
STS-110/Atlantis was moved out to Pad-B on March 12.
Launch on April 4 was scrubbed after the start of ET tanking due to a hydrogen leak on the outside of the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP).
The leak was repaired and launch rescheduled for April 8.
On April 8, all stations were for “go” for launch and the countdown picked up at the T-9min mark. At T-5min, the countdown was held due to a problem with Launch Processing System communication with the Front End Processor.
The launch team quickly and safely worked the issue, and with only 11 seconds of hold time remaining, the issue was cleared.
Atlantis lifted off on her 25th mission at 16:44.19 EDT with only 11 seconds remaining in the launch window. Until STS-133/Discovery in February 2011, this would stand as the closest the Shuttle had ever come to the end of a ISS launch window while still launching successfully.
STS-133/Discovery would shatter Atlantis’s record by launching with only 2secs of window and 1sec of LOX Drainback Hold Time remaining in its window.
STS-110 marked the 50th space launch from Pad-B and the first Shuttle flight to use Block II SSMEs in all three engine locations.
The flight also marked the 7th and final spaceflight for astronaut Jerry Ross – who flew 5 of his 7 missions on the Atlantis, a record for any astronaut on a single vehicle. It was the first time that one person flew to space 7 times – a record that would be tied on the very next Space Shuttle mission.
During STS-110, Atlantis was called upon to deliver the S0 truss to the ISS – the truss segment that forms the backbone of the Integrated Truss Structure on the ISS.
The mission also delivered the Mobile Transporter to the ISS, paving the way for the delivery of the Mobile Base System on the next Shuttle mission.
After 10 days and 19hours in space, Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center at 12:27 EDT on Runway 33 on April 19.
She was then moved into an OPF where she spent four months processing for STS-112. She was moved to the VAB on September 4 and out to Pad-B on September 10, 2002.
On Oct. 7, 2002, Atlantis lifted off on STS-112 at 15:46 EDT on her 26th mission and 111th mission for the Program. On board Atlantis was astronaut Sandy Magnus, making her first trip to space. Magnus will be a member of Atlantis’s final crew when the vehicle launches on STS-135 later this week.
The flight also marked the first time that a camera was placed on the LOX Feedline of the External Tank (ET) looking down over the ET’s Ice Frost Ramps and PAL (Protuberance Air Load) ramp – a safety feature that would become mandatory three flights later.
During STS-112, Atlantis delivered the next segment of the Integrated Truss Structure: the S1 starboard truss which weighed 28,000 lbs. Atlantis also delivered the Crew Equipment Translation Aid to the Station and carried numerous science experiments to orbit.
After 4.5 million miles, Atlantis returned safely to Earth on Oct 18. with an 11:44.35 EDT landing on Runway 33 at the Kennedy Space Center.
She was towed into an OPF and prepared for her next role on the STS-114 mission in March 2003.
Post-flight analysis of this mission, however, revealed that a piece of ET bipod foam had broken free from Atlantis’s STS-112 external tank and impacted an SRB with such force that it bent the case metal of the booster.
The standard FRR (Flight Readiness Review ) for STS-113/Endeavour – the immediate following flight to STS-112/Atlantis – indicated that NASA was aware of the foam liberation event.
The ET FRR presentation for STS-113 noted that “The Orbiter has not experienced ‘Safety of Flight’ damage from loss of foam in 112 flights (including 3 known ET bipod ramp foam loss).”
STS-113/Endeavour and STS-107/Columbia were both cleared for launch on this rationale.
On January 16, 2003, a large chuck of ET bipod foam broke free from Columbia’s ET and impacted the orbiter on her left hand Wing Leading Edge RCC Thermal Protection System panels.
The resulting accident grounded the Space Shuttle fleet as a full investigation was made.
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) revealed the cause of the Columbia accident to be the piece of ET bipod foam that broke off the tank and impacted Columbia’s left wing, breaching the delicate Thermal Protection System RCC panels on Columbia’s wing leading edge thus allowing superheated plasma to enter and melt the vehicle’s aluminum airframe during reentry.
The CAIB specifically pointed to the STS-112/Atlantis foam loss event as a major indicator of compromised ET/Shuttle orbiter flight safety.
Following the CAIB’s recommendations, Atlantis, along with her two surviving sisters, was upgraded with the suggested CAIB recommendations before being chosen as the Return to Flight orbiter for mission STS-114.
However, a problem with Atlantis’s landing gear forced NASA to remove Atlantis from the STS-114 flight and assign her to the Launch On Need rescue flight for STS-114 and the primary vehicle for the second Return to Flight mission: STS-121.
Thus, Atlantis was the first Space Shuttle orbiter to service in the role of emergency rescue vehicle – an ironic twist given that her last mission (STS-135) will not have a rescue Shuttle standing by but will instead rely on the Russian Soyuz for emergency support.
Nonetheless, after a large piece of foam liberated from the External Tank during STS-114’s launch, the Shuttle fleet was again grounded, and because of the lengthy delay Atlantis was removed from assignment from the STS-121 mission.
Again, Atlantis was given Launch On Need rescue duty for STS-121 while retaining her assignment to STS-115.
Following the successful flight of STS-121/Discovery in July 2006, Atlantis was stacked with her ET/SRBs and moved to the launch pad in August 2006 for the STS-115 mission.
After numerous weather and technical delays, Atlantis launched for the first time in four years on September 9, 2006 on a mission that delivered the P3/P4 truss and a new set of solar arrays to the ISS.
During STS-115, Atlantis’s flight crew demonstrated the new safety equipment made mandatory after the Columbia accident when they scanned the underbelly of Atlantis with the Orbiter Boom Sensor System to ensure that all TPS (Thermal Protection System) tiles were intact after unidentifiable co-orbital debris was spotted near Atlantis after undocking from the ISS.
Atlantis landed safely at the Kennedy Space Center on September 21, 2006 at 06:21.30 EDT.
STS-115 marked Atlantis’s final launch from Pad-B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Five months later, Atlantis was back at LC-39A for the STS-117 mission.
During the Space Shuttle Program FRR in late-February an intense hail storm at the pad imparted over 2,000 divots into Atlantis’s ET that had to be repaired.
Atlantis was rolled back from the pad to the VAB where ET repairs were conducted from March to May.
Atlantis was returned to the launch pad in May and launched on the first attempt on June 8, 2007 at 19:38.04 EDT.
Liftoff of Atlantis and STS-117 marked the 250th manned orbital spaceflight in history
During STS-117, Atlantis delivered a mirrored truss to P3/P4 – the S3/S4 truss and solar arrays – to the ISS and retracted a second set of solar arrays on the P6 truss in preparation for its transfer to a new location on the Station on STS-120 later that year.
STS-117 lasted 13-days, 20-hours, 12-minutes, and 44-seconds. It is Atlantis’s longest flight to date and spanned 219 orbits of Earth and 5.8 million miles.
Atlantis followed her longest flight with the STS-122 mission.
Originally scheduled to launch on December 4, 2006, the mission was delayed two months so NASA could nail down and fix the vexing ECO (Engine Cutoff) sensor anomalies that had plagued the fleet since STS-114 in 2005.
After fixing the ECO sensor issue, Atlantis was launched on the ST-122 flight exactly seven years to the day after STS-98.
During STS-122, Atlantis delivered the first Laboratory to ISS since Destiny (STS-98). STS-122 on Atlantis marked the beginning of construction of the international partner laboratories with the delivery of the European Space Agency’s Columbus research module to the ISS.
STS-122 also marked the celebration of NASA’s 50th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the first US unmanned orbital flight.
Atlantis undocking from the International Space Station for what many believed to be her final time on February 18, 2008.
Following her return to earth on February 20, 2008 with a mid-morning landing at the Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis was prepared for what was at the time her final mission: STS-125 to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Click here for STS-125 Articles: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-125/
Originally, targeting launch in October 2008, STS-125 was delayed to May 2009 due to the failure of a critical component on the Telescope and the desire to fly a replacement component up on Atlantis – the last upgrade mission to Hubble.
Launch of Atlantis and the STS-125 mission represented a tremendous undertaking on the part of NASA and remains a shining example of the work and dedication to safety that NASA upholds on a daily basis.
During the seven month delay to STS-125, Atlantis’s retirement was put on hold and the vehicle officially handed two additional missions thanks to a review of the Shuttle Program’s OMDP time/life cycle requirements.
With a renewed spirit and the knowledge that she would continue service to NASA through the projected end of the Space Shuttle Program, Atlantis was readied once again for STS-125 Hubble mission.
After rendezvousing with the Hubble Telescope, Atlantis’s astronauts performed five back-to-back spacewalks completing EVERY SINGLE complex and delicate mission objective and returning the Hubble Telescope to full operating capability.
STS-125 successfully landed at Edwards Air Force Base, CA on 24 May 2009 at 11:39.05 EDT after 12 days 21 hours 37 minutes and 9 seconds in space.
Upon return to the Kennedy Space Center, Atlantis continued a series of mini-OMPD inspections that were part of the agreement to retain her for service past the STS-125 mission.
These mini-OMDPs (or periods of inspection of critical components on Atlantis to ensure safety on her two added flights) enabled NASA to hand Atlantis two flights following STS-125: STS-129 and STS-132.
Click here for STS-129 Articles: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-129/
However, during post-flight turnaround from STS-125, a knob from a light fixture was found to be wedge in between Atlantis’s pilot’s console and the inner pressure pane window of the pilot’s window.
An extensive effort to remove the knob was undertaken and eventually proved successful. However, the pressure pane was found to be damaged.
Further analysis showed that the damage was not significant and would not interfere or impinge on safety margins during flight.
As such, a costly and extensive pressure pane replacement – which has never occurred at the Kennedy Space Center – was avoided (a replacement that could have removed Atlantis from service for 6-months or one year or all together).
Following resolution of this issue, Atlantis was rolled out to Pad-A in Oct 2009 for the STS-129 mission. During her stay at Pad-A, the Ares I-X test rocket was successfully launched from Pad-B. At the time, Ares I was the scheduled successor to the Space Shuttle.
On November 16, 2009, Atlantis lifted off on the STS-129 mission, a flight that served as the first major effort to pre-position thousands of pounds of external spare parts on the ISS before the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet.
During ground processing of Atlantis for STS-129, a record LOW number of 54 IPRs (problem reports) were recorded on Atlantis, shattering the old record of ~70 IPRs set by sister Discovery.
Discovery later reclaimed the record with only 47 IPRs during her ground flow toward STS-131.
After a highly successful mission which saw the birth of the daughter of crewmember Randy Bresnik, Atlantis safely returned to Earth on Nov. 27, 2009 at 06:44.22 EST after 10 days and 19 hours in space.
Thus, Atlantis’s second penultimate flight was completed. Her first penultimate flight was STS-122 in February 2008. After landing, Atlantis immediately entered processing for what was her final flight: STS-132.
Click here for STS-132 News Articles: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-132/
During the STS-132 flow, Atlantis regained her cherished record of least amount of problems in a single flow with only 46 IPRs recorded during her ground flow toward her final mission: STS-132. This record will be forever Atlantis’s as neither Discovery nor Endeavour broke the record on their final missions earlier this year.
In fact, Atlantis’s excellent behavior during what was her final launch countdown drew high praise from Alexey Krasnov, Chief of Piloted Programs Directorate, Roscosmos.
During the post-launch news conference for STS-132, Krasnov remarked that Atlantis was screaming, “use me again!”
After a stunningly perfect mission to deliver the Russian Rassvet MRM-1 module to the International Space Station, Atlantis eased onto Runway 33 at the Kennedy Space to wrap up what is now lovingly called her first-last mission.
However, in June 2010, Atlantis officially gained the roll of LON rescue mission STS-335 – to launch only if needed to rescue Endeavour’s flight crew should Endeavour become disable on the STS-134 mission.
And so Atlantis’s status remained until January 2011 when NASA took the first step to actually fly Atlantis on an actual STS-135 mission using the hardware and payload of the STS-335 mission.
In February 2011, it was finally made official: Space Shuttle Atlantis would fly the STS-135 mission in summer 2011 and become the final Space Shuttle orbiter to fly in space.
Click here for STS-135 News Articles: http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/tag/sts-135/
With a scheduled launch on Friday morning (July 8th) at 11:26am EDT, STS-135 will mark the 33rd and final voyage of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the 135th and final flight of the Space Shuttle.
From her delivery to the Kennedy Space Center in April 1985 and her first launch in October of that year, few could have imagined the Shuttle orbiter Atlantis would be the vehicle to fly on the Program historic final flight.
She is also vehicle to have performed the single-most dockings with at space station: 19 total (7 to MIR and 12 to ISS counting STS-132).
Atlantis will also be the final Space Shuttle orbiter to visit the two most iconic symbols of success thus far in humankind’s exploration of space: the Hubble Space Telescope (STS-125) and the International Space Station (STS-135)
In all 24 of Atlantis’s 33 flights will have been dedicated to international pursuits at the time of her retirement, making her the “most international” orbiter in the Space Shuttle Program.
Atlantis has served the Space Shuttle Program extremely well in her 25.5 year career. She 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 12 International Space Station construction flights (included STS-135).
And to many she has held the most meaningful name of all the Space Shuttles: ATLANTIS – a long-standing name of perseverance and longing.
Like the mythical city before her, Atlantis’s name symbolizes our collective desire to push forward despite the nay-sayers and the unbelievers and reach for and believe in something that might not be tangible yet but we know in our hearts is there.
Perhaps, in this way, it is fitting that Atlantis will be that final Shuttle orbiter to fly – taking with her our hopes, beliefs, and desires on one final Space Shuttle mission to expand our scientific discoveries and endeavours on the International Space Station and beyond.
To the Atlantis and all who have worked and flown aboard her, we say THANK YOU for an awe-inspiring JOB WELL DONE, and we wish you fair skies and a strong wind at your sail as you embark on your final voyage.
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