Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Shuttle rollback decision coming up

NASA will decide in the coming days when to return shuttle Atlantis to the Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building and move sistership Endeavour from Launch Complex 39B to Launch Complex 39A.

With a fifth and final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission now off until February, NASA now aims to launch Endeavour on an International Space Station outfitting mission Nov. 14 -- two days ahead of the most recent schedule.

NASA Shuttle Program Manager John Shannon told reporters Monday that Endeavour is far along enough in processing that it could be ready to fly as early as Nov. 2.

But neither crew training nor cargo delivery for the mission could be completed in time to support that date. Both, however, could be pulled in enough to push the launch up from Nov. 16 to Nov. 14.

"There's very little opportunity for us to accelerate that," he said.

The rollback of Atlantis to High Bay No. 3 of the VAB probably won't happen in the next several days.

The payload for the Hubble mission will have to be removed from its cargo bay, and the shuttle will have to be disconnected from pad systems. A crawler-transporter also will have to be moved out to the pad before the 3.5-mile trip to the assembly building can begin.

Endeavour was moved out to pad 39B so it could be launched on a rapid-response rescue mission had Atlantis sustained critical damaged during flight. The plan still will be to move Endeavour to pad 39A for launch on the station outfitting mission.

Unclear now is how the Hubble delay might impact plans to launch the Ares 1X test flight from pad 39B next year. A second shuttle presumably will have to be on that pad next year, ready to fly a rescue mission whenever Atlantis finally launches on the Hubble servicing mission.

Shannon said the construction of lightning towers to protect the 30-story Ares 1X test vehicle will continue at the pad. The larger concern: the mobile launcher platform Atlantis now sits upon is the same platform the Ares 1X rocket is supposed to be perched atop for the test flight.

NASA had hoped to launch the Ares 1X test flight on April 15, but a slip in the Hubble mission from August to October already was expected to bump that back about five or six weeks. The test flight is deemed key to gathering data needed prior to the critical design review for the Ares 1 rocket.

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