Friday, April 24, 2009

Atlantis Officially Targeting May 11 Liftoff

Editor's note: updated at 5:15 p.m. Space shuttle program managers today moved up Atlantis' target launch date by one day, to May 11.

The earlier date would give Atlantis three launch attempts through May 13. After that, the next attempt wouldn't be possible until May 22.

The Air Force's Eastern Range is booked for military use May 13-19. A United Launch Alliance Delta IV rocket targeted for launch May 20 is expected to be delayed, but batteries being launched to the Hubble Space Telescope would need more time to be recharged.

The Eastern Range provides tracking and range safety services for shuttles and unmanned rockets launched from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral.

The launch date for the fifth and final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope won't officially be set until after a flight readiness review scheduled next Thursday.

If the date is May 11, Atlantis and seven astronauts would plan to blast off from KSC's launch pad 39A at 2:01 p.m. EDT.

The launch window would open at 1:41 p.m. and extend to 2:43 p.m.

Adjustments to processing schedules, including moving up one test of the Hubble payload by about four hours, made the earlier attempt possible, said KSC spokesman Allard Beutel.

The earlier launch option was nearly derailed by an incident Wednesday during a 12-hour operation to load the Hubble cargo into Atlantis' payload bay.

A piece of a technician's wrench dropped from an access platform, grazing two employees - no one was injured - and denting the inside of the left payload bay door.

A detailed inspection this morning determined no repairs were necessary, but the incident is under review.

If weather or technical problems push the Atlantis launch past May 13, Endeavour's STS-127 mission to the International Space Station would likely be pushed back to July. The mission currently is targeted for June 13.

Endeavour is standing by on launch pad 39B for the Hubble mission, in case a dramatic rescue of the Atlantis crew is necessary.

The Atlantis astronauts will not be able to reach the space station during their 11-day mission, so irreparable damage to the orbiter from launch or orbital debris would prompt a rescue flight.

IMAGE NOTE: Click to enlarge the image above showing space shuttle Atlantis rolling from the Vehicle Assembly Building to launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on March 31. Photo credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

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