Wednesday, September 30, 2009

NASA Preps Atlantis For Move Amid Conflicts

NASA is prepping the orbiter Atlantis for a move next week to the landmark Kennedy Space Center Vehicle Assembly Building as the agency presses ahead with plans to send up an International Space Station outfitting mission on Nov. 12.

But NASA will have just eight days to get the shuttle and its crew aloft before the sun angle on the station pushes the launch back to a short week-long window between Dec. 6 and Dec. 13.

Complicating matters are two planned rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 14 and Nov. 18; the peak of the Leonids meteor shower on Nov. 17; the peak of the Geminids around Dec. 13 or Dec. 14; and the Russian launch of new crewmates to the station in late December.

The increasing amount of traffic to and from the station, along with other launch "cutouts" or conflicts with other scheduled rocket missions, will no doubt make the scheduling of NASA's last six shuttle launches a difficult dance.

Here's the current situation: Atlantis and a crew of six astronauts are scheduled to blast off at 4:04 p.m. Nov. 12 on a mission to deliver large spare parts to the space station.

The delivery of the goods is considered critical because most of the spares are larger than vehicles other than shuttles will be able to haul up after NASA retires its three-orbiter fleet in late 2010 or 2011.

As it stands, NASA will have until Nov. 20 to get the shuttle mission off the ground before a so-called "beta angle cutout." From Nov. 21 through Dec. 5, the sun angle on the station will be such that the outpost would not be able to generate enough electricity, or dispel enough heat, to support a docked shuttle mission.

The next opportunity would be a weeklong window between Dec. 6 and Dec. 13. After that, NASA would have to stand down the shuttle launch until around Jan. 7 to clear the way for a station crew exchange mission Russia is scheduled to launch Dec. 21.

NASA would have to launch Atlantis by Dec. 13 to finish its mission and depart the station before the arrival of a Russian Soyuz crew transport craft.

The complexity of the situation increases when other planned launches fro Florida's Space Coast are factored in.

Two satellite-delivery missions now are slated for launch during an eight-day shuttle window that opens Nov. 12. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket is scheduled to blast off Nov. 14 and one of the company's Delta IV rockets is slated for flight on Nov. 17.

The U.S. Air Force Eastern Range provides tracking, weather forecasting and public safety services for all launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. But the wing requires 24 to 48 hours between launches to reset tracking, range safety and other systems.

So NASA likely would have to negotiate with United Launch Alliance if it was unable to launch Atlantis and its crew as planned on Nov. 12.

An aside: NASA is officially on the range schedule for Nov. 9 -- a move up from a previous booking on the 12th, and a move NASA now cannot support. Meanwhile, ULA booked Nov. 14. So Nov. 13 now would be a range reconfiguration day -- rather than a shuttle launch day -- in the event NASA was unable to launch on Nov. 12.

Another aside: ULA has Delta and Atlas rocket launches scheduled at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Oct. 8 and Oct. 13, respectively. The two November launches at Cape Canaveral likely would face postponements if either of the West Coast flights experienced delays of more than a few days.

Factor in annual Meteor showers and the situation looks even ore challenging.

NASA wouldn't want to launch Atlantis and its crew into a cosmic shooting gallery, so mission planners would require engineering specialists to complete complicated calculations and rigorous analyses if Atlantis and its crew appeared destined to launch around the peak of either storm -- Nov. 17 and Dec. 13-14, respectively.

Hundreds of shooting stars per hour are expected to plunge into Earth's atmosphere during the peak of either storm, and while both the station and the shuttle have significant shielding, there would be a concern for spacewalkers wearing multi-layered fabric spacesuits that could catastrophically rip on impact.

There is precedent here, too: NASA delayed by a day a planned shuttle launch in August 1993 to avoid the peak of an extra strong Perseid meteor shower.

Kyle Herring, a spokesman for NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said the agency is marching ahead with preparations while keeping close tabs on the other planned satellite launches and other potential conflicts.

The work flow in KSC's Launch Complex 39 area supports a planned move from the orbiter's processing hangar to the 52-story assembly building next Tuesday and a roll out to launch pad 39A a week later.

Added KSC spokesman Allard Beutel: "We are absolutely on track."


Anonymous said...

Talk about peak traffic...this makes me appreciate the problem Clark Griswold had with "Big Ben...Parliament" even more.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the SpaceX Falcon 9 getting squeezed into the schedule sometime in November, December or whenever they can get ready.

Todd Halvorson said...

On the SpaceX Falcon 9: it's tentatively scheduled for Nov. 29, which is during the Nov. 21-Dec. 5 beta angle cutout. So it would not be a factor if it launches on time.

Matt said...

Dont forget the ares test flight at the end of October. Speaking of that, Is Nasa still worried about any sort of debris impact to Atlantis which will already be sitting on Launch pad 39A in the event something would go seriously wrong during the test flight??? Or assuming Atlantis gets off the ground on time, would Nasa slip the ares flight till after Atlantis launches???

mikemilan10 said...

This may be extrapolating from too-sparse information, but given that the diagram showing the conversion process omits the OH-58D sensor mast from the converted aircraft, I have to wonder if the estimated performance improvements are for co-axial rotorcraft with or without that (rather significant) sensor mast.
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