Thursday, April 08, 2010

Antenna failure could impact mission length or objectives

NASA continues to wrestle with the failure of a high-speed data antenna aboard Discovery that could wind up forcing an extension of the shuttle's planned 13-day mission or dropping some scheduled work.

"We are talking about possibly extending, we are talking about deferring mission content -- everything is on the table at this point," said Courtenay McMillan, an International Space Station flight director, during a 2 a.m. news briefing at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Because Discovery's failed Ku-band antenna won't allow its crew to transmit video during flight, mission flight rules dictate that the late heat shield inspection, normally performed after undocking, must be done before Discovery departs the outpost.

"It would be very tight to do it in the current mission without impacting any of the other mission objectives," McMillan said. "Late inspection is a pretty lengthy procedure usually, and it would have to be changed from what it typically would have been...We don't know for sure what the full timeline needs to look like yet."

She said a plan might be ready sometime tomorrow at the earliest.

Managers have already made a change to the first of three planned spacewalks, which mission specialists Rick Mastracchio and Clay Anderson are scheduled to begin early Friday.

A task to loosen bolts on a set of six solar array batteries set for replacement during the next shuttle mission was eliminated.

Engineers are apparently studying the potential for an electric shock caused by the build-up of charged particles outside the station, which could arc when the spacewalkers are at the far ends of the station's football field-length central truss.

"There's a concern with the suit and how it would respond to plasma and differences in voltage in the outboard areas on the truss where the batteries are located," McMillan said. "So they decided on this flight, since they didn't have all the data, to defer those tasks. So we're not going to do those on this mission."

"We know we have to go do this task, so we have to find a way to make this work," she continued. "Whether that will involve doing something to the suits or rearranging the tasks, we're not sure yet."

McMillan said the change would allow Mastracchio and Anderson to complete more "get-ahead" tasks this mission, jobs that were still being planned.

Meanwhile, flight controllers continue to try to download from station computers all of the images from the Discovery crew's Tuesday heat shield inspection, a job that has proven more difficult than expected because of the files' large size.

"This is a setup we haven't tried before for getting shuttle data down (to the ground)," McMillan said. "The files are huge. They're bigger than anything we typically downlink for station operations."

On board the station, astronauts continue to prepare the Leonardo cargo module for a hatch opening a little before 8 a.m.

At 8:16 a.m., some of the Discovery crew will participate in the mission's first media interviews, which you can watch live here by clicking the NASA TV box at right.

Participating media outlets are the Tom Joyner Syndicated Radio Show, WVIT-TV and Fox News Radio.

IMAGE: This view of the crew cabin and part of the cargo bay of the space shuttle Discovery was taken April 7 by an Expedition 23 crew member during a survey of the approaching vehicle prior to docking with to the International Space Station. The picture shows Discovery's failed Ku-band antenna jutting out from the forward, right side of the payload bay. Credit: NASA.

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