Saturday, July 09, 2011

Atlantis performing flawlessly on final flight

NASA officials say the final shuttle mission couldn't be off to a better start.

"It’s been a great start to this mission, and I couldn’t be happier in terms of where we are on orbit," said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the Mission Management Team. "The crew is doing great, the vehicle’s doing great, the team on the ground is performing at a very high level."

During a first full day in orbit after Friday's morning's launch from Kennedy Space Center, four Atlantis crew members breezed through a robotic inspection of orbiter heat shields in what Kwatsi Alibaruho, the lead shuttle flight director, called near-record time.

And preparations for Sunday's an 11:06 a.m. docking at the International Space Station also were finished ahead of schedule.

So much for the struggles a four-person crew -- two or three people less than usual -- was supposed to experience.

Alibaruho said the veteran team of commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley and mission specialists Sandy Magnus and Rex Walheim had no trouble adapting to microgravity, worked efficiently and skipped a lunch break to get ahead.

They've also been helped by the fact that Atlantis, on its 33rd flight since 1985, has experienced no technical anomoalies whatsoever.

And Cain said preliminary indications are that its heat shields are "very clean."

A decision on the need for a more detailed "focused" inspection could come as soon as Sunday evening, after analysts have looked at photos that will be shot by station crew members during Atlantis approach.

The mission is also on track to be extended from 12 to 13 days, though a decision may not be made for a couple more days. The extension depends on the reserve capability in the orbiter's electricity-generating fuel cell system.

The Atlantis crew was scheduled to go to sleep at 7:29 p.m. EDT today and awake Sunday, docking day, at 3:29 a.m.

IMAGE: Three Atlantis crew members at work on the flight deck.

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