Monday, July 18, 2011

End of era for station cargo modules

A large cargo module that delivered nearly five tons of supplies to the International Space Station is on its way back to shuttle Atlantis for the trip home.

After bolts and latches on a common berthing mechanism were mechanically released at 6:48 a.m., Atlantis pilot Doug Hurley used a robotic arm to begin pulling the 22,000-pound Raffaello module from the Earth-facing port on the station's Harmony node.

It is expected to be the last time one of the cylindrical, Italian-built "moving vans" technically called Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules, or MPLMs, was attached to the station.

Two of the 21-foot long, 15-foot diameter modules, Leonardo and Raffaello, have flown 12 missions over the past decade, hauling up over 50 tons of internal cargo to the station and returning more than 20 tons.

"That's some pretty impressive numbers, because we really don't have another way to get large amounts of cargo to the ground," Atlantis mission specialist and loadmaster Sandy Magnus said Sunday. "So the MPLMs have served us well and they've been incredible workhorses for the program here and the International Space Station in particular."

The pressurized module of Orbital Sciences Corp's Cygnus cargo spacecraft, expected to fly for the first time next year, is based on the MPLM designed by Thales Alenia Space.

The Atlantis crew attached Raffaello to the station last Monday, the day after arriving at the station and three days after a July 8 launch from Kennedy Space Center.

The robotic return of Raffaello to Atlantis' payload bay is the shuttle crew's last major operation before bidding the station's six-person crew goodbye and returning to their orbiter to prepare for Tuesday's undocking -- the last by a shuttle.

The final shuttle landing at KSC is planned at 5:57 a.m. Thursday, weather permitting.

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