Atlantis astronauts work ahead of schedule

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Atlantis astronauts sailed past the midpoint of NASA’s STS-135 final shuttle program mission on July 14, steeped in a demanding cargo exchange with the International Space Station, but working well ahead of schedule.

The 13-day flight to the orbiting science laboratory is scheduled to conclude with a dawn landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on July 21. Touchdown at the Shuttle Landing Facility is scheduled for 5:58 a.m. EDT.

“We’ve had a wonderful mission so far,” Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson reported as the four-member shuttle crew prepared to take several hours off to share an “All American” meal of barbecue with their six U.S., Russian and Japanese space station hosts.

“We brought up about 10,000 pounds of food and supplies, and that will hopefully sustain the station for about a year to come,” Ferguson said. “We have a couple of more days docked, then it’s the long road back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.”

The transfers, overseen by Atlantis mission specialist Sandra Magnus, are intended to sustain six-person operations aboard the orbiting science laboratory through 2012, as NASA transitions to post-shuttle era commercial resupply services provided by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. The strategy, however, relies on regular launches of cargo-laden Russian Progress space freighters as well.

As they took their first break since the July 8 launch of Atlantis, the shuttle astronauts reported that 75% of the 9,400 lb. of food, spare parts and research equipment they delivered in the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module had been off-loaded. More than half of the 2,300 lb. of equipment from the shuttle’s mid-deck had made its way across the station threshold as well.

Over the remaining days of the flight, 5,600 lb. of trash and unneeded station gear will be stowed aboard Raffaello, which was temporarily transferred from the shuttle’s cargo bay to the station on July 11. Another 1,500 lb. of station discards will return to Earth in the mid-deck.

“There are bags and boxes everywhere, just like your house on moving day,” says Chris Edelen, NASA’s lead space station flight director. “But it’s a controlled chaos. The [Mission Control] team is working very closely with the crew. They have choreographed the movement of equipment in and out of the logistics module so there is a place for everything.”

One last countdown before official Atlantis launch

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With little fanfare, the Kennedy Space Center shuttle launch team gathered Tuesday to begin the 135th and last countdown at 1 p.m. for a shuttle launch, aiming to get Atlantis and its four-member crew off the ground at 11:26 a.m. EDT on Friday.

“The team gets into the mode of ‘This is launch countdown,’ and that’s really the focus that everybody has,” says NASA test director Jeremy Graeber. “To do it one more time is a great feeling.”

The only cloud on the horizon for an on-time liftoff is, predictably, Florida’s thunderstorm-prone summer weather. With a front expected to move over the mid-Atlantic coast on Thursday, meteorologists with the U.S; Air Force’s 45th Space Wing are forecasting a 60% chance weather will delay launch.

“We’ll have real high moisture on Friday,” says shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters. “When we have high moisture, particularly in the low levels, we can pop those thunderstorms and showers early when the sea breeze forms.”

Specifically, the forecast calls for a chance of showers and thunderstorms within 20 nm of the Shuttle Landing Facility, a violation of NASA flight rules that protect for a contingency landing at the launch site, and cumulus clouds within 10 nm of Launch Pad 39A, where Atlantis stands poised for liftoff. The forecast improves for launch attempts on Saturday and/or Sunday, after which the Eastern Test Range schedule shifts to support a Delta 4 rocket launch on July 14 with a GPS satellite for the Air Force. The shuttle’s next launch window opens July 16 if the Delta launches on time.

The abridged, four-member STS-135 crew, headed by Navy Capt. (ret) Christopher Ferguson, arrived at the Florida spaceport Monday afternoon in a pair of T-38 training jets.

“It’s such a pleasure to come down here when you have a rocket on the pad and it’s got your stuff loaded on it,” astronaut Rex Walheim tells reporters gathered at the landing strip.

NASA pared the last shuttle crew from the normal six or seven members to four to accommodate an emergency return on Russian Soyuz capsules, as there is no second shuttle available to mount a rescue mission should Atlantis sustain significant enough damage during launch or while in orbit to prevent a safe re-entry. NASA has preserved a safe haven option for shuttle crewmembers aboard the International Space Station and shuttle rescue capability since returning the fleet to flight after the 2003 Columbia accident.

Ferguson, Walheim, pilot Douglas Hurley and mission specialist Sandra Magnus were all fitted for Soyuz Sokol spacesuits, though just Walheim’s is flying with the STS-135 cargo. The others would be flown to the station as needed.

“The plan would basically change the sequence of when people would come down,” Walheim said in a preflight interview. “Some of the folks on the space station would stay longer than they anticipated, and then as spots free up we’d cycle our crew down one by one. [Russia] also will launch Soyuz spacecraft with just two people instead of three, which leaves a spot for them to come down with one of our crewmembers. We will kind of methodically do that until everybody’s rotated down.” Walheim would be the first to return, followed by Ferguson, Magnus and Hurley.

The goal of NASA’s final shuttle flight is to deliver a year’s worth of food, clothing, supplies and equipment to the space station to buy time in case NASA’s commercial cargo resuppliers, Space Exploration Technologies and Orbital Sciences Corp., encounter technical delays with their programs.

As final mission approaches, Atlantis crew members prepares

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At Johnson Space Center, preparations for STS-135 – a 12-day supply mission to the International Space Station and the absolute end of the shuttle program – are unfolding with increasing urgency despite the absence of congressional agreement on a 2011 budget.

The mission is slated to lift off from Kennedy Space Center on June 28 at 3:40 p.m. EDT.

At the Florida spaceport, Atlantis awaits the April 19 departure of Endeavour’s final mission, STS-134, before taking a place at Launch Pad 39A. In Houston, STS-135 commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Doug Hurley, Sandra Magnus and Rex Walheim have transitioned from training for the rescue role they would shoulder if Endeavour sustained damage to her thermal protection system to preparations for a demanding resupply flight.

“I think there is still some speculation as to whether we will actually fly this flight,” Ferguson said March 23. “But with every passing day, I’m more and more convinced that NASA has the funding put aside and we have the tacit approval of Congress.” The flight is included in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

Ferguson, Hurley and Magnus spoke of the mission plans during a demonstration of their station rendezvous training.

NASA has not flown the shuttle with a crew of four since STS-6, a five-day satellite deployment mission in 1983. The basic flight plan has changed considerably since the 2003 Columbia tragedy and now includes time-consuming heat shield inspections on the second and next-to-last mission days. In addition, station missions, which usually include six or seven astronauts, require “all hands” for the manually flown rendezvous and docking on flight day three.

Hurley says the demands on the small crew rival those of his previous flight, STS-127, a 16-day station assembly mission in July 2009 that included five spacewalks.

“It feels like I have three times as much stuff to do,” he says. “Everyone has two, three or four other jobs and each of us has to back up somebody.”

Without a shuttle on standby to serve as their rescue vehicle, Ferguson’s crew also will be trained more extensively than usual in space station operations. Should Atlantis reach the station but be unable to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the shuttle astronauts would rotate back to Earth aboard a succession of Soyuz flights. Walheim would return after three months, Ferguson after six months, Magnus after nine months and Hurley after a year.

To help spread the workload, the Atlantis crew will launch 2 hr. earlier in the crew day than usual. The change will give them 8 hr. to prepare on orbit for the heat shield inspection on day two.

Thanksgiving last full day in space for shuttle

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Space shuttle Atlantis‘ astronauts will spend Thanksgiving checking their ship for the ride home.

The shuttle and its crew of seven are aiming for a Friday morning landing at NASA‘s Florida spaceport. Good weather is forecast.

The astronauts will test Atlantis‘ flight systems Thursday morning, take questions from TV reporters and then settle down to a holiday meal.

Commander Charles Hobaugh didn’t want anything special, so the crew is making do with what’s left in the pantry. Thursday’s menu includes barbecue beef brisket for some, chicken fajitas for others, and even sweet and sour pork.

Atlantis left the International Space Station on Wednesday. The shuttle dropped off tons of big spare parts.

*** Thanksgiving Week Sale (Promo Period: November 24-30, 2009) –