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Visits to Shuttle Launch Pad Show Scorched Metal, Melted Plastic

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If you’ve ever wondered what a launch pad looks like right after the space shuttle thunders off into space, there’s a team of engineers to ask.

Called the post-launch inspection team, they head out to the launch pad to instantly appraise damage at the pad and look for debris. They look over every part of the launch complex, despite the fresh layer of exhaust residue left by the solid rocket boosters.

“You see a lot of scorched metal, some bent,” said Jeff Painter, who has seen launch pads after liftoffs for more than 20 years.

Because the elevators are not working after launch, the engineers have to take the stairs all the way up the fixed service structure.

“There’s definitely a chemical, metallic smell,” said Tom Carlon, who’s been on the inspection team for two years.

Wildlife trekking back in only adds to the surreal atmosphere, such as the time a group of piglets was heading to the launch pad’s surface at the same time as the inspection team.

Looking over the launch pad after a shuttle liftoff used to be akin to developing a catalog of destruction. Melted speakers would wrap around poles or columns in the launch tower, drink containers tucked away and forgotten would be jarred loose and strewn about, and a few tools, such as wire brushes, would be found on the launch pad or in the blast zone.

Members of the post-launch inspection team examine the hold-down posts after space shuttle Endeavour launched on the STS-127 mission.

Things have changed, though, and now far fewer things are left behind to get tossed around in the exhaust of a launching shuttle’s 7 million pounds of flame and turbulence. There’s still the occasional melted speaker, however.

Eric Linderman, who leads the post-launch team, said the group found no left-behind items at the launch pad after Endeavour climbed into orbit for the STS-127 mission. That was a first for the Space Shuttle Program. There were a few items that were blasted loose by the exhaust.

Any item found during the inspection gets evaluated to find out where it came from and why it came loose. The idea is to prevent the same thing from coming loose during a future launch. Loose items can ricochet around the pad area and potentially impact the shuttle as it climbs off the pad.

If the shuttle’s gigantic external tank is fueled but there is no launch, the team goes into “post-drainback inspection” mode. That means they head out to the pad after the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen have been emptied from the tank. Just like the Final Inspection Team, which studies the outside of the shuttle in the closing hours of a countdown, the post-drainback group looks for signs of ice buildup, cracks in the tank foam, or for potential debris that might have been missed earlier.

“It’s kind of awe-inspiring because it’s just the vehicle and just you,” Linderman said.

Eight engineers, all volunteers, make the trip to the pad. They generally wear shorts and T-shirts beneath the mandatory white flame-retardant coveralls. Helmets and tethers complete the outfits depending on where they are working at the pad complex.

“You might think that nighttime is a relief,” said team member Kurt Stresau. “But eight months out of the year, the mosquitoes make sure you are quickly disillusioned.”

But don’t think they don’t enjoy it.

“Not a lot of people get to do this,” Carlon said.

Eric Linderman, right, talks to the post-launch inspection team before they head out onto the launch platform.

Richard Villanueva took part in his first inspection during the STS-127 launch, which included four tankings before it launched. That meant five chances for the team to go out and look over Endeavour.

“For me, it was just a great chance to learn,” Villanueva said. “Just the whole experience of getting to go out there, not knowing what to expect and learning from the experience of everybody else.”

Split into two teams, it takes two to three hours to complete the survey, which includes looking for signs of dented piping or loose bricks inside the flame trench.

Each of the engineers knows a specific area of the launch pad and evaluates that area closely during the inspection. When it’s finished, they can offer a conclusive report of what items broke loose, what should be replaced or moved to a different part of the pad, and what damage parts of the pad incurred, such as the hold-down posts that connect the boosters to the launch platform.

The inspections are so detailed in part because the information will go back to more than 35 organizations, directorates and companies that can’t go out and look at the launch pad firsthand with the team. The team itself is made up of engineers from NASA, United Space Alliance, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

There are a few surprises for the group, but the most consistent shock is that launch pads survive incredibly well despite forces far stronger than most buildings face.

“You have a steel structure a half-mile from the ocean and it’s been there for 40 years and you’re setting a controlled explosion off on it,” Painter said.

For Linder, the best part of the whole inspection is getting back to the office to write the report. The group gathers around a desk and before long some of the snacks and candy that had been tucked inside desks fuels a couple hours of camaraderie.

“I guess it’s the fellowship,” Linderman said.

That feeling is shared by others on the team.

“It’s dirty, it’s hot, it’s smelly and it’s fun,” Stresau said.


Landing Day for Endeavour and Crew

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The shuttle crew was awakened at 2:03 a.m. EDT by the song “Beautiful Day” performed by the band U2. The song was selected for Mission Specialist Tom Marshburn.

Space shuttle Endeavour is scheduled to land at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center Today with a touchdown at 10:48 a.m. The shuttle would begin its descent from orbit with a deorbit engine firing at 9:42 a.m. Weather conditions at Kennedy are forecast to be favorable for landing, although a slight chance of rain is possible.


SPACE WALLPAPER: Endeavour Climbs Toward Orbit

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(Above) Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-127) climbs toward orbit after its liftoff at 6:03 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, July 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

DOWNLOAD FULL SIZE WALLPAPER


Space Shuttle Crew Set To Return To Earth Friday

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Space shuttle Endeavour and its seven-member crew are scheduled to return to Earth on Friday after a 16-day mission. There are two landing opportunities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 10:48 a.m. and 12:23 p.m. EDT.

NASA will evaluate weather conditions at Kennedy before permitting Endeavour and its crew to land. If weather prevents a return to Kennedy on Friday, the backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California will be activated Saturday for consideration as well.

Approximately two hours after landing, NASA officials will hold a media briefing to discuss the mission. The participants will be:

  • Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the Space Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Keiji Tachikawa, president, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
  • Benoit Marcotte, director genenal, operations, Canadian Space Agency
  • Mike Moses, space shuttle launch integration manager
  • Pete Nickolenko, STS-127 launch director

After touchdown in Florida, the astronauts will undergo physical examinations and meet with their families. The crew is expected to hold a news conference at approximately 3:15 p.m. Both news events will be broadcast live on Galaxy Wire TV.


US NAVY’s ANDE-2 SAT launched aboard Endeavour

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(Above) ANDE-2 is a low-cost mission designed to study the atmosphere of the Earth from low-Earth orbit by monitoring total atmospheric density between 300 and 400 km altitude.

The Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL’s) satellite suite, the Atmospheric Neutral Density Experiment 2 (ANDE-2), launched aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour on July 15, 2009. The ANDE-2 satellite suite consists of two nearly perfectly spherical micro-satellites with instrumentation to perform two interrelated mission objectives. The first objective is to monitor the total atmospheric density along the orbit for improved orbit determination of resident space objects. The second is to provide a test object for both radar and optical U.S. Space Surveillance Network sensors.

ANDE-2 is a low-cost mission designed to study the atmosphere of the Earth from low-Earth orbit by monitoring total atmospheric density between 300 and 400 km altitude. ANDE-2 data will be used to improve methods for the precision orbit determination of space objects and to calibrate the Space Fence, a radar space surveillance system belonging to the Air Force 20th Space Control Squadron, a principal resource for tracking low-Earth orbiting space satellites.

Because of ANDE-2′s particular design requirements, a new deployment technique was developed by the Air Force Space Test Program and tested with the ANDE Risk Reduction (ANDERR) flight in December 2006. The primary ANDERR mission objective, a test of the Shuttle deployment mechanism, was successful.

The ANDE project was conceived and developed at NRL, by Andrew Nicholas of NRL’s Space Science Division. The mission consists of two microsatellites with the same size but different masses sent into orbit at the same time: the lighter satellite known as Pollux, and the heavier satellite, Castor. The Castor spacecraft carries active instruments: a miniature wind and temperature spectrometer (NRL/NASA GSFC) to measure atmospheric composition, cross-track winds, and neutral temperature; a Global Positioning Sensor (AFRL/University of Texas at Austin); a thermal monitoring system to monitor the temperature of the satellite (NRL); an electrostatic analyzer to monitor plasma density spacecraft charging (U.S. Air Force Academy).

Each satellite contains a small lightweight payload designed to determine the spin rate and orientation of the satellite from on-orbit measurements and from ground-based observations. The two microsatellites will slowly separate into lead-trail orbit to provide researchers an opportunity to study small-scale, spatial and temporal variations in drag associated with geomagnetic activity. Both the satellites will be fitted with and array of thirty retro reflectors, and will be observed by the U.S. Space Surveillance Network and domestic and international satellite laser ranging sites. The variation in observed position will be used to determine in-track total density. Scientists will determine its position in relation to the passive satellite to compute total density and validate drag coefficient models. In addition, instrumentation on board Castor will measure density and composition.

A joint effort between the Space Science Division and the Naval Center for Space Technology to routinely process and analyze the ANDERR data has led to improved orbit determination and prediction using an atmospheric model correction method. The ANDE data provide a valuable tool for correcting deficiencies in atmospheric models and have led to advancements in miniature sensor technology. These advancements are pivotal for multi-point in-situ space weather sensing. The DoD Space Test Program will provide launch services for the ANDE-2 mission.


STS-127 Crew Completes Fifth and Final Spacewalk

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Spacewalkers Tom Marshburn and Chris Cassidy completed a four hour, 54 minute spacewalk at 12:27 p.m. EDT.

Marshburn and Cassidy secured multi-layer insulation around the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator known as Dextre, split out power channels for two space station Control Moment Gyroscopes, installed video cameras on the front and back of the new Japanese Exposed Facility and performed a number of “get ahead” tasks, including tying down some cables and installing handrails and a portable foot restraint to aid future spacewalkers. The deployment of the Payload Attach System on the Starboard 3 truss was deferred to another spacewalk sometime in the future.

This was the fifth and last planned STS-127 spacewalk, the 130th in support of International Space Station assembly and maintenance, totaling 810 hours, 36 minutes. It was the 102nd spacewalk out of space station airlocks and the 218th American spacewalk in history. It was the third for both Marshburn and Cassidy, Marshburn totaling 18 hours, 59 minutes and Cassidy 18 hours, five minutes.

This was the second space station assembly mission to conduct five spacewalks. STS-123 also performed five spacewalks in March 2008. The five STS-127 spacewalks totaled 30 hours, 30 minutes. The five STS-123 spacewalks totaled 33 hours, 29 minutes.

At 6 p.m., NASA Television will air a Mission Status briefing with STS-127 Lead Flight Director Holly Ridings and STS-127 Lead Spacewalk Officer Kieth Johnson.


STS-127 Mission Control Center Status Report #22

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STS-127 MCC Status Report #22

After a day of rest, the 13 astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station will shift back into high gear for robotic operations and spacewalk preparations.

The crew’s Sunday wake-up music was composer George Frederic Handel’s “Dixit Dominus.” The excerpt was uplinked for Canadian Space Agency astronaut Julie Payette at 3:03 a.m. CDT.

Overnight, flight controllers continued to manually operate the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly (CDRA), which shares responsibility for revitalizing the station’s atmosphere with a similar Russian system. They’re keeping the atmosphere at normal levels, but are refining the remote-control procedures.

The U.S. CDRA has two “beds” that alternately collect or expel the gas byproduct of human breathing from the station. The primary heater tripped a circuit breaker Saturday afternoon, and since then the ground team has been manually operating the backup heater. Engineers are continuing to analyze data on the primary heater. A second CDRA will be delivered to the station on STS-128 as part of the Air Revitalization System rack.

Endeavour Commander Mark Polansky, Pilot Mark Hurley and Payette, along with Expedition 20 Flight Engineer Tim Kopra, will return a Japanese payload carrier to the shuttle’s cargo bay today using the shuttle and station robotic arms.

Spacewalkers Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn, meanwhile, will ready their spacesuits and tools, and check procedures for Monday’s fifth and final STS-127 spacewalk. The six new batteries installed on the Port 6 truss during the past two spacewalks accepted their initial charge and have been integrated into the station’s power grid.

The station crew is scheduled to begin its sleep period at 6:03 p.m., followed 30 minutes later by the shuttle crew.


STS-127 Mission Control Center Status Report #21

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STS-127 MCC Status Report #21

The crews of space shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station had a day off to rest in preparation of robotics operations to berth the Japanese experiment carrier in the shuttle’s payload bay Sunday and the fifth and final planned spacewalk of the mission on Monday.

Endeavour Commander Mark Polansky, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Chris Cassidy, Julie Payette, Tom Marshburn and Dave Wolf took some time out of their time off, however, to answer reporters’ questions from WISH-TV in Indianapolis, CBS News and WREG-TV in Memphis, Tenn.

Expedition 20 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineers Mike Barratt, Tim Kopra, Roman Romanenko, Bob Thirsk and Frank De Winne have a standard weekend schedule that includes exercise, routine station housekeeping and time off.

The 13-member combined crew of space shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station will downlink a “crew choice” presentation at 4:03 p.m. CDT titled “The Partnership of the International Space Station.” NASA Television will air it live.

Spacewalkers Cassidy and Marshburn completed the final four battery swaps for the station’s Port 6 truss segment Friday, and those batteries are holding power. Later in the day, the new batteries will be integrated into the station’s power grid.

The station crew is scheduled to begin its sleep period at 6:33 p.m., followed 30 minutes later by the shuttle crew. The shuttle and station crews are scheduled to be awakened at 3:03 a.m. Sunday.


STS-127 Mission Control Center Status Report #20

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STS-127 MCC Status Report #20

The combined crew of space shuttle Endeavour and the International Space Station will enjoy a day off to rest up after a challenging first half of the STS-127 assembly mission.

The song “In Your Eyes,” by Peter Gabriel, was played as a wake-up call for the crew at 4:46 a.m. CDT. It was selected for Tom Marshburn, who completed his second spacewalk on Friday with Chris Cassidy.

The spacewalkers completed the final four battery swaps for the Port 6 Truss structure, and those batteries are now being charged. Later in the day, the new batteries are expected to be integrated into the station’s power grid.

Commander Mark Polansky, Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialists Chris Cassidy, Julie Payette, Tom Marshburn and Dave Wolf will answer reporters’ questions in an interview set for 7:03 a.m.

Expedition 20 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineers Mike Barratt, Tim Kopra, Roman Romanenko, Bob Thirsk and Frank De Winne will have a standard weekend schedule that includes time off and routine station housekeeping.

The crew is scheduled to begin its sleep period about 7 p.m.


STS-127 Mission Control Center Status Report #18

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STS-127 Mission Control Center Status Report #18

STS-127 Mission Specialists Chris Cassidy and Tom Marshburn will tackle a challenging 7 ½-hour spacewalk today to finish swapping out batteries for the International Space Station’s oldest set of solar arrays. The joint crew of Endeavour and the station was awakened at 4:03 a.m. CDT by Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” offered up for lead spacewalker Dave Wolf.

Endeavour’s spacewalkers are scheduled to float out the Quest airlock hatch at 8:58 a.m. Their outing will be devoted entirely to finishing the work started on the third spacewalk of the mission – removing old batteries from the Port 6 truss structure and transferring new batteries from the Integrated Cargo Carrier on the end of the station’s robotic arm to the empty sockets on the truss.

Pilot Doug Hurley and Mission Specialist Julie Payette will position Canadarm2 near the truss for the spacewalk and, once all of the battery swaps are complete, maneuver the carrier back into Endeavour’s cargo bay. That maneuver will require them to hand off the carrier to the shuttle’s arm for re-berthing by Hurley and Commander Mark Polansky.

The Progress 34 cargo ship launched on time today from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 5:56:56 a.m. (4:56:56 p.m. Baikonur time) to begin its five-day journey to the International Space Station. Less than 9 minutes later, the unpiloted cargo ship reached orbit and deployed its solar arrays and navigational antennas. Two rendezvous burns of the Progress engines are scheduled today and another burn is planned for tomorrow to fine-tune the Progress’ path to the station.

At the time of launch, the shuttle/station complex and its 13 crew members were flying 218 statute miles over Sapporo, Japan.

Carrying 2 ½ tons of food, fuel and supplies for the station crew, the Progress is scheduled to dock to the aft port of the Zvezda service module at 6:16 a.m. Wednesday, July 29, one day after Endeavour undocks from the outpost.

Expedition 20 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineers Mike Barratt, Tim Kopra, Roman Romanenko, Bob Thirsk and Frank De Winne will continue to maintain station systems and work with onboard experiments.

The station crew is scheduled to begin its sleep period about 7 p.m., and the shuttle crew at 7:30 p.m.


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