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Shuttle's big countdown

Published June 8, 2007

[AP photo]
A small alligator swims in a pond near launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off tonight on a mission to the International Space Station.

CAPE CANAVERAL - The space shuttle has been called the most complex machine ever built, a spacecraft filled with sophisticated electronics, life support systems and 49 rocket engines.

But if Atlantis launches on schedule today, it will be thanks to old-fashioned elbow grease: lots of people with paintbrushes, sanding blocks and other hand tools who repaired the shuttle's damaged external fuel tank like it was a dinged-up car sitting inside a giant garage.

For months, technicians from NASA and contractors such as Lockheed Martin and the United Space Alliance have labored to fix the giant bullet-shaped orange tank that was covered with thousands of pockmarks after a freak hailstorm pounded the launch pad in February. Workers cut off insulating foam with hand tools, hand-painted on a bonding agent, sprayed on more foam, and in some cases hand-sanded it.

Glenn Lapeyronnie, a mechanical engineer in Lockheed Martin's tool design department, said it's a reminder that even spaceships sometimes need to be handcrafted.

"You can't get away from that," Lapeyronnie said Thursday, as NASA continued the countdown with Atlantis on the launch pad. "To actually see the technicians working on the tank, incredible. My hat's off to them."

Tonight's 7:38 p.m. scheduled launch comes at an important time for NASA, as it rushes to finish building the international space station and phase out the space shuttle program, while simultaneously developing a new spaceship designed to take astronauts to the moon and Mars.

NASA officials routinely express confidence that they will be able to fly about 16 more space shuttle missions to complete the space station, and one to fix the Hubble space telescope, by 2010.

But that calls for a four-flights-per-year pace that NASA hasn't maintained since before the 2003 loss of the shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated while attempting to return to Florida to land. After a prolonged period of safety inspections, redesign and corporate soul searching, NASA has now flown space shuttles successfully four times in the past 3 1/2 years.

By this time, NASA had hoped to be working on its third launch of the year. Instead, it's still on the first because of the repairs needed on Atlantis.

Space shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters predicted an 80 percent chance of good weather for the launch, which so far as been mostly free of technical glitches.

To get to this point, workers built a scaffolding around the upright external tank, the kind you see when workers are painting a building.

On the tank's rounded top, they cut away a layer of foam and painted on a red dye. Then they sanded off the dye to see if any deeper cracks or holes had gone undetected, Lapeyronnie said. After painting on the bonding agent, workers sprayed on more foam, and then shaved it down.

The insulating foam is important because it keeps ice from building up on the surface of the tank, which is 15 stories tall and holds half a million gallons of super-cold oxygen and hydrogen fuel.

The thousands of craters caused by the golf ball-size hail were a scary sight because a chunk of falling foam killed the crew of Columbia by knocking a hole in the spacecraft's wing.

As NASA's launch team continued the countdown on Thursday, other NASA officials were discussing another schedule: the timetable for returning to the moon.

The space agency is continuing with plans to develop a capsule-style spacecraft reminiscent of the Apollo missions, said Scott Horowitz, a former astronaut who is NASA's associate administrator for exploration. They would launch from the Kennedy Space Center atop a new rocket called Ares I.

The capsule, called Orion, would be designed to eventually take astronauts to the moon or Mars.

Fast Facts:

This mission

The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center today at 7:38 p.m. The crew of seven will visit the international space station to install a new truss segment, unfurl new solar arrays and fold up an old one during the 11-day mission. At least three spacewalks are scheduled. Astronaut Clayton Anderson will stay aboard the station as Sunita Williams - who holds the record for the most spacewalks (four) by a female - returns home after a six-month stay.

Timetable for the moon

NASA, with Boeing and other contractors, is developing the Orion space capsule and Ares I and Ares V rockets, which are designed to be able to take astronauts to the international space station and eventually, the moon and Mars. Here is a very rough timetable, which NASA acknowledges might change:

2009: First test launch of Ares I rocket.

2010: Space shuttle program ends.

March 2013: Unmanned test flight of Orion capsule atop an Ares I rocket.

September 2013: First flight with astronauts in an Orion capsule.

2020: Flight to the moon.

[Last modified June 8, 2007, 02:05:43]

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