Saturday, November 15, 2008

808p 11/14 Update: Shuttle Endeavour roars into space

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CBS NEWS Coverage of STS-126

CBS NEWS STS-126 STATUS REPORT: 13
Posted: 8:08 PM, 11/14/08

By William Harwood
CBS News Space Analyst

Changes and additions:

   SR-10 (11/14/08): Shuttle fueling begins; updated launch time
   SR-11 (11/14/08): Shuttle fueling complete
   SR-12 (11/14/08): Crew on board; weather appears favorable
   SR-13 (11/14/08): Shuttle Endeavour roars into orbit

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8:08 PM, 11/14/08, Update: Shuttle Endeavour thunders into orbit

The space shuttle Endeavour, carrying urine recycling gear, a new toilet, a galley and private crew quarters needed for a space station "home improvement" makeover, flashed to life and thundered into space today, lighting up the night sky for hundreds of miles around as it rocketed away.

With commander Chris Ferguson, pilot Eric Boe and flight engineer Stephen Bowen at the controls, the shuttle's three hydrogen-fueled engines ignited at 120-millisecond intervals, creating a billowing cloud of steam as near-transparent exhaust hit torrents of cooling water. Seven seconds later, after computers verified the engines were spooled up and running smoothly, the shuttle's two solid-fuel boosters ignited with a ground-shaking roar at 7:55:39 p.m., instantly pushing the 4.5-million-pound "stack" skyward.

Trailing 5,000-degree jets of sky-lighting flame, Endeavour majestically vaulted away, rolled about its vertical axis to put the crew in a heads-down position and accelerated downrange, burning up nearly 1.5 million pounds of propellant in the first minute of flight.

Television views from a camera mounted on the side of the shuttle's external tank showed the pad dropping away and, two minutes later, the separation of the spent boosters. Given the lighting of a night launch, there were no obvious signs of foam debris falling away from the huge tank as the ship continued to race toward space on the power of its three main engines.

Eight-and-a-half minutes after launch, Endeavour's engines shut down as planned and 10 seconds after that, latches disengaged and the shuttle separated from the nearly empty external tank. Launch was timed for roughly the moment Earth's rotation carried pad 39A into the plane of the space station's orbit, the first step in a complex rendezvous. At liftoff, the lab complex was passing 225 miles over the Pacific Ocean southeast of New Zealand.

Over the next two days, Ferguson and Boe will fire Endeavour's maneuvering rockets in a carefully choreographed sequence to fine-tune the shuttle's approach to the station, setting up a docking around 5:13 p.m. Sunday.

Joining Ferguson, Boe and Bowen aboard Endeavour were space station flight engineer Sandra Magnus, Donald Pettit, Robert "Shane" Kimbrough and Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper. Ferguson, station-veteran Pettit, Magnus and Stefanyshyn-Piper each have one previous flight to their credit while the rest are shuttle rookies.

"OK, Fergie, the vehicle's in good shape, the weather's beautiful and so on behalf of the entire shuttle launch team, good luck, Godspeed, and have a happy Thanksgiving on orbit," Launch Director Mike Leinbach radioed the crew a few minutes before launch.

"Mike, it's our turn to take home improvement to a new level after 10 years of international space station construction," Ferguson replied. "Endeavour's ready to go."

The primary goal of the 124th shuttle mission is delivery and installation of a new toilet and complex water processing gear designed to convert urine into ultra-pure water for drinking, food preparation, personal hygiene and oxygen generation.

The astronauts also plan to install a new galley and two cabin-like sleep stations that will provide privacy and radiation protection, all part of a long-range plan to boost the station's full-time crew from three to six next year. The expansion requires on-board recycling because rockets servicing the station cannot deliver enough fresh water to support six full-time astronauts.

Magnus, who will replace outgoing station flight engineer Gregory Chamitoff, said building and perfecting a closed-loop life support system is a critical first step toward eventual flights to the moon and Mars.

"When you go to the moon, when you go to Mars, you have to be able to survive more or less on your own resources," she said. "You can't build a system, build a colony, build a life style that's dependent on deliveries from afar. And so you do need to have a system like this, which allows you to be self-sufficient. This is a first step towards that."

But in the near term, she said, the focus is getting the station's system up and running. The fact that the goal is to convert urine to drinking water is purely secondary.

"Yeah, that's part of what we have to adapt to in our new lifestyle," she said. "This is water, OK, yeah, it used to be urine, forget about that part. it's water, it's important, it'll be clean and that's fine. Yeah, there is a certain amount of, I guess you'd call it a yuck factor to it. On top of that, of course, is the fact that (bathroom) ops in space are intensely interesting to everybody on the planet, it's the most popular topic. So there's a lot of interest in this."

In a later interview, she said interest in the water recycling gear is "funny, too, because our planet itself is a closed life support system. And you ARE re-drinking your urine every day, you are re-drinking water that's been recycled, reclaimed and cleansed. But the system is so large and the process, the time cycle for the system, is so long, that people don't realize it. So we're sort of distilling, if you will, the process down into a couple of days or a week that we experience here on the planet naturally. People don't think about it, so the yuck factor is that much more apparent."

Endeavour's launching came five-and-a-half months after the most recent station assembly mission. NASA worked through the summer and early fall preparing to launch the shuttle Atlantis in mid-October on a mission to service and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. Endeavour was processed in parallel to serve as an emergency rescue vehicle for the Hubble crew in case of problems with Atlantis that might prevent a safe re-entry.

But Hubble Servicing Mission No. 4 was put on hold when an electronic component aboard the observatory failed Sept. 27. Testing a spare unit on the ground and preparing it for flight is expected to delay the Hubble flight to May at the earliest. After assessing a variety of options, NASA managers opted to press ahead with the next two station flights as planned - Endeavour this month and Discovery in February.

Unlike recent station missions that added modules, solar arrays or truss segments to the station, Endeavour's flight is devoted to delivering some 14,400 pounds of equipment and supplies inside a logistics module that will be temporarily attached to the station's central Unity module. The shuttle also will deliver a spare rotary connector that lets huge folding radiators turn to efficiently dissipate heat and bring a depleted coolant system pressurization tank back to Earth.

NASA managers are expected to extend the docked phase of Endeavour's mission by one day to give the combined crews more time to complete the water system installation and activation. In that case, the shuttle crew would undock the day after Thanksgiving and land back at the Kennedy Space Center the afternoon of Nov. 30.

While work is going on inside the station's Destiny laboratory module to install two water recycling system racks, the toilet and the galley, Stefanyshyn-Piper, Bowen and Kimbrough plan to stage four spacewalks to mount the rotary coupler on the station's exterior, to continue outfitting the recently added Japanese Kibo module and to service the lab's degraded right-side solar alpha rotary joint, or SARJ.

The station is equipped with two massive SARJ joints designed to rotate outboard solar arrays like giant paddle wheels, keeping them face-on to the sun as the lab orbits the Earth. The left-side SARJ is operating normally, but the 10-foot-wide drive gear on the right side has suffered serious erosion and degradation on at least one of its three bearing surfaces, subjecting the mechanism to high vibration and generating extensive metallic debris.

To avoid excessive stress and fatigue that might eventually lead to failure, the joint is no longer allowed to "auto-track" the sun and is only repositioned occasionally to improve electrical output.

Based on analysis of collected debris and a trundle bearing removed earlier, engineers believe the problem was caused by a lubrication failure. While the damage is too extensive to fully repair, engineers believe a thorough cleaning, lubrication and replacement of 11 bearings will reduce friction to the point where the joint can be used in a manual mode to improve electrical generation.

"Today, we know we have enough power to do everything we need to do on orbit and protect the payloads with continuous power," said Mike Suffredini, the space station program manager. "But we do know there are periods when we won't be able to do much additional research during those times. And that's where, if we clean it up and it looks really good and the vibrations are low, that will give us that advantage, to be able to auto track sometimes when you need the additional power to keep doing utilization."

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Quick-Launch Web Links:

CBS News STS-126 Status Reports:
http://www.cbsnews.com/network/news/space/current.html

CBS News STS-126 Quick-Look Page:
http://www.cbsnews.com/network/news/space/currentglance.html

NASA ISS Expeditions Page:
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/index.html

NASA Shuttle Web: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/index.html
NASA Station Web: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/station/index.html
Spaceflight Now: http://spaceflightnow.com/index.html
GoogleSatTrack: http://www.lizard-tail.com/isana/tracking/

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