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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Shuttle astronauts set for very busy mission

Discovery's last mission was in October and will be remembered because it was John Glenn's much publicized return to space

ISS: A 360° panoramic tour

International Space Station 3-D VRML
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Shuttle Discovery 3-D VRML
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Downlinks Message Board


May 13, 1999
Web posted at: 12:49 p.m. EDT (1649 GMT)


HOUSTON (CNN) -- It's been a long time since a space shuttle carried some fire into orbit, and you get the sense the folks at NASA are itching to fly. But they'll have to wait an extra week this time. NASA has pushed back next Thursday's launch to May 27th at the earliest, to give workers time to repair the external fuel tank, which was damaged this week by hail.

Discovery's crew of seven will be the first to dock with the infant International Space Station. You remember the ISS, don't you? Or perhaps you missed the stunning first shuttle mission to build the orbiting outpost. You would be forgiven, because as amazing as that mission was, it was overshadowed by John Glenn's zero-G nostalgia-fest the month before -- and then shoved off the air by an impeachment-fest in Washington.

Think of Space Transportation System mission No. 96 -- the 94th flight of a space shuttle, and the first so-called logistics mission to the station -- as a far-flung journey by an overachieving, overqualified moving crew.

They will tote (or is it float?) bale after brimming bale of equipment from a double-wide (308 cubic foot) Spacehab cargo module in the shuttle's payload into the station.

There are 5,000 pounds of gear in all. Stuff that needs to be there when the first permanent crew moves in but would put the shuttle over gross-weight limits if it was launched with the station modules.

The Russian Service Module
The Russian Service Module   

The 123-suitcase complement contains 750 items -- laptops, clothes, trash bags, CO2, scrubbing canisters, santitary and hygienic equipment, medical equipment and all kinds of spare parts. No food yet. After all, the first tenants of this penultimate penthouse aren't scheduled to move in until early 2K.

Even Space Food Sticks and Tang have shelf lives, I suppose. And who knows? That show-stopping Russian Service Module may be delayed again. (The current thinking in Moscow is it will beat a hasty retreat from the Cosmodrome in September. Unofficially, Houston is thinking November.)

Discovery Moving Lines also has a building supply subsidiary. Four-flight veteran Tammy Jernigan and Dan Barry, on his second flight, will take a step outside the linked shuttle/ISS complex on flight day four (if all goes nominally, that translates into egress shortly after midnight on Sunday, May 23). For about six hours they will attach to the outside of the station bags holding tools and parts as well as a 209-pound U.S. crane and parts of a Russian crane known as Strela (arrow). All of these items will be used by zero-G hardhats on future contruction missions.

And then there are Discovery's subcontractors. Some of the hardware on the station already needs fixing. On flight days five and six, a pair of space rookies -- Canadian Astronaut Julie Payette and Russion Cosmonaut Velery Tokarev -- will lift off the floor panels on Zarya and replace all 18 charge/discharge units designed to keep the half-dozen nickel-cadmium batteries healthy. The so-called MIRTs (it's a Russian acronymn, so don't even ask) are apparently the culprit in some voltage glitches on Zarya that flight controllers first spotted in January.

The beginnings of the International Space Station. The Russian-built Zarya (left) and U.S.-built Unity modules   

The crew will also troubleshoot -- and with some luck, fix -- the NASA communication gear attached to the U.S.-built Unity module. The system is there to give Houston a direct communication link to the station in the early stages of construction (otherwise, everything must funnel through Mission Control outside Moscow). So far it hasn't worked. Maybe it's the antenna. Or maybe it's the black boxes. Or maybe Unity doesn't feel like talking.

Some other odds and ends from the crowded timeline: Late in the 10-day mission, the crew will release a 19-inch diameter sphere coverer with aluminum mirrors. The STARSHINE (Student Atmospheric Research Satellite for Heuristic International Networking Equipment) will orbit the Earth through the end of the year. It will be visible during twilight hours from the ground -- allowing 25,000 students all around the world to learn how to track and calculate orbits.

Also: Discovery will have a Shuttle Vibration Forces (SVF) experiment attached to the sidewall. The aim is to learn more about the forces shuttle equipment endures during a mission. Vibration testing hasn't changed in 50 years -- and those shake tests may be too rigorous, forcing engineers to over-design everything (read: added cost).

Rounding out the crew is two-flight veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa (robotic arm operator and flight engineer), rookie pilot Rick Husband and the commander, Kent Rominger, flying his fourth mission and his first in the left seat.

Next week, I'll tell you about my fascinating conversations with the crew.

One final note: In last week's column, I made mistake that some of my more astute readers caught. I said the "X-33 experimental, unmanned spaceship, being built by Lockheed Martin, is designed to reach low-Earth orbit on a single stage -- that is, without sheeding booster rockets or fuel tanks." The X-33 is actually a sub-orbital demonstrator that may lead to a craft called the VentureStar that is designed to do all those marvelous things. Sorry about the goof.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.

City in Space

Downlinks archive

Space Shuttle Discovery ready for May 20 launch
May 10, 1999

NASA Human Spaceflight
Shuttle Countdown Online
Project Starshine - Student Tracked Atmospheric Research Satellite
Space Structure Vibration Experiment to Fly Aboard Space Shuttle
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