Miles O'Brien: Launch of space shuttle Atlantis
After a delay of three weeks caused by wiring problems, the space shuttle Atlantis set off for the international space station with a twilight launch. Its payload is considered to be the "crown jewel" of the space station: the science lab "Destiny," the most expensive module of the space station.
Miles O'Brien is a weekend news anchor for CNN/U.S. and also serves as the space correspondent for CNN News Group. An instrument-rated pilot with several hundred hours of flight time in a dozen types of aircraft, O'Brien covers all aspects of manned spaceflight, as well as unmanned scientific missions.
Miles O'Brien: Good evening to all! Welcome to the Kennedy Space Center, where the weather is perfect, and so far, so has been the countdown for the Space Shuttle Atlantis, Unless something drastic happens, we should see a launch here inside 40 minutes. 37 minutes from now, to be precise! As always, CNN will carry this launch, as it has covered the 101 launches that preceded it. We want you to know we are committed to covering all of the space shuttle launches live, unlike our competitors.
Question from chat room: What is the payload this time around?
Miles O'Brien: Inside the space shuttle Atlantis is a $1.4 billion scientific laboratory which will serve as the scientific heart and soul, the nervous system, for the budding international space station. It will provide a place for experiments, but also has the key command and control capability, which will keep the station in orbit for its 15-year life span. Once it is up and running, NASA hopes it will be sometime in the course of this mission, the control of the station shifts from the Mission Control in Moscow to Houston. So, this is a big moment for the space station partnership, sort of a "shifting of powers."
Question from the chat room: Do the astronauts have to eat that icky Russian food? I mean come on, borscht in a tube?
Miles O'Brien: It's funny, but if you were to ask astronaut Norm Thagard about it, he might groan. He was the first NASA astronaut to fly to MIR, and developed a serious aversion to the canned perch, which the cosmonauts savored. He is a small, compact individual, and he lost about 20 percent of his body mass during that mission. But these days, there is a nice mix of Russian and good old-fashioned shuttle food on the international space station. Hey, our guest has just arrived. Let's welcome Michael Lopez-Alegria.
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Hello!
CNN Moderator: Is "Destiny" a stand-alone lab, or will it be connected to another lab at the space station?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: It is stand-alone. It has several racks in it. When I say rack, I mean an interchangeable piece of equipment, changed for different types of experiments. It has the infrastructure, the electricity, the data and thermal conditioning for a variety of experiment modules. It does not rely on any other laboratories to be connected to it.
Miles O'Brien: It's worth pointing out that it's the first of six modules that will comprise this sprawling outpost!
Question from chat room: What will be the main purpose of this laboratory - what benefits to people down here?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: The main purpose of the lab is to conduct scientific experiments so that we can learn about material science, the effects of microgravity on materials, and on human physiology. These are interesting things for us to learn so that we can apply them to problems like medical problems on earth, as well as future space life, i.e., a trip to the moon, but more importantly, a trip to Mars.
Question from chat room: I had a look in the craft last night with the IPIX and noticed that there is a Japanese module and a Russian module. Does this mean that the Japanese and Russians will deploy their own astronauts and cosmonauts for research, or are all the scientists from the U.S?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: There are, in fact, two Russian modules up there already. The Japanese module won't go up until about 2004; there are two Russians aboard the space station. Until the first non-Russian, non-American module is launched, which is scheduled for 2004, the three-person space station crews will consist of either one Russian and two Americans, or two Russians and one American.
Question from chat room: While I totally appreciate CNN's coverage, why are we viewers unable to listen to all but the last few seconds of the countdown? Otherwise, keep up the good work, Miles!
Miles O'Brien: I appreciate the compliment. All I can say is that I feel your pain! I don't have the benefit of working for an all-space network. We have to compete with crazy people brandishing weapons outside the White House and elections in other countries. These activities put pressures on producers. So, we don't get to show as much of the launches as I'd like. But I've been experimenting with streaming more extensive coverage to the web. As you know, the bandwidth isn't quite there yet. Have patience! We hope to have the streaming back online for the next launch. It's not simple to do just yet.
Question from chat room: Is the U.S sending scientists with this module, or is it a launch that will be automated or controlled from earth?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: The crew launching with the module could be considered construction workers. They'll install the module, make sure it's wired correctly and make sure that everything working. The crews conducting the experiments are called increment crews, and they are up there now. There will always be an increment crew aboard the space station. While we're in the construction phase, the increment crews will mostly be career astronauts. As we become more operational, you'll probably see more astronauts with a science background to conduct experiments while others will perform upkeep.
CNN Moderator: How many people can comfortably fit into the lab?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: A bunch. It's about as big as a school bus, so a lot of people can fit.
Question from chat room: Is the space station being configured to serve as a 'launch pad' for manned flights beyond the earth - moon system?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: That's an excellent question. As of today, that's not part of the established plan, but there's a lot of talk about that. We think it could be a good platform to launch assembly and other launches to the moon and to Mars.
CNN Moderator: Miles, where are we in the launch countdown?
Miles O'Brien: Right now, the countdown clock is at T-minus nine minutes and holding. We're at the tail end of a 45 minute hold, during which time the NASA test director polled all of the individual people involved in the various systems to see if it was go or no-go. A problem has been discovered in a box called a MDM, a multiplexor and D- multiplexor. That's a box that sends information from the shuttle's computers to various control systems.
Mike Lopez-Alegria: It's instrumentation; it gives insight to people on the ground about the health of the space shuttle. They named it the exact card, and I don't know the exact parameters. There are many of these boxes that transmit health data to the people on the ground as well as to the crew. Perhaps some of the data aren't visible because of this.
Miles O'Brien: Does this sound like a showstopper?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Depends on the parameters.
Question from chat room: Are there any experiments planned that look at the effect that isolation has on the astronauts?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: I think you could say that the very existence of the crews up there for three to six months at a time is such an experiment. I'm speaking of psychological effects. Physiologically, there will be many experiments; psychologically, we're learning a lot.
Miles O'Brien: Mike, since not long ago you were working outside the station, can you just share with our chat what it's like to work outside this huge structure?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: I was widely misquoted as saying "it was unfrigging believable"... However, it wasn't really me that said that! But I don't disagree with those sentiments. In almost every respect, I thought it to be easier than the underwater simulations we do in the neutral buoyancy laboratory. What's most unbelievable is the view -- it's just spectacular. Imagine the difference between a picture of the Grand Canyon and going to the edge of the canyon and looking over. That's what it's like: seeing pictures or being inside, then doing a space walk. It's like floating inside the Grand Canyon.
Miles O'Brien: I'd say Mike has officially "waxed poetic" now!
CNN Moderator: Miles, our audience would like an update on the countdown.
Miles O'Brien: Even as we speak, they are polling everyone for a go/no-go status. It appears they've resolved the problem of the suspect box. That means that the clock should begin with nine minutes in about a minute. Everyone should turn on CNN right now. Don't worry about this White House shooting -- they'll be coming to us.
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Oh, they're saying they still have the one issue.
Miles O'Brien: They have a very tight window. It's like tossing a football at a receiver: you have to launch it at the right time in order to have the shuttle meet up with the space station. If this can't be solved in short order, they'll miss their window for today. It truly is "rocket science"!
Question from chat room: Can you give me an update on the habitat module? Are they going to use the "balloon" type discussed on the NASA site a few months ago?
Miles O'Brien: It's still an open issue. The trans-hab, or the inflatable habitat, has not been approved by NASA. A lot of people think it's a good idea, but as it stands, the exact U.S. habitation module is still unclear.
Mike Lopez-Alegria: What you said is correct. Also, in order to save some money, they're considering not using a habitation module at all, but using another kind of module for habitation.
Miles O'Brien: That sounds like it would be terrible. As it stands now, there are two private staterooms, if you will, on the station, and three crewmembers. So, these souls who go up for three or four months at a time are not anticipating a "mint on the pillow" and are willing to rough it a bit.
The NASA test director, Mike Leinbach, just told the crew they will begin the countdown very shortly, and they are watching this one problem. We'll watch it at about the five- minute mark, and we're now at 8:55. If that problem persists, we'll know then.
Question from chat room: Any chance that poor weather at the emergency landing sites will cause a scrub of today's launch?
Miles O'Brien: All that has been cleared up. The weather now is good at two of three sites overseas.
Question from chat room: Will there be an astronaut on a space walk while the module is being moved into place - I understand the clearance is only 1 inch?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Yes, there will be two outside when the module is being removed from the payload bay, and attached to the Space Station. I don't think they'll be where the clearance is only one inch, though! :) Bad place to be.
CNN Moderator: How many people are currently at the international space station, and how are they holding up after a 100 days in space?
Miles O'Brien: There are three people there. The Commander is a NASA astronaut by the name of Bill Shepherd. He and his two Russian crewmates will mark 100th day in space tomorrow.
By all accounts, they are doing very well. That is not to minimize the stress they've endured on what amounts to a shake-down cruise, but this group, despite some tense moments, appears to be doing really well. With more than three months now under their belts, they're coming down the home stretch. I'm sure their spirits are good; they're certainly they're looking forward to playing with their new toy, "Destiny."
Question from chat room: Can you briefly discuss the mood or tone at mission control at this time?
Miles O'Brien: It's tense. Stand by while we see if this problem persists. There's about one minute left. We'll have to put down the phones for a minute... we'll be back in a few minutes. Tune into CNN! Not Headline News! Not someone else! :)
CNN Moderator: Miles, people from around the world want to thank you and CNN for providing coverage of this.
Miles O'Brien: It may not be as much as we want, but it's something! Wish you all could have been here with us!
Question from chat room: Does this mean that having up to seven people on the station may not happen?
Miles O'Brien: I don't think the habitation module is necessarily for seven people.
Mike Lopez-Alegria: I hope I didn't cause confusion. It was to be big enough to accommodate many people, but we're limited by the factors of powerability to return the crew to earth in the event of an emergency, such as the serious illness of a crew member or a loss of pressurization of the station. Right now, that capability is provided by the Russian Soyuz capsule, which can accommodate three people. There is a vehicle under development, which will accommodate seven people. When that vehicle is on orbit and operational, the size of the crew will increase accordingly.
Question from chat room: Why is the international space station kept in such a low orbit?
Miles O'Brien: The limitation here is the performance of the vehicles that are there. The altitude was set when they designed the station.
Update here: They're safely in space now; the main engine cut off has occurred. The shuttle went from 0 to 17,500 mph in about 8 1/2 minutes. I'd say that's pretty good acceleration.
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Wow, that was something!
Miles O'Brien: It was!
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Beautiful!
Question from chat room: Why is the international space station so noisy? What is NASA going to do for the astronauts who have to wear earplugs all the time?
Mike Lopez-Alegria: There are a lot of machines that cause noise like fans and pumps. We work to develop them within a certain audio specification. We often meet those, but sometimes we don't. The crew must compensate by using hearing protection if they have to spend a long time in the vicinity of those pieces of equipment.
Question from chat room: does anyone know where I can see the replay of the launch?
Miles O'Brien: It's difficult to predict. If you turn to Headline news, you can see it in the next three minutes. It will be part of newscasts tonight and through the morning. Beyond that, it's hard to predict.
Mike has a date with some beans. The post-launch tradition is to eat beans after a successful launch. There's a party over at the launch center. I'm not invited, but Mike is! He'll go relish those beans!
Mike Lopez-Alegria: Thanks for having me!
Miles O'Brien: Bye!
Miles O'Brien and astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria joined us from the Kennedy Space Center; CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the chat held on Wednesday, February 7, 2001.
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