Ready For Liftoff
NASA prepares to launch a new shuttle, putting it all on the line in an attempt to stay in space
The stakes have never been higher for NASA as it counts down to a return to human space travel, with the plan to launch the shuttle Discovery by the end of this month and perhaps as early as this week. And the margin for error has never been smaller. What if, despite safety upgrades, another shuttle is lost?
"Game over," says space shuttle manager Bill Parsons. "That's it. Game over."
This will be the 114th shuttle flight but only the first since February 2003, when space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in a shower of fiery debris over Texas. Not only are lives on the line this time but so is the audacious space-exploration vision that President Bush handed to NASA early last year, with orders to get serious about sending Americans back to the moon and on to Mars. In the hot seat: new NASA boss Michael Griffin, just months into the job.
The game plan is roughly this:
By 2010 the three remaining shuttles, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour, finish turning the space station, currently home to two crew members at a time, into a working laboratory for half a dozen people or more. Then the shuttles, NASA's premier launchers since 1981, go to museums.
Aboard the station, the United States abandons original intents to use it for wide-ranging science to focus entirely on practical research on keeping people healthy during long space voyages. All other scientific work at the station will be up to international partners, chiefly from Russia, Europe, and Japan.
After the shuttle retires, NASA's access to the station depends on the new crew exploration vehicle (CEV), if it is ready. It will be able to carry small cargo loads and half a dozen people at a time. Russian, European, Japanese, or possibly privately developed vehicles will help carry freight.
Between 2015 and 2020, astronauts use a version of the CEV to land on the moon and build a base or bases. Unlike the landing areas explored briefly by 12 astronauts during the Apollo program in the 1960s and early '70s, these bases are occupied indefinitely, with electricity produced from small nuclear reactors.
After lunar experience with long-term residence on another world, NASA's astronauts follow the paths broken by robot scouts to construct and occupy a research base on Mars. No date is sure, but some NASA experts peg it at 2030 or later.
Of course, if the shuttles don't do their part, the plan goes back to the drawing board.
Suiting up. In command of Discovery will be Eileen Collins, a retired Air Force pilot and veteran of three previous shuttle flights. This is her first trip to the international space station, but in 1995 she flew to Russia's Mir, becoming the first female shuttle pilot. In 1999, she became the first woman to command a shuttle, the Columbia, on a flight to launch a space telescope. The Discovery that Collins and her crew will take into orbit will look to the unexpert eye just like previous shuttles, but many items are altered or new. The biggest physical changes focus on preventing an accident of the sort that brought Columbia down: ice or other debris tumbling from the boosters, or the giant external fuel tank, and damaging the wings' leading edges or other fragile surfaces.
NASA's engineers have altered the way foam is attached around complex parts, including the struts that hold the tank to the orbiter, eliminating some of it entirely, and added heaters and other devices to reduce ice buildup. The leading edge of each wing now carries 88 new sensors to detect impacts and temperature changes. New cameras mounted on the shuttle will allow a full damage inspection once it reaches orbit, and the entire craft will pirouette in space as it approaches the space station so the crew there can give it another look with zoom-lens cameras.
Of the 15 changes that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended be checked off before another flight, NASA says it is sure of only 12. Still uncertain is whether debris will fall from the external tank during launch, and the agency has not been able to replace the leading edge with stronger materials nor devise a sure way, once in orbit, to repair any damage that occurs on the way up. But the agency is going ahead, after its flight team concluded that while the board's concerns are not all met, the chances of a second, similar accident are now below the risks posed by other known dangers, such as meteor damage.
Griffin, who took the top spot at NASA in April, has already put his stamp on the agency. One move is symbolic: He retired a bit of jargon that permeated the agency under predecessor Sean O'Keefe. Griffin says he will never again let the term "spiral development" pass his lips, a reference to a test-and-adapt philosophy that O'Keefe appointees imported from the Pentagon. More substantively, Griffin has promised to reconsider a controversial plan to abandon the ailing but stupendously successful and popular Hubble Space Telescope. O'Keefe had ruled it too dangerous to use a shuttle flight to boost the Hubble to a higher orbit and upgrade its instruments; Griffin says that if the shuttles have no problems in the next few flights, a Hubble servicing mission will probably get the green light.
Perhaps Griffin's biggest move was to order a speedup in developing the shuttle's replacement, the crew exploration vehicle. NASA now hopes to have it flying soon after the shuttle retires in 2010. The previous deadline of 2014 would have left a gap of several years, with NASA having no way to transport astronauts except by cadging rides from Russia. With its design in flux, two industry teams, a partnership of the Northrop Grumman and Boeing companies and another from Lockheed Martin, are vying to build the vehicle.
NASA's new boss, who previously worked in the aerospace industry and ran the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, has so far received a warm welcome in Congress. But the agency faces an excruciating managerial whipsaw. It must devote itself to flying the shuttles full throttle for five more years while simultaneously shutting down the program and transferring people and money to moon and Mars preparations. It is no minor task, as the shuttle accounts for more than a quarter of NASA's current $16 billion yearly budget and occupies more than a third of its buildings. To ease the shock, Griffin hopes to use the big external shuttle fuel tanks and solid rocket boosters in follow-up, unmanned missions, which are able to haul into orbit payloads twice as large as those the shuttles can carry.
Lost luster. At best, the station seems sure to fall short of original plans that called for an orbiting home for up to nine people. Early this year NASA said it needed 28 flights to finish the job. Griffin recently told an industry meeting that no more than 23 flights, and perhaps as few as 15, can be managed before the shuttles retire. With many modular laboratories, solar panels, and other gear still on the ground, Griffin told the House Science Committee two weeks ago he needs until the end of the summer to figure out how much of the station the United States and its partners will have after spending well over $30 billion. Long-range budget forecasts show no more U.S. space-station funding after around 2016, leaving open to speculation whether the station will be sold to Russia or others or perhaps just abandoned. Whatever its fate, the station's lost luster at NASA "is more or less an admission that the original science rationale for the station was faulty," says space policy analyst John Logsdon of George Washington University. "NASA has something more important to do now, to go to the moon and Mars."
Among the many scientists who have been skeptical of the station, the pressure to ramp up the human side of space exploration is winning NASA few friends. Many suspect NASA's astronaut wing will take money from such other science-based programs as probes to asteroids and outer planets, satellite studies of Earth from space, automated observatories to examine distant stars and galaxies, and aeronautics research. In recent years, at least judging by the number of Internet hits on NASA sites, the public has been far more interested in robotic Mars missions and probe landings on Saturn's moon Titan than in the travails of the shuttle program. Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of the journal Science , fears that the effect will be a transfer of money from universities--whose professors handle much of NASA's scientific planning and analysis--to big industrial contractors who build vehicles and hardware. "It has become apparent that NASA simply can't or won't cut out the big, human missions, and in order to 'keep 'em flying,' other, mostly robotic, projects are being scuttled," Kennedy recently editorialized.
Griffin assured Congress two weeks ago that manned spaceflights will not poach on the budgets of NASA's science program. He justifies the Americans-on-Mars goal in more historic and political terms. America, he said, cannot be a great nation without mastery of both human and robotic spaceflight. Since the last shuttle flight, China has put its first astronaut in orbit, and Russia has continued flying people regularly. That America has gone so long with no launch of its own is "unacceptable," he said. "Space will be explored and exploited by humans," he added. "The question is, which humans, from where, and what language will they speak? It is my goal that Americans will be always among them."
To reduce the risks of flying the shuttle, NASA has changed and added hardware and improved communication, decision making, and launch safety.
New and modified cameras will provide a much better view of damage from debris or other causes during ascent. Cameras on the underbelly of the orbiter will help monitor external tank separation.
Polyurethane-like foam, averaging an inch thick, prevents ice formation on the external tank.
Explosive bolts separate the SRBs from the external tank. Redesigned bolt catchers will help insure that no bolts fall loose.
Bipod ramp heaters
The fitting that connects the external tank to the orbiter now uses heaters instead of foam to prevent ice buildup.
Nose cap and chin panel
Flight experience has shown that debris could damage the RCC heat shielding here. The chin panel was modified.
Wing sensors on leading-edge panels
New sensors will detect damage to the shuttle's wings. Data from the sensors are transmitted to the crew and then to Earth. Each wing has 22 temperature sensors and 66 accelerometers to spot debris impacts.
Rudder speed brake
Gears subject to corrosion were refurbished and replaced.
External tank (ET)
ET observation camera
Forward skirt camera
Nose cap chin panel
Bipod ramp heaters
Solid Rocket Booster (SRB)
Crew handheld camera
Upgraded reinforced carbon carbon (RCC)
All Eyes on Liftoff
Launches will be photographed and videotaped by 107 ground and aircraft-based cameras.
2 High-speed digital video
3 70 mm
19 High definition (HDTV)
20 National Television Standards Committee (NTSC)
Two aircraft will provide ascent and re-entry imagery.
There are 22 16mm cameras on the mobile launch platform and eight on the launch tower
Mobile launch platform
Extending the Reach
A new 50-foot boom will enable the crew to inspect the orbiter in flight.
Equipped with a camera and laser, the boom attaches to the end of the existing robotic arm. It will allow the crew to examine all critical areas of the shuttle--wing leading edge, belly, and nose cap--checking for damage to the shuttle's protective heat tiles and RCC shields.
The arm has movable joints: a shoulder, elbow, and wrist.
Boom with laser and camera
Graphic by Rod Little and Rob Cady-- USN&WR
Compiled by Philippe Moulier, Kevin Harris, Rod Little, and Charles W. Petit-- USN&WR
This story appears in the July 18, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.