Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Endeavour's last blast

It was an awesome launch for Endeavour in the end - even viewed from 4000 miles away on the internet courtesy of NASA TV rather than from the thundering proximity of Kennedy Space Center (KSC) press site close to the famous countdown clock.

Endeavour's breakfast-time launch yesterday thrilled 45,000 spectators on the grounds of KSC and a crowd of many thousands - though likely less than the 500,000 who turned up in April - on Florida’s beaches and causeways and the shores of the Banana and Indian rivers.

It's a scene that will occur only one more time in the history of the Space Shuttle programme, when Atlantis launches in mid-July on the 135th and final, final flight.

Though Endeavour had a smooth countdown this time around, all was not quite perfect. A cloud deck - that did not threaten launch the launch itself - obscured the view of spectators closer to KSC once the Shuttle was about 22 seconds into flight.

"You can see that we don't have any flight rules or launch commit criteria that dictate how long you can see the launch before it goes out of sight," Mike Moses, NASA's Shuttle Program Launch Integration manager, joked to reporters in the post-launch press conference.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Countdown to layoffs

Kennedy Space Center's shrinking Space Shuttle workforce is looming larger in the programme's final days.

Repairs like those Endeavour needed after its 29 April launch postponement pose a greater challenge with fewer workers available and managers careful not to overtax them.

And launch of the final Space Shuttle mission has slipped into July, mainly because remaining crews can't perform as many major operations simultaneously or without interruption.

Atlantis' move to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to be joined with an external tank and boosters, for example, has had to wait because teams are tied up with Endeavour's preparations for its 8:56 am (1356 BST) launch on Monday.

The picture below shows Atlantis in NASA’s Orbiter Processing Facility-1 as workers guide a transporter system into place for its move, or rollover, to the nearby VAB.

"We're being affected by our workforce reductions," said Mike Moses, NASA's Shuttle launch integration manager at a press briefing yesterday. "In the past, we would have had extra teams to be able to help with that."

Even as the second countdown began on Friday to Endeavour's last ever launch, planning for the biggest NASA workforce reduction yet marched forward.

Lead Shuttle contractor United Space Alliance this week sent 60-day notices of potential layoffs to some 1,900 local employees.

Most of the layoffs are expected to take effect on 22 July, though the exact timing depends on when Atlantis launches on the 135th and final mission of the three-decade Shuttle programme.

"It's coming, and everybody knows it's coming," said Moses. "The concept of, we're here until Atlantis flies is still what the team knows is the true milestone."

Kennedy's total contractor workforce, including non-Shuttle workers, now numbers 8,900 - down from about 13,000 two years ago.

Elsewhere across the US, the Shuttle programme has dropped from 14,000 contractors in late 2006 to about 5,500 now, a 60 percent decline.

NASA and its contractors have closely monitored the down-sizing to ensure critical skills were retained so that the remaining missions could be flown safely.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

See you later

I’ll be heading back to England on a flight leaving at teatime this evening, leaving behind some hot sunshine, blues skies and cheap (for us Brits) car fuel.

By now there should have been just one more Space Shuttle blastoff to come. But Endeavour, now cocooned is the grey metalwork of launch pad 39A, was in no mood to go for its final flight time at the first attempt.

Yesterday, the Load Control Assembly-2 (LCA-2), which feeds power to the fuel line heaters, was removed from inside Endeavour's aft section (NASA picture below).

It is believed to have caused the heaters for Endeavour's auxiliary power unit-1 (APU-1) to fail on 29 April during the first launch attempt. The assembly is now being replaced and systems will be retested before the launch is rescheduled.

When it eventually gets off the ground, the STS-134 mission will deliver the Express Logistics Carrier-3, Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2 (AMS), a high-pressure gas tank and additional spare parts for the Dextre robotic helper to the International Space Station.

So, this is the Lighthouse Keeper signing off from Cape Canaveral for now, as I have to go pack my bags. Hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into the world of NASA and the Space Shuttle - and thank you for joining me.

The era of one of the most remarkable flying machines ever built is almost ended. But, for the moment at least, Endeavour lives to fly another day.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Shore view

It's 4.30 pm. The beach is not nearly so packed this afternoon, though the day is equally as nice as yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

From my vantage point on the damp sand from the retreated tide, I can see in the distance Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the famous black and white Canaveral lighthouse.

To the left of the lighthouse is a giant monolith, a dark block that reaches high into the sky even from this great distance.

It houses a Delta IV Heavy rocket, currently number one on the US size and power manifesto. Can’t tell whether the doors are open from this distance but inside I know there is rocket being prepared for launch later this year.

If you squint against the blue horizon you can just make out the nearby launch pad lightening-conductor towers with their distinctive cigarette-style tops.

Whilst technicians continue to work the changes on Endeavour’s pad (which you can’t see in a direct line-of-sight from the beach), NASA has confirmed it will not be considering a launch before 11 May.

Earlier this afternoon I took off to nearby Jetty Park, located at the sea entrance to Port Canaveral to see about some wildlife spotting.

The pier-cum-breakwater juts out into the Atlantic for a couple of hundred metres or so on the northern-most edge of this east coast beach.

A couple of pelicans were preening themselves on the rocks and the busy little sand birds, as I call them, were darting around searching for insects.

I sighted several sea turtles working the shallow rocky ledges, diving deeper and then popping their bald round heads above the water for a breath of air before heading down again. These apart, my foray wasn’t so successful - no dolphins, no manatee.

I’ve added a few of my ‘wildlife’ snaps to the end of this piece. All were taken at Jetty Park, except the Osprey with the fish in its claws, which I shot from near Cape Canaveral locks.


Monday, 2 May 2011

Stuck in a moment

It’s been all quiet on the space front today as NASA engineers work to remove and replace the faulty electrical distribution box before starting an exhaustive round of tests over at least 48 hours.

I had lunch at a Cuban restaurant called Roberto’s - a few miles south of Cocoa Beach - with Steve Young, who also had a stint working on Spaceflight magazine in the 1990s.

He bought Astronomy Now magazine on leaving Spaceflight and also launched the spaceflightnow.com website.

Space Shuttle missions have been his great passion and Steve’s own ‘mission control’ is an office building (pictured below) at KSC, over-looking the countdown clock and launch pads.

Like for many Shuttle workers, things will probably have to change for the spaceflightnow.com team after the final Shuttle mission is concluded this summer.

Which brings me to when the launch of Endeavour on the penultimate Space Shuttle flight might actually taken place.

A launch this coming Sunday, which also happens to be Mother’s Day in America, has already been ruled out as the repair work pushes the crew's next launch attempt to at least Tuesday, 10 May. An official launch date will probably not be announced until Friday, after repairs have been given the all-clear.

If liftoff doesn't occur next week things become decidedly more complex to organise at the Space Station - and there is even talk of the flight slipping right through to the end of June, the next most favourable launch window.

During last Friday’s countdown, the electrical fault could have easily gone either way. But it took the wrong path - and, to borrow the title from the U2 album ‘All that you can’t leave behind’, Endeavour became ‘Stuck in a moment you can’t get out of’.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Setting sail

NASA finally confirmed mid-afternoon what everyone had been expecting - that the launch of Endeavour would be put back to at least next Sunday and perhaps May 10 so a faulty electronic switch box that routes power to critical systems can be replaced.

The hopes of a new launch attempt early in the week evaporated after it became clear that the switch box would have to be replaced, and the work and extensive testing could not be been completed in time to launch prior to a planned Atlas rocket flight on Friday.

Mike Moses, chairman of the launch management team, stressed that 8 May was only a working target at this stage, hinting that if the box changeover and testing was not straightforward the delay could be longer.

He said they hoped to announce a new target launch date by the middle of the week.

An initial launch attempt was scrapped on Friday after heaters on one of the Shuttle's Auxiliary Power Units failed. The problem was traced to the switch box, which will be replaced early this week. The testing of a spare switch box is expected to take an additional two days.

Meanwhile, at nearby Port Canaveral on Sunday afternoon, a procession of three giant cruise ships embarked on their own voyages of discovery.

This picture shows the Freedom of the Seas with 5000 passengers and 1000 crew making its way out into the Atlantic.

Two ships that shouldn’t have been in dock today - or at least on their way back in to port - were NASA’s booster recovery vessels, Liberty Star and Freedom Star.

Had Endeavour launched as originally planned on Friday, the two ships would normally have been arriving back during the day with the recovered solid rocket boosters in tow.

Safety first

Okay, well the news is not good from KSC this morning. The media briefing is off until 2 pm this afternoon but the launch of Endeavour is definitely off for a few days at the very least.

Rather than just change a thermostat it looks as though they need to change the whole electrical box of tricks - which has to be followed by 48 hours of testing.

There is a chance the launch could switch to Thursday or Friday if the negotiations depending on how the Atlas launch is progressing and whether that could be changed. Otherwise it is most likely to go until early next week. A new launch date will be set tomorrow.

All gutted here - but that’s the way of these things. Safety of the Shuttle and its crew is paramount, and with only two Space Shuttle launches left no one wants to take any chances.

Status briefing

Rumours and stories are flying about early this Sunday morning by text, email and twitter about whether Endeavour could launch this week.

The problem is they only have until Wednesday before the launch attempt has to stand down so that an Atlas rocket can be prepared for launch on Friday.

Rules dictate that only one launch vehicle can be fuelled and in the final stages of preparation at any one time. The next launch window for Endeavour opens on 8 May.

NASA management meetings to work out a plan are taking place as I write this and should be finalised soon. Then there will be a news briefing at the press centre at 1030 am (which should be aired live on NASA TV at 3.30 pm BST).

At the moment it seems the weather forecast is ‘red’ for Monday as well, with strong crosswinds and rain showers. It gets better if there is to be an attempt on Tuesday.

The electrical problem is likely either an open circuit in a hydraulic system fuel line heater thermostat or trouble inside an avionics box in the Shuttle's aft engine compartment.

Initial thermostat tests were consistent with a problem in the avionics box but engineers have not ruled out a connector problem or some other wiring issue elsewhere in the system.

If the problem can be isolated to an open circuit in a suspect thermostat, it is possible to install a replacement in time to support a second launch attempt this week.