Cast of thousands readies space shuttle for launch


Maintenance: Turning around the space vehicle between missions is a complex operation requiring four months and 15,000 people.

January 14, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The 15-year-old space shuttle Atlantis last returned from space Sept. 19, and its next scheduled flight is set to begin just after 2 a.m. Friday.

In the intervening 17 weeks, ground crews have been busy.

After all, you don't just jack a shuttle up and change the oil between flights. The regular maintenance work requires the labor of more than 15,000 people at the Kennedy Space Center, hundreds of them working hands-on with the shuttle. The typical elapsed processing time, landing to launch, is 112 days.

On the next flight, Atlantis' crew of five will deliver a major component to the International Space Station - the 28-foot-long Destiny laboratory. Three of the crew members are Baltimore natives: Marsha Ivins (born here in 1951) will be indoors, maneuvering the lab with the shuttle's remote manipulator arm. Astronauts Robert Curbeam, (age 38, Woodlawn High '80) and Tom Jones (age 45, Kenwood High '73) will be outside on their first spacewalks, guiding the lab into position and connecting it to the space station.

But first there's the "to do" list that began the moment Atlantis landed in September:

On the runway, meet shuttle with a convoy of 40 safety and utility vehicles. Astronauts: make communications checks, throw switches to shut down and "safe" all flight systems. Ground crew: pump chilled air through all compartments, cooling components and removing potentially hazardous gases.

Within an hour of landing, offload crew and critical experiments. Conduct preliminary inspection for evidence of broken thermal tiles, other damage.

Three hours after landing, tow shuttle two miles from the Space Center's landing strip to one of three bays in the 197-foot-long, 95-foot-high Orbiter Processing Facility. Remove all crew equipment, including food, medical supplies, radiation counters, clothing, bedding and remaining mid-deck experiments.

Jack the 242,000-pound shuttle off the floor and connect it to ground-based electrical power and computer monitoring lines. Move work platforms into position. Attach purge, vent and drain lines to shuttle systems.

Don protective suits. Disarm shuttle "ordnance" - explosive devices used in emergencies to deploy landing gear or to jettison the remote manipulator arm and Ku-band antenna. Drain dangerous fuels and oxidizers from maneuvering thrusters and remove thrusters for servicing if needed. Purge hydrogen and oxygen from the shuttle's fuel cells - devices that combine the two gases to make electricity and drinking water.

Open doors of payload bay. Weightless in space, on the ground the 2,500-pound doors must be supported. Remove payloads, their supporting structures and related tools and equipment. Remove or install remote manipulator arm, as needed, for the next flight.

Drain or remove drinking water and human waste from crew systems. Change the oil, water and filters in the three auxiliary power systems that supply hydraulic power to the shuttle's flight surfaces - elevons, rudder and speed brakes.

Remove each of three 7,000-pound main engines and send them out for overhauls. Replace with refurbished engines. Remove and replace parts and systems as required by timed maintenance schedule, as well as any that failed or malfunctioned in flight.

Thoroughly inspect each of the 27,446 thermal tiles and blankets for signs of damage. (The tiles shed heat to protect the shuttle from burning up during re-entry.) Inspect landing gear and replace tires. Clean and polish windows, and check for damage from debris and micrometeors. Replace as needed.

Invite next crew for inspection, briefings by technicians and engineers, and a cookout.

Install explosive ordnance for the next flight. Install any of the next flight's payload, experiments and crew equipment that can be loaded while shuttle is horizontal. Close and latch payload bay doors.

Weigh orbiter and identify its center of gravity. Add ballast to balance as needed. Enter weight data into computers for flight control programming, fueling.

Remove all support and access equipment.

During shuttle processing, other NASA teams and contractors work to prepare the huge external fuel tank and solid-fuel boosters. Here's their checklist:

Recover spent solid-fuel boosters that were parachuted into the Atlantic by previous flight. Recycle salvageable parts at the Space Center. Send rocket body to Thiokol Propulsion plant in Utah. Refuel rocket and ship in segments by rail back to Cape Canaveral.

At the Rotation, Processing and Surge Facility, test each booster's steering mechanism. Reassemble each 1.2 million-pound booster and move both to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Build a new, 154-foot-long external fuel tank at Lockheed Martin plant in New Orleans. Float the 66,000-pound tank by barge to Cape Canaveral. Wheel it from the barge landing to Vehicle Assembly Building. Inspect for damage, perform pressure test and hoist it into vertical position for mating with boosters.

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