Baltimore's man in space

Woodlawn High graduate blasts off aboard shuttle tomorrow

December 06, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

Tomorrow's planned launch of the space shuttle Discovery will be watched with special interest in Baltimore as city native and 1980 Woodlawn High School graduate Robert L. Curbeam Jr. blasts off on his third voyage into space.

The nighttime liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida will mark NASA's fourth space shuttle flight since the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew in February 2003. Discovery and its crew of seven are heading for a construction mission to the International Space Station.

An astronaut for the past 12 years, Curbeam, 44, is also a Navy captain. He is one of two space veterans on this 11-day flight, a mission specialist scheduled for three spacewalks totaling 19 1/2 hours.

Space wasn't the career he'd planned when he left Woodlawn High and graduated from the Naval Academy. "I thought I'd be a design kind of guy, an engineer, basically designing and building aircraft and spacecraft for other people to use," he said in an interview on NASA's Web site.

But during test pilot school in 1991, Curbeam took a field trip to the Johnson Space Center and fell into a conversation with astronaut Kathy Thornton. "After having lunch with her, and talking to her, I decided I wanted to do what she did. So here I am," he said.

Curbeam's first space flight was aboard Discovery, in August 1997. It was a 12-day mission to deploy and retrieve an atmospheric research satellite, and to test a Japanese robotic arm for possible use aboard the International Space Station.

In Febuary 2001, he flew on the shuttle Atlantis to deliver and attach the Destiny module to the space station.

He was one of three Baltimore natives on that flight, which also carried freeze-dried Maryland crab soup and a Maryland flag. The others were Thomas D. Jones, a Kenwood High graduate, and Marsha S. Ivins, who was born in Baltimore but grew up in Wallingford, Pa.

On that mission, Curbeam and Jones became the first pair of Baltimoreans to walk in space together when they attached the Destiny lab to the space station and fixed an ammonia leak.

If the weather holds, tomorrow's launch is scheduled for 9:36 p.m., the first nighttime blast-off since the shuttle fleet resumed flying last year. The success of the first three post-Columbia flights, including orbital inspections of the shuttle, have eased NASA's worries about damage from falling debris during launch. That, in turn, has made daytime launch photography less critical.

If Discovery launches on time, and skies are clear, its flight up the East Coast could be visible from Maryland by about 9:41 p.m., moving right to left, very low on the eastern horizon. The Howard Astronomical League is planning a launch party at Alpha Ridge Park off Old Frederick Road. (For more, visit

If tomorrow's liftoff is delayed, Discovery will have daily opportunities for nighttime launches during the subsequent 10 days.

Once in orbit 142 miles high, the crew will have a busy schedule, starting with a thorough inspection of their spacecraft with cameras and sensors on the shuttle's robot arm. Looking for launch damage, they'll scan all the orbiter's thermal tiles, as well as the carbon-carbon panels that protect the leading edge of its wings during re-entry.

After docking with the International Space Station, shuttle flight engineer Sunita Williams will trade assignments with space station flight engineer Thomas Reiter, a German who has been aboard the ISS since July.

Williams, a Navy commander, will remain aboard the ISS for six months, while Reiter returns home with Discovery. It marks the first time in five years a shuttle has transported an ISS crew member to the station. All other crew transfers have been accomplished with Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

In addition to delivering a load of supplies and science experiments, Discovery's crew will transfer and install the $11 million Integrated Truss Segment P5 to the station.

The 4,000-pound structure will allow spacewalking astronauts to begin transferring the station's solar panels from a temporary perch atop the Unity module -- where they have been for six years -- to their final position on the main truss. More truss segments, and more solar panels, will be added on later flights.

The transfer will require Curbeam and Christer Fuglesang, a Swedish mission specialist from the European Space Agency, to step outdoors for two six-hour spacewalks. They'll guide the assembly and manage a complex series of electrical couplings as the solar panels and associated cooling systems are disconnected, moved and reconfigured.

"It is actually quite risky," Curbeam said. "For anybody who's operated electronics, you know that usually you get the most failures either right at the beginning of the life of your electrical components or when they're very very old. ... So our big worry is we're going to tell all these different systems -- the cooling system and the power distribution system -- to start up, and something won't start up. We don't expect everything to crumble on us like that, but you just don't know."

Ground personnel will guide the operation. More reconnections are scheduled on a third spacewalk by Curbeam and Sunita Williams.

Discovery will undock from the ISS on the 10th day of the flight. The crew will reinspect their spacecraft for micrometeorite damage, and then deploy three small technology-demonstration satellites.

Landing at the Kennedy Space Center is scheduled for 4:16 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18.

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