U.S. space shuttle missions will resume after a three-month hiatus because of technical troubles. The shuttle Atlantis is set to launch with a crew of six to continue International Space Station construction.
This is the first shuttle mission since June, when engineers discovered microscopic cracks in hydrogen fuel lines in all four orbiters. Technicians developed a special polishing and welding technique to seal the fissures. Shuttle manager Ron Dittemore says it has been a long three months for the program. "We faced a hotbed of challenges," he said. "It isn't exactly what we had originally planned, but the last three months have been a tremendous success story for the space shuttle program. That was a difficult period of time for us, but it was exceptionally well done by all members of our team."
With the fuel lines now repaired, the shuttle Atlantis' cargo compartment is nearly filled to capacity with a bulky aluminum girder that astronauts will attach to the space station during three spacewalks.
At 15 meters length and 13,000 kilograms weight, it is the second of 10 segments that will eventually stretch more than 100 meters to support power, cooling, and data systems for future research laboratories. A previous Atlantis team installed the first section in April. The third section is to be added in November.
Station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier says this portion, called the S1 truss, is packed with 24 kilometers of wire, half a kilometer of optical fiber, and hundreds of meters of tubing carrying ammonia coolant in two big radiators to deflect heat from the station. "Truss is really a misnomer," he said. "S1 is essentially a full spacecraft. The only thing that it's lacking is propulsion. It has computers on board, it has a communications antenna system, it has a very intricate thermal control system, it has radiators, it has a large ammonia tank, it has a little cart that runs up and down the truss - a very, very complex spacecraft."
Among the Atlantis crewmembers is novice Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin, an economist and mechanical engineer employed by the aerospace firm RSC Energia.
One of the two astronauts who will perform the truss installation spacewalks is David Wolf, a physician who lived four months aboard the Russian space station Mir in 1997 and '98. Russian controllers let Mir fall to Earth early last year after 15 years in orbit. Dr. Wolf says he feels lucky for his experience with both outposts. "In some ways I look at Mir as an old house that served great function, and now I get to go look at the new house, look at how we have incorporated the lessons we learned from Mir on how to conduct space operations," said David Wolf. "We have incorporated many of those in the space station."
In addition to the station expansion tasks, the Atlantis flight is also partly a resupply mission for the three crewmembers who have inhabited the outpost since June, Russian cosmonauts Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev and U.S. astronaut Peggy Whitson. They will get about 500 kilograms of new supplies to hold them until they trade places with another crew in November.
Atlantis crewmember Sandra Magnus says some of their favorite foods are included. "They are looking forward to getting some apples and oranges and things of that nature," she said. "There's a pecan pie that we're trying to get up there to them. But that's a secret. Don't let them know. It's going to be a surprise! Different things like that. We're trying to accommodate as many different requests as we can."
Space station officials say the three-month grounding of the shuttle fleet will cause only a three-week delay in the completion of the core sections of the space station in 2004.
That core would require only three crewmembers instead of the six or seven originally planned. U.S. budget shortfalls have forced the space agency NASA to abandon plans to build a bigger crew dormitory and escape vehicle. However, NASA is negotiating with project partner nations to provide them. In exchange, these countries would be allowed to send additional crew and gain extra research time aboard the outpost.