Wednesday, September 23, 2009

STS-128 Outfits Station for New Science

Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Space shuttle Discovery launched atop brilliant pillars of fire into a midnight sky over NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 28, 2009, to begin a textbook outfitting and supply mission to the International Space Station.

With the Leonardo cargo module bolted tight into the payload bay and astronaut Rick “C.J.” Sturckow in the commander’s seat, Discovery pursued the space station for two days before linking up with the orbiting laboratory.

Pilot Kevin Ford and Mission Specialists Jose Hernandez and Nicole Stott marked their first days in space during STS-128. Along with veteran commander Sturckow, Mission Specialists Patrick Forrester, Danny Olivas and Christer Fuglesang brought a wealth of spaceflight experience to the flight.

The first task of STS-128’s extensive mission manifest wrapped up soon after docking as Stott joined the station’s Expedition 20 crew and station resident Tim Kopra took Stott’s slot on the shuttle.

Crews on the shuttle and station numbered 13 in all and included astronauts from the U.S., Canada, Sweden, and Belgium and cosmonauts from Russia.

Leonardo, one of the multi-purpose logistics modules NASA uses to carry large racks to and from the station, was the star of Discovery’s fourth day in orbit. Ford and Michael Barratt used the robotic arm from the space station to lift the 21-foot-long Leonardo from its cradle inside Discovery and connect it directly to the station, clearing the way for about a week of moving work for the crew members.

Spacewalker Olivas stepped outside the station along with Stott for the first of three spacewalks slated for STS-128. With crew members outfitting the inside of the station, the two spacewalkers set out for some upkeep tasks on the outside. Assisted by the station’s robotic arm, known as Canadarm 2, Olivas and Stott removed an empty ammonia tank from the truss. The station uses ammonia to cool its sophisticated system of equipment. The astronauts also took two experiments off the outside of the European Space Agency’s Columbus laboratory module.

Inside the station, the Colbert treadmill was moved into its new home in space. The treadmill is a new exercise machine that station residents will use to stay fit while in the weightlessness of space. It gained notoriety when NASA named it after Comedy Central comedian and faux newscaster Stephen Colbert following an online NASA poll to name a new station module. The exercise equipment is more advanced than the treadmill already on the station. For example, it allows astronauts to run as fast as an Olympic sprinter. The treadmill is mounted on a system to prevent the vibrations from shaking the station as it floats through space.

The treadmill was far from the only thing moved into the station. Leonardo was loaded with nine racks and eight platforms. The racks are the basic structure for holding space station systems inside the laboratory. Each one is a shell about the size of a refrigerator and is outfitted with connectors that attach to the station on the back and the specialized equipment inside. The hatches from Leonardo to the station are large enough to allow the racks to pass through easily, and even though a full rack can only be moved with a forklift on Earth, a single astronaut can push them around in the microgravity of the station.

The racks are big enough to house a crew quarters or bedroom for a station astronaut, and one of the racks Leonardo carried up became a private room right away for Canadian station resident Robert Thirsk.

Two of the racks were set up for research in space: the Fluids Integrated Rack to study liquid in weightlessness, and the Materials Science Research Rack, which is to conduct experiments on different materials to find new ways to use them. A second freezer for completed experiments also was carried into orbit inside Discovery, along with an air filtration system destined for the Tranquility node, which will be added to the station in 2010.

Olivas led the second spacewalk on the seventh day of the STS-128 mission. He was joined by Sweden’s Fuglesang, another veteran spacewalker. Their work centered on the ammonia tanks. They fastened the old tank inside Discovery so it could be returned to Earth, refilled and launched again on a future mission. The new tank went into place easily for the astronauts.

After getting most of the equipment out of Leonardo, the astronauts on Discovery and the station changed focus a bit to move items into the cargo module. Completed experiments and expired equipment were some of the items to be taken back to Earth.

The mission’s third spacewalk began Sept. 6, again performed by Olivas and Fuglesang. It set up the station for future missions and the Tranquility module. When it finished, Discovery’s spacewalkers had added more than 20 hours to the spacewalk log for space station assembly. Astronauts have completed more than 830 hours of spacewalks to build the space station to this point.

The transfers between the station and Leonardo also wrapped up Sept. 6. Leonardo was repositioned inside Discovery the next day and the crews split up into their shuttle and station contingents before the hatches between the two craft were closed.

Sept. 8 saw Discovery back away from the station, pushed along by springs so the shuttle wouldn’t have to fire its steering jets close to the orbital complex. Minutes later, Ford took the controls to maneuver the shuttle in a circle around the station from about 650 feet away. He then steered the spacecraft away from the station, putting it on a path to move further away as the crew looked ahead to going back to Earth.

That return was delayed by a day, however, after poor weather conditions materialized over the primary landing site at Kennedy. The bad weather stayed over Florida the following day and mission controllers opted to send Sturckow and his team of astronauts to Edwards Air Force Base in California instead.

Sturckow and Ford guided Discovery through Earth’s atmosphere Sept. 11. The spacecraft glided over the Pacific Ocean and soared over Greater Los Angeles on its way to Edwards and its home in the high desert. Discovery’s wheels touched down at 8:53 p.m. EDT and the shuttle rolled to a stop about a minute later to end the flight.

While the astronauts returned to their training base at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the mission was just beginning for the team of technicians and specialists who spent the next week getting Discovery set up and mounted on a modified 747 for the ride back to Kennedy. Discovery faced more weather concerns during that flight, too, but a break in the storms allowed the 747 and Discovery to land at Kennedy on Sept. 21.


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