Those who follow the Space Shuttle Program are all too used to hear the dread words of “launch delayed.” One might even wonder why they don't turn it into one of the acronyms NASA is so well known for. But in a move which caused many to turn their heads to be sure they'd heard it right – NASA is now considering moving up the launch date for STS-125, Atlantis' trip to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Launch dates largely hinge on when parts like the external tank can be delivered and this was made tougher for the launch of STS-125. For the shuttle mission to Hubble to take plae, a “rescue” shuttle must be ready on the launch pad – which of course requires two external tanks, which are manufactured by the Michoud Facility In New Orleans. Upon completion of each tank, it must be loaded on a barge for a 5 day trip around the Florida Peninsula and then up to KSC. The second tank is for orbiter Endeavour as part of either STS-400, the rescue mission, or STS-126, another construction mission for ISS.
Production at Michoud has been going ahead of schedule and so now NASA managers are evaluating the possibility of moving the launch date for STS-125 ahead as much as a week. Currently, STS-125 is scheduled to launch October 8 with the possibility for it to move up to October 2.
There are advantages for moving up Atlantis' launch date. Endeavour, as STS-126 is scheduled to launch about a month after Atlantis. During that month, Endeavour will move from role as STS-400, rescue mission, to being reconfigured for STS-126, ISS assembly mission.
Putting more time between the two launches allows time for the always possible delay in launch of Atlantis, which could then cause a delay of STS-126. If STS-126 is delayed, the launch date could slip closer to November 25, the launch window cutoff date.
The final decision to move up Atlantis' launch date will come in July when the orbiter's external tank is due to dock at KSC July 10 with a possible move up to July 7. Also by then there will be a more firm date for delivery of the external tank for Endeavour. The current status of that tank is for another two weeks of processing with a delivery date of August 2.
Michoud Facility was able to safely move things along a bit faster due to changes in processing methods for tanks which require manpower and changes in having some processing take place at KSC.
For their part, the Hubble folks have a demanding schedule to get flight hardware checked out and shipped to KSC. To date, all of this is moving on time with the scheduled delivery dates to be met.
The real challenges for the Shuttle Program will be trying to juggle eight missions in 2009 and early 2010. It will be an incredibly complex ordeal to meet these schedules. Add to this that Atlantis is scheduled to make only one additional flight after its' Hubble mission – leaving the remaining seven flights for only Discovery and Endeavour. Just how safely this can be accomplished has many people wondering and more people questioning whether we should continue flying them beyond 2010.
If you can get down to KSC in late September just before the launch date, you will see something you may never see again – two full shuttle stacks on launch pads 39A and 39B.
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