Space Shuttle Lifts Off in First Night Launch Since Columbia Accident
Washington - Space shuttle Discovery successfully launched at 8:47 p.m. EST December 9 for the first nighttime liftoff since the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. Discovery will deliver another truss segment of the International Space Station and crew members will rewire the orbiting laboratory to bring online new power supplies generated by solar arrays installed in September.
"It all just came together perfectly. The countdown itself, we worked very few problems," Mike Leinbach, NASA launch director, said at a press conference shortly after the launch. "It was like a [simulation] run with no problems. To see Discovery lift off for this night launch was just a thrill."
Because of the excellent performance of the shuttle’s external tank in minimizing foam loss during launch and ascent to orbit, and the ability to inspect the orbiter’s thermal protection system for damage, NASA lifted the daylight-only launch restriction.
Cameras and radar were trained on the shuttle during launch, and the shuttle’s heat shield will be examined closely for potential damage from the space station before docking.
“Even in the daytime there are limitations,” said Space Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale during a November 6 press briefing broadcast on NASA TV from the Johnson Space Center in Texas.
The cameras “can’t see every part of the vehicle and as they get further away from the land-based cameras, the resolution gets to a point where you can’t see the small particles that you might like to see,” he said, “so the emphasis from these ascent sensors is to gather data for the next flight.”
Loss of insulating foam from the external tank during launch has been an ongoing problem for the space shuttle program; the Columbia space shuttle accident, which occurred during re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere in 2003, was caused by damage inflicted when foam from the external tank hit the orbiter during launch.
Discovery's 12-day mission, STS-116, launched with seven astronauts - six shuttle crew members and one long-duration station crew member.
Heavy cloud cover delayed the shuttle’s launch, originally scheduled for December 7. There had also been concerns that technical issues might cause delays. On December 5, a power surge occurred when power was about to be switched from the shuttle’s launch platform to Discovery. Additionally, a routine test showed that an adhesive that seals some of the joints on the reusable solid rocket motor may not be as strong as it should be. The adhesive is designed to keep hot gas from escaping from the joints. There are backup systems in place to keep this from happening. NASA cleared both issues on December 6.
Discovery's crew members are commander Mark Polansky, pilot Bill Oefelein and mission specialists Bob Curbeam, Nick Patrick, Joan Higginbotham, Suni Williams and Christer Fuglesang, a European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut from Stockholm, Sweden.
Fuglesang is a member of ESA’s European Astronaut Corps, whose home base is the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.
Williams will remain aboard the station to begin a six-month stay. ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter, aboard the station since July, will return to Earth on Discovery.
The main assembly hardware Discovery will deliver to the space station is an $11 million integrated truss segment (P5) that measures 3.3 meters by 4.5 meters by 3.2 meters.
During the mission, the astronauts will perform three spacewalks to mate the girder-like truss to the P4 truss that was attached in September during the STS-115 Atlantis mission.
Attaching the 1,800-kilogram P5 sets the stage to relocate the P6 truss to its final assembly position, along with the two solar arrays that have been temporarily sitting on top of the station’s Unity module since 2000.
Since it went into orbit in 1998, the space station has been running on a temporary electrical system. But with the installation of two new electricity-generating solar array panels in September, all the pieces are now in place to switch to the permanent system.
The effort will require powering down and re-powering virtually all the station's key systems in one of the most complex assembly missions to date. When complete, the work nearly will double the electrical power available on the station.
More information about the STS-116 mission is available at the NASA Web site.
For more information on U.S. policies, see Science and Technology.