Next Shuttle Mission To Ready Space Station for Lab Modules

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – The scheduled March 15 launch of space shuttle Atlantis (STS-117) and its mission – to install a new truss segment, unfurl new solar arrays and fold up an old solar array – will prepare the International Space Station for two remaining scientific modules from Europe and Japan.

The new truss segment, part of the station’s girder-like backbone, includes a set of “photovoltaic” solar arrays that convert sunlight directly to energy. When unfurled, the 73-meter arrays will provide the additional power needed to accommodate the arrival in October of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Columbus module and in December of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Japanese Experiment Module (JEM).

“Significant to the international partners participating in the program,” said International Space Station program manager Michael Suffredini during a February 15 briefing at Johnson Space Center in Houston, “we will complete the flights of the Columbus module and the JEM modules during the year that starts with this flight in March, and with that we’ll have all the partners finally on board with their modules,” except for an external (unpressurized) Japanese component that NASA will fly to the space station in February 2008.

The JEM module, called Kibo – which means "hope" in Japanese – is Japan's first human space facility. Experiments in Kibo will focus on space medicine, biology, Earth observations, material production, biotechnology and communications research.

The science module Columbus is ESA's largest single contribution to the space station. During the 4.5-meter cylindrical module’s 10-year lifespan, Earth-based researchers – sometimes with help from the space station crew – will conduct thousands of experiments in life sciences, materials science, fluid physics and other disciplines.

International Space Station partners are space agencies from Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States. (See related article.)


STS-117 will be the first of five launches scheduled for 2007 – an “extremely ambitious” schedule that space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said will be accomplished safely and professionally.

“This is not a routine business,” he said, “it certainly is not [routine] for the space shuttle vehicle, which is a very complex and in some ways fragile vehicle, nor will it be easy or routine for the next generation of space vehicles, although we certainly hope it will be safer and more forgiving.”

Atlantis will launch six astronauts for the 118th shuttle mission. Rick Sturckow, a Marine colonel, will command the flight. Pilot Lee Archambault, an Air Force colonel, joins Sturckow in the shuttle’s cockpit. Mission specialists Patrick Forrester, Steven Swanson, John “Danny” Olivas and Jim Reilly will conduct the mission’s three scheduled spacewalks.

On the space station, the new 16-metric-ton truss segment to be delivered and installed contains a rotary joint that will rotate 360 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise to allow the solar arrays to track the sun’s motion.

In addition to delivering the new truss and solar arrays, the astronauts will retract one of the solar arrays that otherwise would interfere with this rotation. The crew of the shuttle mission in December 2006 had trouble retracting the array.

Atlantis’s launch window will be open until March 25. That launch deadline provides sufficient time for the shuttle to complete its mission and undock from the station before the April 7 launch of the next space station crew aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

The current space station crew includes Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and flight engineers Mikhail Tyurin and Sunita Williams. Lopez-Alegria and Tyurin have been aboard the orbiting outpost since September 2006. They will return to Earth in April.

Williams arrived at the station on Discovery’s flight in December 2006. She will return during the shuttle mission scheduled for launch in June.

After Atlantis’s launch in March, only 15 more flights remain until the shuttle is retired at the end of fiscal year 2010 (October 2010). Many of the engineers who have worked on the shuttle will move to the Constellation Program, NASA’s next generation of crew launch vehicles.

“The space shuttle program is beginning to wind down in some ways,” said Hale,  “but we have a huge manifest ahead of us ... we have more flights ahead of us than they actually flew in the entire Apollo program, so we are far from being done at this point.”

More information about STS-117 is available at the NASA Web site, as is additional information about the Constellation Program and a graphic representation of the space station’s evolving configuration.