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Astronauts Set For Return To Earth On Shuttle Atlantis

This is a view of the Space Shuttle Atlantis as it performs a fly-around of the space station. Image credit: NASA TV
by Staff Writers
Washington DC (AFP) Jun 20, 2007
The Atlantis crew of seven examined the shuttle's heat shield one last time in preparation for returning to Earth, after a successful two-week mission to the International Space Station.

After Atlantis undocked from the ISS at 1442 GMT, Tuesday, co-pilot Lee Archambault flew the shuttle once around the orbiting station to take pictures of it and its newly installed and expanded solar wing array.

A few hours later, astronauts Patrick Forrester and Steven Swanson inspected the shuttle's heat shield with a high-definition camera mounted atop the shuttle's robotic arm.

The images were beamed to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for close analysis. At first glance, no problems were detected, but a final evaluation was expected later Wednesday, NASA said.

Tuesday's inspection was carried out 74 kilometers (46 miles) from the ISS, in case the Atlantis needed to return to carry out additional repairs to its thermal covering, NASA said.

During an eight-hour spacewalk on Friday, the Atlantis crew repaired a hole in the thermal blanket that flapped opened as the shuttle blasted its way into orbit on June 8. Surgical staples were used to pin down the lose corner of the blanket.

NASA said the hand-size opening posed no threat to the crew, unlike the broken tile that caused the Columbia shuttle to break up on re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board and putting the shuttle program on hold for two and a half years.

Since the Columbia tragedy, inspections of the heat shield have become commonplace aboard all shuttle flights. The hole in the Atlantis' thermal blanket was spotted during an inspection before it docked with the ISS June 10.

Launched from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Atlantis spent 10 days docked at the ISS.

During three spacewalks, a new 16-tonne truss was attached to the station enabling a new, vast, double-winged solar array that will boost the station's power-generating capacity so it can host new modules from Europe and Japan.

The astronauts also retracted the panels of another solar array for removal, installed a computer network cable to one of the station's units and performed sundry other jobs.

On Friday, the ISS crew also fixed two main computers aboard the ISS after an unprecedented 48-hour systems breakdown. Astronauts used a jumper cable to bypass a faulty power switch.

The mission was extended two extra days, allowing a fourth, unscheduled spacewalk to repair the torn thermal blanket.

The Atlantis delivered a new member for ISS Expedition 15. US flight engineer Clayton Anderson will remain four months aboard the station along with two Russian colleagues.

The shuttle brings home Sunita Williams, an engineer who has been on the station since December 10. She set a record Saturday for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a woman -- passing the previous record of 188 days and four hours.

She logged 29 hours and 17 minutes in four space walks during her trip, eclipsing the record held by astronaut Kathryn Thornton for most space-walk time by a woman.

And in April, Williams became the first astronaut to run a marathon in orbit -- on a treadmill, finishing it in four hours and 24 minutes.

The Atlantis is scheduled to land at Kennedy Space Center at 1745 GMT, Thursday.

Weather forecasters expect a rain-bearing low-pressure system to cloud over Cape Canaveral on Thursday and Friday, but NASA said the Atlantis has enough electrical power to remain aloft until Sunday if necessary.

As alternative landing sites, the Atlantis could also touch down at Edwards Air Force Base in California, or NASA's White Sands test facility, in New Mexico.

earlier related report
Astronauts Set For Return To Earth On Shuttle Atlantis
US astronauts were back on board the shuttle Atlantis preparing to undock Tuesday for the long flight back to Earth, after wrapping up their mission at the International Space Station, NASA said. The shuttle team said goodbye to the station's crew and the hatches closed between Atlantis and the station (ISS) on Monday, the space agency said in a statement, after a mission that saw members of the Atlantis team venture out four times to install new solar energy equipment.

The mission's focus now turns to undocking from the station at 1442 GMT on Tuesday, for the shuttle to begin its two-day voyage back to Earth, 350 kilometers (217 miles) below.

It brings back home with it Sunita Williams, an engineer who has been on the station since December 10. She set a record Saturday for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a woman -- passing the previous record of 188 days and four hours.

She logged 29 hours and 17 minutes in four space walks during her trip, eclipsing the record held by astronaut Kathryn Thornton for most space-walk time by a woman.

And in April, Williams became the first astronaut to run a marathon in orbit -- on a treadmill, finishing it in four hours and 24 minutes.

In her place the shuttle leaves behind a new crew member for the station, flight engineer Clayton Anderson.

NASA gave Atlantis the green light to undock after a crucial Russian computer that collapsed last week passed a key test. Flight controllers in Moscow tested the computer's ability to fire thrusters and maintain the altitude of the ISS.

The US astronauts carried out four space walks during their stay, enabling two vast new solar arrays on the station. These will help boost the station's power-generating capacity so it can host new modules from Europe and Japan.

Mission controllers have confirmed the shuttle is fit for the voyage home after crew also closed a hole in its thermal blanket which was damaged as it blasted through Earth's atmosphere on the way up.

NASA managers had feared that the loose blanket could expose the ship to excess heating during re-entry through the atmosphere.

During an eight-hour space walk on Friday, astronaut Danny Olivas used surgical staples to pin down a corner of the blanket, which had come loose as the shuttle reached escape velocity on June 8.

NASA engineers stressed that the hand-size opening posed no threat to the crew, unlike the broken tile that caused the Columbia shuttle to break up on re-entry in February 2003, killing all seven astronauts on board.

That disaster was caused by breaks in the shuttle's ceramic heat shield due to foam insulation peeling off its fuel tank and striking a wing during the launch.

All seven astronauts aboard perished and the shuttle program was put on hold for nearly two and a half years while the space agency modified the external fuel tank and set procedures to check the heat shield while in orbit.

Before Atlantis begins the journey home, Commander Rick Sturckow and pilot Lee Archambault will fly the shuttle around the ISS so the crew can take pictures of it and its newly expanded solar wings, NASA said.

Atlantis is scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 1:54 pm (1754 GMT) on Thursday.

earlier related report
Atlantis Undocks From Space Station
Houston TX (NASA) Jun 19 - STS-117's constructive stay at the International Space Station came to a close today when space shuttle Atlantis undocked. The two spacecraft parted ways at 10:42 a.m. EDT as they flew over the Coral Sea northeast of Australia.

After Pilot Lee Archambault backed the orbiter 450 feet from the station, he performed a full fly-around to allow crew members to collect video and imagery of the station and its newly expanded solar wings. He then completed the final separation engine burn at 12:28 p.m.

Currently, Archambault and Mission Specialists Patrick Forrester and Steven Swanson are using the shuttle robot arm and the 50-foot long Orbiter Boom Sensor System to conduct a late inspection of the thermal protection system.

The crew will spend Wednesday preparing for landing. Atlantis' first landing opportunity is at 1:54 p.m. Thursday at Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

During its stay at the station, which began June 10, the STS-117 crew continued the on-orbit construction of the station with the installation of the Starboard 3 and 4 (S3/S4) truss segment.

The crew installed the truss June 11 and conducted four spacewalks to activate the S3/S4 and assist in the retraction of solar array on the Port 6 truss. During the third spacewalk, the crew repaired an out of position thermal blanket on the left orbital maneuvering system pod.

Atlantis also delivered a new station crew member, Flight Engineer Clayton Anderson. He replaced astronaut Suni Williams, who is the new record holder for a long-duration single spaceflight for a woman. She arrived at the station in December with STS-116.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Sharp Group Devises Tank Sander
Cape Canaveral FL (SPX) Jun 18, 2007
The Space Shuttle Program still can surprise engineers and technicians, even after 117 flights. And the engineers have proven up to the task, even if it means building unique tools to handle the situation. The latest example came from a freak hail storm that hit shuttle Atlantis while it sat on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The hail dinged the foam on the external tank, setting off an unprecedented repair effort.







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