Senior NASA managers yesterday set a July 13 launch date for the Space Shuttle's Return to Flight, a mission that will see the Shuttle Discovery fly to the Station. Commander Eileen Collins and her crew are scheduled to lift off at 2:51 p.m. CDT on the first U.S. space flight since the February 2003 loss of the Shuttle Columbia. Discovery will dock to the Space Station two days later, July 15 at 11:27 a.m. CDT.
The Space Station's Expedition 11 Commander Sergei Krikalev and Flight Engineer John Phillips spent time this week preparing the outpost for the first joint Shuttle and Station mission since Endeavour departed in December 2002.
In preparation for docking, Phillips continued installation of a camera used to align the Shuttle and Station during the link up. A circuit breaker had tripped during an installation attempt last Friday. Engineers determined a power supply was at fault. Once the power supply was replaced, Phillips completed the installation and checkout procedure Tuesday.
Krikalev and Phillips also practiced taking photographs from windows in the Zvezda living quarters module in preparation for Discovery's arrival. In two weeks, they will use two digital cameras with high-powered lenses to shoot the thermal tiles on the orbiter during its approach. The pictures will be sent to Mission Control to help engineers assess the health of Discovery's heat shield.
The crew also operated the Station's robotic arm, Canadarm2, as a checkout before Discovery arrives. In addition to verifying the system's operation, the activity served as training for Krikalev and Phillips. The arm was commanded to walk off the Destiny lab's operating base to the Mobile Base System (MBS) on the truss Wednesday, and then back again Thursday. A similar procedure will be done during the Shuttle mission.
The arm will be positioned on Destiny's base to observe the arrival of Discovery, for installation of the Rafaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and to support three spacewalks by the Shuttle crew. From the MBS operating position, cameras on the arm will be used for situational awareness during potential protective tile inspections the day after docking.
Phillips also prepared for Discovery's arrival by consolidating equipment to make room for the nine-person joint crew and packing equipment for return to Earth on Discovery.
This week Krikalev installed and tested equipment for another visiting vehicle. When the European Space Agency's Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) arrives next year, it will use Proximity Communications Equipment (PCE), or space-to-space communications, to rendezvous and dock to the Station's Russian segment. The ATV has the capability to bring more than eight tons of equipment and supplies to the crew.
The current cargo spacecraft docked to the Station, a Russian Progress vehicle, was used Wednesday to raise the Station's altitude. The vehicle's engines burned for five minutes, 18 seconds to raise the Station's orbit to 221.5 by 215.9 statute miles. The boost began the adjustments needed for rendezvous with Space Shuttle Discovery. Another burn is scheduled for July 6 at 9:58 a.m. CDT to enhance the rendezvous opportunities during the Shuttle's July launch window that extends from July 13 to July 31.
The Progress also was used to pressurize the Station's cabin atmosphere with additional oxygen. Each day it was required, Tuesday and Friday, eleven pounds of oxygen were added to the atmosphere in the absence of continual oxygen generation by the Elektron system, which is not currently operating. Other supplies aboard the Station could support the crew for the rest of this year, if needed. Additional supplies and a replacement liquids unit, the heart of the Elektron, are scheduled to arrive later this year.
Phillips, serving as NASA's Station Science Officer, conducted a physiological experiment Wednesday. For the experiment, Phillips wore a special pair of Lycra cycling tights equipped with sensors to study his movements. The sensors will gather data to help researchers better understand how arms and legs are used differently in space. This information could lead to enhanced countermeasures to help astronauts better maintain bone density and muscle mass during long duration spaceflights.
He also wrote in a journal and filled out a questionnaire for the Journals experiment. With this experiment, researchers hope to improve equipment and procedures to help astronauts cope with the isolation encountered during long duration spaceflight.
Monday, Phillips performed a training procedure and used a voice operated computer system for the first time on Station. Called Clarissa, the system was developed at NASA's Ames Research Center in an effort to ease astronaut workload. Clarissa is 'hands-free' and responds to astronauts' voice commands, reading procedure steps out loud as they work, helping keep track of which steps have been completed, and supporting flexible voice-activated alarms and timers.