Astronauts board US shuttle for practice countdown
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – Astronauts assigned to
fly on the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis later this month climbed
into their flight suits and scrambled aboard the shuttle on
Thursday for a three-hour dress rehearsal for launch.
The six-member crew hopes to be back at the Kennedy Space
Center in two weeks for the start of a real countdown to the
first shuttle mission in more than three years aimed at
resuming construction of the $100 billion International Space
“Every crew and every mission control team has to be on
their game when we fly these assembly missions,” Atlantis
commander Brent Jett said during a media briefing at the launch
“We can handle some setbacks, we can deal with some
problems, but we have to perform these missions well and we
have only a limited amount of time to do it,” he said.
The astronauts went through launch procedures in Thursday’s
rehearsal, which wrapped up a three-day session that included
briefings on safety and emergency evacuation procedures.
With four years left before the space shuttles are retired,
NASA is under pressure to finishing the station. The trusses,
solar arrays and laboratories awaiting rides to space were
designed to be carried only on shuttles.
Station assembly has been on hold while NASA recovered from
the fatal 2003 Columbia accident, a process that finally ended
with a successful flight by shuttle Discovery last month, the
second of two shuttle test missions to check safety upgrades.
NASA says station construction flights can be daunting.
“All the missions between now and 2010 that involve station
assembly are going to be extremely complex,” Jett said. “You
could probably make the case that each one is slightly more
complex than the one that precedes it. We’re flying hardware
that has no history in space.”
The Atlantis astronauts plan to install the second of the
station’s four sets of solar arrays and a rotary joint so the
panels can track the sun. The additional power is needed for
partner laboratories built by Europe and Japan, which are due
to be flown to the station beginning next year.
In addition to station assembly, NASA now requires all
shuttle crews to conduct time-consuming inspections of the
spacecraft’s heat shield to prevent another Columbia-like
Columbia broke apart as it returned through the atmosphere
for landing, killing seven crew members. The shuttle had been
struck by a piece of foam insulation that fell off its fuel
tank during launch and made a hole in the heat shield on the
NASA managers hope to launch Atlantis August 27. A firm
date is expected to be announced after a flight review next