May 29, 2010

Final Set of Space Shuttle Boosters Arrive at NASA

The last set of space shuttle solid rocket boosters was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in Florida Friday morning, following a final train ride from their Promontory, Utah-based factory.

NASA contractor Alliant Techsystems (ATK) has been building and processing the solid rocket boosters (SRBs), which help propel space shuttles to orbit,  since the beginning of the shuttle program some three decades years ago.

"I think there was a little bit of melancholy knowing that these were the last segments to come in," NASA spokesman George Diller said during an interview with Space.com.

"They had a wonderful heritage, but on the other hand it kind of signifies the end of a very storied program for NASA."

The 149-ft. boosters delivered to Kennedy Space Center are actually reserve rockets that would only be used in a rescue mission launch should NASA's final scheduled shuttle flight on Endeavour require emergency assistance.

Endeavour's final flight is currently scheduled to take place in late November. That mission, along with a flight in September of the space shuttle Discovery, will be the final remaining shuttle flights before NASA retires the program for good.

Atlantis, NASA's third space shuttle, landed at Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday, concluding its 32nd and final scheduled mission.

Atlantis would be the space vehicle that would use the final SRBs in the event an emergency rescue mission is needed.

Officials with NASA and ATK, including shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach and astronaut Mike Massimino,
accompanied the rocket boosters for the last leg of their journey.

"I think this is a very historic moment," ATK spokeswoman Jessica Rye said in an interview with Space.com.

"It gives the team an opportunity to travel with the hardware they've worked so hard over the years to manufacture or manage."

"I think it was sort of a bittersweet occasion as we pulled into the train station," she said.

"ATK is so proud of the legacy that we have in serving our space shuttle program. For us it was just a wonderful opportunity to reminisce and share stories about the legacy of the solid rocket boosters throughout the program."

The boosters were redesigned after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy, in which the seven-member crew were lost and the shuttle was destroyed when an O-ring on the right SRB failed to seal.

There have been no major issues associated with the solid rocket boosters since that time.

"They really turned out to be quite reliable in the long run, particularly after they were redesigned after Challenger," Diller said.

The final rocket segments will be assembled into the twin SRBs this summer, in preparation for a potential Atlantis rescue flight.

However, there is a small possibility that NASA will shift this backup flight to a complete shuttle mission to deliver additional hardware to the International Space Station (ISS) "“ a mission NASA and some lawmakers have been encouraging.

"This new mission, STS-135, would be flown with a minimum crew of four astronauts and would provide critical spare parts and logistics for long-term ISS operations," wrote Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a letter to President Obama.

Nelson emphasized other benefits of an additional flight, such as helping to transition the shuttle staff to new activities.

"It will also guarantee U.S. access to space for a longer period of time, and thereby help to close the spaceflight gap until a new domestic capability is provided," he said.

Regardless of whether or not Atlantis flies again, NASA seeks to fully prepare the shuttle in case an emergency mission to rescue Endeavour is needed.

The booster segments arrived at NASA's rail yard in Titusville, Florida on Thursday, and were transported to  Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida Friday morning.

After inspections and initial processing, the segments will be stacked into the four-segment boosters that will be installed onto the sides of Atlantis.

The SRBs work together with the shuttle's liquid-powered primary engines to propel the spaceship into orbit. Approximately two minutes after liftoff, the SRBs are jettisoned from the shuttle and land by parachute in the Atlantic Ocean. Ships then recover the used SRBs, which are reloaded with propellant for use in later missions.

"They have only become better over time as we have found additional ways to make them safe and effective," said Diller.


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