By Lee Roop, The Huntsville Times Published: Tuesday, May 17, 2011, 6:00 AM
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – Now, there’s only one. With Monday morning’s successful launch of space shuttle Endeavour, America – and the 1,500 shuttle program workers in Huntsville – have one more launch to go.
Atlantis, the last space shuttle, will lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida this summer. The launch window opens June 28, but Endeavour’s delayed launch could mean Atlantis won’t fly before early July. The process of mating Atlantis to its solid rocket motors and external fuel tank was to begin today.
“Everything was great. Real smooth,” Marshall Space Flight Center spokesman Daniel Kanigan said as he left Kennedy several hours after Monday’s 7:58 a.m. CDT launch of Endeavour.
If “smooth” was the verdict from the Launch Control Center, thousands who turned out to watch the liftoff were mildly disappointed. Endeavour disappeared in a cloud bank shortly after liftoff.
Kanigan and the Huntsville engineers who designed and manage Endeavour’s launch propulsion system pulled an all-nighter Sunday to prepare for the early launch. A problem with an auxiliary heater had pushed the original April 29 launch date back, but Monday’s countdown was flawless.
“We had the Mission Management Team (meeting), which can typically take from one hour to two hours, and that was over in 40 minutes,” Kanigan said, referring to one of the “go/no go” meetings held during the countdown.
“The tanking meeting to decide whether to (fill the shuttle’s fuel tanks) usually takes about 30 minutes, and that took five,” Kanigan said.
Kanigan said Marshall managers saw nothing on their cameras during launch that concerned them, but astronauts were to do their routine detailed examination of Endeavour’s exterior on their second day in orbit. The concern is whether foam falling from the external tank during liftoff – a routine occurrence – was sufficient to damage any of the shuttle’s heat-resistant tiles required for re-entry into the atmosphere.
“It was an outstanding countdown, lots of pats on the back in the lobby of the LCC (launch control center) afterward when we were eating our beans and corn bread (a traditional post-launch snack),” said Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach. “Endeavour’s on orbit safely and it’s going to perform a great mission and we’ll see her back here on June 1.”
Endeavour is carrying a grab bag of spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station, which Americans will no longer be able to reach for several years after Atlantis without paying the Russians for a ride. Commercial companies are vying to take over the task of supplying the station and ferrying astronauts, but they are not nearly ready.
One major piece of science equipment is on the way to the space station. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a high-level physics project involving the first superconducting magnet flown in space, will attempt to bend and capture subatomic cosmic particles and prove the existence of dark matter in the universe.
After Atlantis flies this summer, NASA is scheduled to begin work on a new rocket capable of carrying enough fuel and supplies to launch astronauts into deep space to asteroids and, eventually, Mars. Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center is the lead center for developing that rocket.