Christer Fuglesang's newsletter: Prime crew!
Houston, 21 July 2009 That was that. Finally Endeavour got underway with STS-127, on the sixth attempt, and now we're Prime Crew. Endeavour has already been docked with the ISS for several days and the crew have dropped off Tim Kopra to be a part of the Station crew.
During STS-128 we will exchange Tim for Nicole. Tim, by the way, has Finnish roots and I think he is flying something for Finland. The Endeavour crew have also carried out two out of five spacewalks. Some tasks were not done and may fall to us. There is more about this below.
The Endeavour launch was not entirely spotless, though. More pieces of foam fell off the external tank (ET) than usual. It's not like Endeavour was damaged (which happened to Columbia in January of 2003 and led to its loss), but the question is whether there are new problems that can cause damage later.
The head of the Space Shuttle program of course says that they will have to investigate this before they can send up the next Shuttle. Some of the media have interpreted this to mean that the Shuttles are grounded and printed headlines to that effect.
Formally this is a correct interpretation, but these things happen all the time and nobody I've talked to seems to believe that this is serious enough to cause major delays. But the problem is not being ignored! Today some tests have been done on the foam on our tank to see how securely attached it is, and so far everything is looking good. But if this is deemed satisfactory, or if they will want to do further tests, remains to be seen.
One theory as to why more foam than usual fell off is that this was caused by the many refilling cycles STS-127's ET was subjected to. The tank was filled in preparation for every launch attempt – and therefore cooled to liquid oxygen and hydrogen temperatures – and was then emptied again.
In any event our launch date will most likely be delayed. To begin with the ‘launch dress rehearsal’ TCDT has been moved back a week to 4–6 August, mainly due to the test I mentioned above. The official launch date is still 18 August, although the earliest KSC is likely to manage is 19 August.
For different reasons 21 August is the most likely launch date for us, and most of us are just waiting for the decision to be made official. But until then you can never be sure. And really not even then either.
Anyway, if we launch on August 21 it will be in the middle of the night in Florida, at about a quarter past three, which means a quarter past nine in the morning in Sweden. This means we are supposed to sleep between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon, which is almost the largest possible displacement of the sleeping period. To be able to get into the proper rhythm we will start changing our sleeping times a few days before we enter quarantine, which we do a week before launch.
Tomorrow we will do the final exercise for the second spacewalk, EVA-2, which is the first one I participate in. If we launch on 21 August, EVA-2 will be on 27 August. One of our robot arm instructors has done a nice animation of the main part of EVA-2. It shows me jumping onto the robot arm in the Space Shuttle cargo bay and grabbing the ammonia tank, while Kevin flies me to the truss. Then it shows how we fasten the new tank and manoeuvre so that I can grab the old tank that's been sitting on the arm. Finally we are flown back with it.
As I mentioned, it's likely that there won't be time for STS-127 to carry out all of the tasks it has on the ISS. Some may be important enough so that we may have to re-plan our third spacewalk, EVA-3, and drop some of our current but less important tasks, like placing the two GPS antennas.
One possibility that's also been discussed is a fourth spacewalk. If we have enough resources – that is liquid oxygen to generate electricity for the Space Shuttle in the fuel cells – we can stay one extra day on the Space Station. This day could, amongst other things, be used for a spacewalk. In that case the plan is for Tim and Pat to do it. The reason is that Tim has been training for many of the tasks that there now may not be time for during STS-127.
The idea is that this spacewalk would then be done when our present EVA-3 is planned, Flight Day 9 (FD9) and the present EVA-3 – that will then be EVA-4 – would be done the next day, FD10. Spacewalks on consecutive days are generally avoided, and they are definitely not done with the same personnel, if that can possibly be avoided.
A new head of NASA has eventually been appointed, Charles Bolden, an ex-astronaut. I've never met him myself – he left NASA's astronaut corps shortly before I arrived in Houston – but everyone I've asked who knows him has been very positive. One of the people I've talked to is Beamer, my fellow spacewalker during STS-116. Beamer left NASA about a year ago, but we still see each other now and then. Beamer thinks that Bolden is a very good choice for NASA, and I hope he is right. But Beamer usually is.