Atlantis' 1st full day in orbit nearly perfect

Jul 09, 2011 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
Space shuttle Atlantis is seen as it launches from pad 39A on Friday, July 8, 2011 at the Kennedy Space Center Friday, July 8, 2011, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Atlantis is the 135th and final space shuttle launch for NASA. (AP Photo/ NASA, Bill Ingalls)

(AP) -- The space shuttle Atlantis hasn't performed like a ship ready for retirement. The first full day of the final flight of the aging space shuttle fleet - the most complicated machines ever built - was practically flawless.

NASA officials say the unusually small four-person crew of Atlantis worked through lunch Saturday and finished their tasks in near-record time. After Friday's launch they inspected the shuttle's for launch damage and prepared for Sunday morning's docking with the International Space Station.

So far Atlantis doesn't even have minor glitches. The worst problem is that the crew could not find an eye chart for a , something that caused a chuckle among ground controllers.

"We couldn't be more happy with what we've seen from the crew and Atlantis," Director Kwatsi Alibaruho said.

Often the first full day in orbit for shuttles has "little nuisance-type" glitches in setting up life in space and is usually one of the most difficult days in a flight, said management team chairman LeRoy Cain. He said hard work and good luck have paid off for Atlantis this time.

And yet when Atlantis lands later this month it will join sister ships Discovery and Endeavour as museum pieces. The 30-year-old space shuttle program is ending as NASA hands over the task of flying astronauts to the space station to Russia and private U.S. companies. NASA will shift its efforts to deep space missions to an asteroid and eventually Mars.

"Instead of focusing on the irony, I tend to look at the opportunity on this, the last shuttle mission of the program," Alibaruho said. "I'm very grateful the shuttle is finishing as it is."

Cain said mission managers focused on "finishing strong."

"We wanted the last flight to be the safest flight that we fly. We wanted the performance of the vehicle to be the best it's ever been," Cain said. "I think you're seeing it play out."

The great condition the shuttle is in "helps us enjoy the mission more" because flight controllers don't have to worry as much about little glitches, Alibaruho said Saturday in a press conference.

It also keeps the crew from having to divert from their tasks to fix problems, he said.

Another big factor is that the four astronauts are all space veterans who know what they are doing, Alibaruho said. With four astronauts instead of the normal seven, there "are fewer bodies for the crew to trip over" and there is less heat inside the shuttle, making it more comfortable, he said.

The veteran astronauts felt so good that they canceled their normally scheduled private conferences with mission control's doctors, Cain said. The crew was able to inspect their heat shield and prepare for Sunday in an hour less time than planned.

Early indications are that inspections of the shuttle's heat shield found no damage from launch to worry about, but closer examination is still needed. In 2003, the space shuttle Columbia was destroyed when it returned to Earth because of damage during liftoff. Final results won't be known until Monday or Tuesday.

On Sunday at 11:07 a.m. EDT, Atlantis is scheduled to dock with the to deliver more than four tons of supplies. That docking maneuver will be slightly more complicated for the crew because there are fewer people on board to do all the necessary tasks, Alibaruho said.

By Monday or Tuesday, mission managers will know if they have saved enough power on board Atlantis to extend the shuttle's flight one more day, landing on July 21.

Saturday morning's wake-up song - Coldplay's "Viva la Vida" - was accompanied by a mass greeting from the numerous employees of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. That center is in charge of the propulsion system that sends shuttles into space. Thousands of workers throughout the country have been laid off or will lose their jobs not long after Atlantis returns to Earth.

"Good morning, Atlantis," the workers said in a message recorded before launch. "The Marshall Space Flight Center hopes you enjoyed your ride to orbit. We wish you a successful mission and a safe return home."

Pilot Doug Hurley responded, "Thanks for that great message and awesome ride to orbit and the 134 before that with this tremendous ."

Explore further: Rosetta measures comet's temperature

More information: NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/shuttle

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Sanescience
5 / 5 (2) Jul 10, 2011
You don't want to reach the point where your space craft is glitchy to retire it.

Shuttle program was both an astounding achievement but also far short of it's goals. At aprox $1.3 Billion per launch average, it represented an enormous "opportunity cost" in the thousands of projects that were never funded and more capable, efficient, and safer launch systems.

At roughly 15 sections, the ISS could have been put into orbit with 15 SpaceX F9H, lets say at $60 million each, plus the $800 million they have spent so far to reach the point of launching two F9's, a grand total of $1.7 billion. Slightly above the cost of one shuttle launch, or significantly below two shuttle launches.

That is *extremely* rough back of the envelope computation.
plasticpower
not rated yet Jul 10, 2011
Yes, as cool as the shuttles were, the point of a reusable craft is to save costs by reusing what could be reused. Unfortunately the shuttles failed to deliver on that. But I hope the knowledge gained from these ships will be retained and put to good use.
Coyoteconscious
5 / 5 (1) Jul 10, 2011
Sometimes, I wonder if I'm the only person who remembers the original description of the space shuttle program, versus what we got.

I was born in 1970. When I was in grade school, encyclopedias described this great new project in the works that would inexpensively allow us to repeatedly shoot payloads into space, achieve near-earth orbit cheaply, and fly missions every week. And I really believe that, if the initial design was followed, that would have happened.

Instead, we got this weird device, powered by committee, that had all the downfalls of a disposable one-use rocket, with all of the complications of something that would be re-used.

We went from having an innovative, goals-oriented space program that could put a man on the moon with less computing processing power and electricity than a modern microwave oven uses, to one that depended on a flashy, showy, dangerous, expensive design that never really lived up to the original promise in any way.

I'm sorry. Shuttles sucked.