Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-115 Lands Safe
After concerns over small unidentified flying objects (UFOs - debris, really) near the orbiter in space, NASA says the Space Shuttle Atlantis and its crew are home after a 12-day journey of more than 4.9 million miles in space. The mission, STS-115, restarted assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).
The Atlantis crew delivered and installed the massive P3/P4 truss, an integral part of the station's backbone, and two sets of solar arrays that will eventually provide one quarter of the station's power. In a testy comment during a post-flight press conference, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said "Guys, it's a cargo bay," when explaining why small amounts of "litter" flew free.
Atlantis' Commander Brent Jett, Pilot Chris Ferguson and mission
specialists Joe Tanner, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Dan Burbank,
and Steve MacLean, a Canadian astronaut, landed Thursday, September 21, 2006,
at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 6:21 a.m. EDT. After
landing, Jett told Mission Control at NASA's Johnson Space Center,
"Thanks, Houston. It's nice to be back. It was a great team effort,
so I think assembly's off to a good start."
The flight was the first in a series of missions that will be among
the most complex in space history. Atlantis delivered the first major
new component to the station since 2002 and laid the groundwork for
upcoming station assembly missions.
STS-115 is one of the most photographed shuttle missions ever, with
more than 100 high-definition, digital, video and film cameras
documenting the launch and climb to orbit. Data from these images, as
well as station and shuttle crew inspection, helped to clear
Atlantis' thermal protection system for return only two and a half
days after launch.
Tanner, Piper, Burbank and MacLean, with the help of crewmates, made
three spacewalks that completed truss installation, enabled solar
arrays to be deployed and prepared an important radiator for later
activation. They also installed a signal processor and transponder
that transmits voice and data to the ground and performed other tasks
to upgrade and protect the station's systems.
A new procedure called a "camp out" was implemented, in which
astronauts slept in the Quest airlock prior to their spacewalks. The
process shortens the "prebreathe" time during which nitrogen is
purged from the astronauts' systems and air pressure is lowered so
the spacewalkers avoid the condition known as the bends. On each of
the three spacewalks, the astronauts were able to perform more than
the number of scheduled activities.
The astronauts performed unprecedented robotics work. They used the
shuttle's arm in a delicate maneuver to hand off the school bus-sized
truss to the station's arm. The 45-foot truss weighs 35,000 pounds.
The arrays at the end of the truss extended to their full 240-foot
wingspan once they unfurled on flight day six. The astronauts also
moved the station's robotic arm to a position where it will assist in
the next phase of station construction.
After Atlantis undocked from the station, it did the first full fly
around of the facility since prior to the Space Shuttle Columbia
accident. The maneuver helped ground crews get a better perspective
on the station's environment and overall exterior health.
After undocking, the Atlantis crew participated in a first-ever
three-way call with the Expedition 13 crew aboard the International
Space Station and the three crew members of the Soyuz spacecraft on
its way to the station. All 12 astronauts in space at that time were
able to have a conversation.
With Atlantis and its crew safely home, the stage is set for the next
stage of International Space Station assembly. Preparations continue
for Space Shuttle Discovery's launch, targeted for mid-December, on
the STS-116 mission to deliver an additional truss segment and a
cargo module to the station. Discovery will also do extensive work on
the station's electrical and cooling systems.
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