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2005: The American Shuttle Fleet Returns

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NASA photo of STS-114 commander Eileen Collins, mission specialist Stephen Robinson, pilot James Kelly
NASA photo from orbit of STS-114 commander Eileen Collins, center, on Discovery's flight deck flanked by re-entry flight engineer Stephen Robinson, left, and pilot James Kelly.
Discovery lifted America's hopes and dreams to space again on July 26, 2005, in the first shuttle flight since the loss of Columbia in 2003.

Discovery flight STS-114 took off on time on July 26 from launch pad LC-39B at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. It was the 114th space shuttle flight, the 31st flight for shuttle Discovery and the 17th shuttle flight to the International Space Station. It was the 145th U.S. human space flight.

Unfortunately, NASA was forced to ground the shuttle fleet the next day because two large pieces of insulating foam had fallen away from Discovery's external fuel tank during lift-off from Kennedy Space Center. Discovery continued its mission in space and landed on August 9.

A review of videotapes after the launch showed powerful blast-off vibrations had ripped at least two and possibly four pieces of foam insulation from the external fuel tank. The largest piece was estimated to be 24 to 33 inches long, 10 to 14 inches wide, and from 2.5 to 8 inches thick. That's slightly smaller than the chunk of foam that damaged Columbia's wing.

Chunks. Two heat-shield tiles also were damaged on the underneath side of Discovery. A rectangular tile near the nose landing gear doors was chipped and a square tile at the aft end of Discovery broke away. None of the falling foam or tile debris hit the orbiter and NASA said there was no threat to the crew.

On orbit, the astronauts were able to inspect further their orbiter using a new long boom arm outfitted with cameras and lasers. NASA said the orbiter had 25 heat shield tiles damaged. That compares with typical damage to 150 thermal protection tiles during launch and re-entry of 113 previous flights. Areas of most concern were the nose landing gear, leading edges of the shuttle's wings and the underside of the orbiter.

Three Successful Spacewalks
Mission specialists Steve Robinson and Soichi Noguchi completed three extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) including a first-ever repair on a shuttle in orbit.

EVA 1: July 30 – Noguchi and Robinson rerouted electrical power to space station gyroscope number 2. A faulty circuit breaker had interrupted power in March 2005.

EVA 2: August 1 – Robinson and Noguchi replaced station gyroscope number 1, which had failed in June 2002. That left all four gyroscopes in operation.

EVA 3: August 3 – Robinson rode the station's robotic arm to the underside of shuttle Discovery where he removed two gap fillers that were sticking out in spaces between heat-shield tiles. They came out easily as he tugged gently. The two were among thousands of ceramic coated fabric gap fillers plugging very small spaces and cushioning the protective tiles. Noguchi and Robinson also attached external stowage platform number 2 to the station's Unity Node and they attached a materials exposure experiment to the outside of the station.

CMGs. A station gyroscope is referred to as a CMG, which is short for control moment gyroscope. The spacewalks left the station with four working CMGs. Each of the four CMGs weighs 600 lbs. and spins at 6,600 rpm. The CMGs are mounted on the station's Z1 truss atop the Unity Node. Together they maintain the station's orientation in space. That is, they control the way the station is pointed and which part of it faces down toward Earth as it orbits the planet. The station can hold its attitude now with only two CMGs, but will require more as it grows.

Helpers. During their spacewalks, the astronauts were coached and monitored by mission specialist Andy Thomas. Discovery pilot Jim Kelly and mission specialist Wendy Lawrence operated the space station's Canadarm-2, which maneuvered Robinson and Noguchi around in space.
How much of a surprise? U.S. astronaut and former Discovery commander Norm Thagard told a Cable News Network reporter that it was very common to see things flying off an external fuel tank. He also said it was a common requirement to replace as many as 100 tiles and repair even more after a shuttle flight.
Cnn: Ex-astronaut says shuttle debris not unusual »

Shuttle future. The fleet of three remaining shuttles – Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour – had been grounded since Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it returned to Earth in 2003.

Before the Columbia accident in 2003, a total of 28 shuttle flights had been planned to complete the station. Upon returning the shuttle fleet to flight in 2005, NASA had reduced expectations of sending only 15-20 missions to the station before retiring the fleet in 2010. When it became necessary to work on the fleet again after Discovery STS-114, the future flight schedule became murky.

Grounding only temporary. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a television interview July 28 that the shuttle fleet would continue its work until 2010 as planned. However, the fleet won't fly again until the new foam issue is resolved.

Griffin said July 29 there can be another shuttle flight in 2005 if the space agency can prevent foam insulation from breaking off during launch.

NASA has what it calls a "tiger team" trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. The agency doesn't expect correcting the problem to take very long, according to Griffin.

An area not fixed. The insulation that fell off during the July 26 launch came from a different spot on the external fuel tank than the foam chunk that damaged Columbia in 2003. Engineers had not addressed that area of the external fuel tank where the foam broke off as Discovery rose into the sky on July 26.

Before Discovery took off, NASA had said that, in case of an emergency during the flight, astronauts would fly the shuttle to the International Space Station. They would board the station and stay there until NASA could send up a rescue shuttle.

NASA had said it would launch shuttle Atlantis as a rescue craft if the Discovery crew had to seek shelter aboard the station. On the other hand, if there were no emergency, NASA had planned to launch Atlantis on a routine flight to the ISS a month or so after the launch of Discovery.

The need to take off during daylight hours limits the remaining 2005 launch windows to September 9-24 and two days in November. Daylight flights allow the shuttle to be photographed for problems.

Foam chunks can be deadly. Columbia flight STS-107 and its crew of seven astronauts were lost while descending from space on February 1, 2003.

Foam insulation that fell from the external tank during Columbia's launch had punched a hole in the orbiter's wing. The shuttle flew on to space, but was destroyed while returning to Earth when superheated atmospheric gases ignited the damaged area.

After changing the way the insulation was applied to the external tank, NASA engineers had thought only small pieces of debris would come off during Discovery's launch.

The Discovery foam loss indicates the space agency needs to improve further the external tank insulation before flying another mission.

Launch. The return-to-space flight by Discovery originally had been scheduled for September 12, 2004, then delayed to March 2005, and then scheduled for and postponed from May 14, May 15, May 22 and July 13.

The July 13, 2005, launch was scrubbed when a problem appeared in a fuel cutoff sensor inside the external hydrogen fuel tank. That sensor protects the orbiter's main engines by shutting them down if fuel runs low.

STS-114 Firsts
Called a mission of firsts, among its groundbreaking activities STS-114:
  • performed the first back-flip in spaceflight
  • carried the orbiter's Boom Sensor System on its maiden flight
  • completed a first-of-its-kind repair to a shuttle
  • used photography to help engineers assess the performance of the shuttle's external fuel tank
  • employed imagery to aid engineers in ensuring a safe heat shield for return to Earth
  • was the first space shuttle to visit the space station since late 2002.
According to the space agency, a dozen teams, with hundreds of engineers across the country worked from July 13-26 on the problem. While they didn't find the cause of the circuit failure, they eliminated numerous possibilities. Although the pre-flight tests were inconclusive, NASA refilled the shuttle external fuel tank on July 26 with super-cooled propellants and the circuit behaved correctly. The countdown went smoothly and the flight blasted off on time.

Discovery flight STS-114 took off on time on July 26 from launch pad LC-39B at Kennedy Space Center.
Discovery launch and landing photos »

Later, Discovery's two solid-fuel booster rockets were recovered in good condition from the Atlantic Ocean, so they can be reused in future launches.

Huge audience. The STS-114 launch was one of the biggest events in Internet history. Web users watched some 433,000 simultaneous webcast streams of NASA TV during the launch.

As the shuttle was launching, NASA was sending out data at a rate of more than 50 gigabits per second. By comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope takes about two days to collect that much data. The data rate more than tripled Deep Impact's record of 13 gigabits per second.

The total almost quadrupled the space agency record set only three weeks earlier on July 4, 2005, as the Deep Impact interplanetary probe encountered Comet Tempel 1 as NASA fed 118,000 webcast streams. For the Mars Exploration Rover landings in January 2004, some 50,000 streams were fed.

About 335,000 viewers received Windows Media streams while 98,000 received RealMedia. It's not clear whether the launch was the most viewed event in Internet history because such statistics usually are kept secret by their owners.

Plane Invading No-Fly Zone Forced Down. Pilot Disappears.
A civilian Piper Cub airplane flew within 20 miles of Discovery's launch pad three minutes before liftoff July 26, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Two Air Force F-16s on security patrol intercepted the small plane and and fired flares to get the pilot's attention.

The fighter planes escorted the plane to an airport 50 miles north of Kennedy Space Center.

When police arrived, the plane was on the ground, but the pilot was gone.
Testing and supplying. As they flew to the ISS, the astronauts tested and evaluated the many safety improvements made to the shuttle in the 2-1/2 years since the Columbia disaster. The changes include a redesigned external fuel tank, new sensors and a boom that astronauts used to inspect the shuttle for any potential damage while on orbit.

The crew tested new procedures for inspecting the shuttle orbiter while it is in orbit. They also tried out new techniques for repairing the shuttle's thermal protection system tiles.

The crew inspected the reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels on the leading edge of the wings and the thermal protection system tiles using the new Canadian-built orbiter boom sensor system and the data from 176 impact and temperature sensors. The astronauts practiced repair techniques on the RCC panels and tile samples during a spacewalk in the payload bay.

Docking at the station. Two days after launch, Discovery docked with the International Space Station 200 miles above Earth on July 28. It was the first time an American space shuttle had taken up a berth in the docks of the orbiting outpost since November 2002.

As they flew close to the ISS before docking, the shuttle crew maneuvered Discovery through a backflip to allow the station crew to shoot close-up photos of the shuttle's heat shield.

Some 200 NASA experts across the country are analyzing the large number of Discovery launch and flight photos from a variety of sources.

Entering the station. An hour and a half after docking, Discovery's seven astronauts entered the ISS where they were greeted by the station's Expedition 11 crew.

Discovery delivered supplies and equipment to the station in the Italian Raffaello Multi Purpose Logistics Module. MPLM is a cargo van carried inside the shuttle cargo hold to transport supplies to the orbital outpost. STS-114 was the third trip to the station for Raffaello.

A Discovery Anecdote
Astronaut Sonny Carter lost his watch somewhere inside shuttle Discovery while orbiting in November 1989. Five months later, during Discovery's April 1990 trip to space, astronaut Loren Shriver found it.
On July 29, the module was lifted out of Discovery's payload bay and attached to the station. The crew began transferring the MPLM cargo of food, tools and replacement parts from the shuttle to the space station.

The shuttle. Discovery's maiden voyage to space was flight STS-41D in 1984. The shuttle was named for two famous sailing ships commanded by Henry Hudson and James Cook.

After the shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, it took NASA 975 days to recover and return to flight. That recovery flight was made by Discovery on September 28, 1988.

Astronauts and spacewalks. Discovery's seven crew members are commander Eileen Collins, pilot James Kelly, and mission specialists Charles Camarda, Wendy Lawrence, Soichi Noguchi, Stephen Robinson and Andy Thomas.
Astronauts profiles:      Collins      Kelly      Camarda      Lawrence      Noguchi      Robinson      Thomas

It is the fourth shuttle flight for Collins. Six years earlier, in 1999, she had been the first woman to command a shuttle mission.

Space shuttle Discovery launches from pad 39B
Discovery roars upward toward a stray cloud in this NASA photo during liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 26, 2005. It was the 114th shuttle flight, the 31st for Discovery.

Space shuttle Discovery launches from pad 39B
Discovery lands at Edwards Air Force Base in California in this NASA photo on August 9, 2005. It was the 50th shuttle landing at Edwards.

click to enlarge either of these images
Two of the astronauts, Robinson and Noguchi, took three spacewalks to demonstrate repair techniques on the shuttle's thermal protection system tiles, remove tile gap fillers, replace a failed gyroscope, which keeps the station oriented properly, and install on the space station an external stowage platform, a shelf to hold spare parts during space station construction. Noguchi is a Japanese astronaut.
Story of their three spacewalks »

Return to Earth. After flying in space for almost two weeks, Discovery undocked from the International Space Station on August 6.

After departing the ISS, the crew flew the shuttle around the orbiting outpost taking pictures from a distance of 400 feet. Then an engine burn was used to move Discovery farther away from the station.

Due to the need to fire the braking rockets, a back-up landing site had to be chosen more than an hour before touchdown. A switch in sites usually can be made up to 90 minutes prior to landing.

U.S. landing sites: To fly down to Edwards Air Force Base in California on August 9, Discovery's braking rockets fired for 2 minutes 42 seconds at 7:06 a.m. at an altitude of 220 miles over the Indian Ocean. That burn slowed the orbiter to begin the descent from orbit.

During its last moments in space, computer-controlled jets positioned the shuttle. As it passd into the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, the wing flaps and rudder steered the shuttle like an airplane as it flew by Los Angeles and Oxnard, California.

The shuttle pitched up at 80 miles altitude as it began to heat up in the atmosphere while traveling at a speed of 17,500 mph. Discovery banked from side to side to slow down further. Commander Eileen Collins took manual control to pilot the vehicle to touchdown.

Student Experiments
Discovery brought down from the space station a package of 20 tiny samples from experiments by students at 11 elementary, middle and high schools across the U.S.

They had been taken to the ISS on December 25, 2004, by a Russian Progress cargo freighter.

The student experiments contained a variety of seeds and other materials in clear vials with lids, each wrapped in two vacuum bags in a Student Experiment Module Satchel (SEMSATCHEL). Now, the students will be able to compare them to samples that never left the ground.

The participating schools:
  • Georgia, Columbus High School
  • Idaho, Pocatello, Shoshone-Bannack High School
  • Maryland, Walkersville Christian Family School
  • Maryland, West River, Shady Side Elementary School
  • Michigan, Dearborne Heights, Bishop Borgess High School
  • New Jersey, Bayonne, J.M. Bailey School
  • New York, American Museum of Natural History
  • New York, Scotia, Central Park Middle School
  • New York, The Mott Hall School
  • New Jersey, Ogdensburg Public School
  • Pennsylvania, Norristown, East Norriton Middle School
Learn more »
A shuttle's landing approach glide slope is 20 degrees, which is more than six times steeper than the 3-degree slope of a commercial jet airliner approaching a runway. A shuttle touches down at a speed of 213 to 226 mph.

Touchdown. The STS-114 flight of 13 days 21 hours 32 minutes 48 seconds ended safely with touchdown on runway 22 at the shuttle landing facility at Edwards Air Force Base, California, on August 9, 2005, at 8:11:22 a.m. EDT (1211 GMT UTC).

The landing took place at Edwards after bad weather led NASA to scrub Discovery's landing in Florida on August 8 and 9. It was the 50th shuttle landing at Edwards.

A 78-person convoy team and a 174-person turnaround team from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) flew to Edwards to disembark and process the crew, and prepare a large aircraft to ferry the shuttle back to KSC.

Discovery underwent maintenance inside a steel structure on Edwards Air Force Base, which is two hours north of Los Angeles. Ground crews purged the shuttle of hazardous substances, removed fuel from the on-board tanks and attached a 10,000-lb. aluminum tail cone to eliminate drag during flight.

Back to Florida. More than a week after being diverted to the backup landing site in the Mojave Desert, Discovery left Edwards Air Force Base on August 19, flying piggyback atop a jumbo jet on a 2,232-mile trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The modified Boeing 747 jetliner arrived in Oklahoma three hours later. The plane refueled there, then flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. It reached Florida on August 20.

Along the route to Florida, an Air Force KC-135 aircraft flew ahead of the shuttle to monitor weather along the route.

Meanwhile, the external fuel tanks used on flight STS-114 recovered from the ocean off of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida were to be shipped to the Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana for tests and possible modifications. It's not clear how Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 may have affected that schedule.

The next flight. NASA is targeting March 2006 for the next shuttle flight. That will be STS-121, the second test flight to the International Space Station in the fleet's Return to Flight sequence.

Shuttle Discovery will be used for the mission, instead of Atlantis. Later, Atlantis will be used sometime in 2006 for flight STS-115, which will resume assembly of the space station.

Atlantis will fly the remaining station truss segments, which are too heavy for Discovery.

Completing the space station. The tragic Columbia accident had halted construction of the multibillion-dollar International Space Station. The 16-nation partnership building the ISS in orbit has been dependent on U.S. shuttles to complete the station.

Several important pieces of hardware for the space station await flights at Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Japan's space station vehicles and modules in the hanger include a laboratory named Kibo – Japanese for hope.

Other hardware in the hanger include Europe's Columbus module, a connecting node, station trusses, solar arrays, and a seven-sided cupola window.

To complete the ISS on a short schedule, NASA would need to drop some of its new post-Columbia requirements:
Space Endurance Record
On August 16, 2005, International Space Station commander Sergei Krikalev surpassed the record for most cumulative time spent in space by any person. On that date, his accumulated total during six flights passed 749 days in space. The previous record had been 747 days, 14 hours, 14 minutes and 11 seconds held by fellow Russian cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev.

Krikalev was born in 1958 in the former Soviet Union at Leningrad – now St Petersburg, Russia. He was selected to be a cosmonaut in 1985 and completed his basic training in 1986. He has been a member of the Russian and Soviet national aerobatic flying teams and has been awarded various titles, including Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin.

During his 20-year career, Krikalev lived aboard Russia's former Mir space station. He made his first long-duration mission to Mir in 1988. The cosmonaut flew aboard U.S. shuttle Discovery flight STS-60, the first joint US–Russian shuttle mission in 1994. He also was a member of the first crew to live aboard the International Space Station.

Learn more »
Dropping those flight rules doesn't seem likely in light of the Discovery STS-114 problems.

Space station crew. The International Space Station, a partnership of 16 countries, is an orbiting laboratory dedicated to science research made possible by the environment of space.

There already were two crew members living and working aboard the space station – commander Sergei Krikalev from Russia and science officer John Phillips from the U.S.

During almost nine days that Discovery was docked at the station, Krikalev and Phillips worked with the shuttle crew moving tons of supplies and equipment onto the space station. They also removed unneeded gear and trash from the station and placed it in Discovery for return to Earth.

Learn more from these NASA websites:
  • Return to Flight
  • Discovery Crew
  • Images and videos
  • Space Shuttle Systems
  • Columbia Familes' Statement
  • Discovery Launch & Landing
  • The Tragedy of Space Shuttle Columbia (STO) »
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