Weather May Not Cooperate as Atlantis Prepares for Return
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - Atlantis' heat shield is safe enough
for the shuttle to return to Earth, mission managers decided
Wednesday, a day before the space shuttle was scheduled to land in
Florida. A forecast for thunderstorms appeared to be the main
obstacle for its return.
For the shuttle's first landing opportunity at 1:55 p.m. EDT on
Thursday, thunderstorms were predicted to be within 34 miles of the
landing strip at Kennedy Space Center and clouds within 8,000 feet,
both violations of flight rules.
Before signing off on the landing, mission managers held an
unusual, last-minute meeting to clear up three remaining technical
issues. Material known as gap filler appeared to be sticking out of
a wing, a thermal blanket had peeled back during the June 8 launch
and debris was found floating after Atlantis undocked from the
international space station on Tuesday.
Engineers had wanted to make sure the gap filler could withstand
the heat and aerodynamics of re-entry and recheck data on the
thermal blanket, which was repaired during a spacewalk last week.
Mission managers have said the debris may have been ice.
"We were just trying to be completely thorough," said mission
management team chairman John Shannon. "The engineering and safety
teams believe there is no risk at all during re-entry."
Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow told Mission Control in Houston
that the weather looked fine to him as the shuttle flew 214 miles
above the state.
"We're glad to hear the weather looks good from there,"
Mission Control responded. "We'll continue to watch it over the
next 24 hours."
Atlantis has seven opportunities to land over four days.
Mission Control said landing opportunities at Kennedy, the
primary landing site, look slightly better on Friday and Saturday.
A backup landing site in California would be considered on Friday.
That backup site plus another in New Mexico would be activated
Saturday if necessary.
Atlantis has enough power for its systems to orbit until Sunday,
but managers want the shuttle to land by Saturday. The flight would
only be extended to Sunday if there were technical problems that
needed to be fixed.
During the crew's 13-day mission to the international space
station, the astronauts installed a new truss segment, unfurled a
new pair of power-generating solar arrays and activated a rotating
joint that allows the new solar arrays to track the sun.
The mission was extended by two days to give them time to repair
the thermal blanket on the shuttle that peeled back during lift
off. Astronauts Danny Olivas stapled down the blanket with a
medical stapler during a spacewalk. Sturckow said he was confident
the repair job would hold up.
"Everything looks great," he said Wednesday in an interview
with reporters on the ground.
During their stay, Russian computers, which control orientation
and oxygen production, crashed but they were revived several days
later after cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchikhin and Oleg Kotov used a
cable to bypass a circuit board. While docked to the station,
astronauts conserved the shuttle's power in case they needed to
spend an extra day at the outpost.
"When we left, they had the computers up and running," said
Sunita "Suni" Williams, who was returning on Atlantis after
spending more than six months at the space station. "I think there
are some fixes they are going to need to do, but the station is
fine right now. It's back to its normal condition."
Like any polite houseguests, Atlantis' astronauts did their best
to clean up after themselves and followed the instructions of their
hosts in Mission Control before landing.
"The dirty towels can be put in a laundry bag and stowed in the
airlock," Mission Control wrote in instructions sent to the crew.
While Sturckow got a haircut from Yurchikhin before leaving the
space station, Williams said a haircut was the one of the many
things she was looking forward to back on the ground. Williams,
whose nest of raven trusses defied gravity at the space station,
set the record for longest single spaceflight by a woman.
"I'm looking forward to going to the beach and hopefully taking
a walk with my husband and my dog on the beach," she said. "I
can't wait for a good piece of pizza."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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