Shuttle Atlantis Suits Up for Flight
After being raised to a vertical position, Atlantis hangs suspended several feet above the floor of the transfer aisle in the Vehicle Assembly Building as it is prepared for its STS-115 mission.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

CAPE CANAVERAL - Workers are preparing shuttle Atlantis today for a trip to the launch pad next Monday, after it took a different kind of flight overnight: dangling from a crane in Kennedy Space Center's vast Vehicle Assembly Building.

It rolled there from its hangar about 7:30 a.m. EDT Monday, a bit late, after its transporter was slow to start. Cranes lifted it to a vertical position about 5 p.m. By this morning, it was expected to be lowered onto the mobile launcher platform with its tank and solid rocket boosters.

Atlantis' scheduled Aug. 28 launch to the International Space Station will be its first mission since 2002. Sister ship Discovery handled the first two flights after the 2003 Columbia accident.

"It's very exciting for me, personally," said heat-shield tile designer Jim Easey, who works for United Space Alliance. "I worked real hard at school and tried to get a job here at Kennedy Space Center specifically. And I've been here for about nine months, and I've seen Discovery roll over and launch and return, and now it's my first time seeing Atlantis do that."

Atlantis' flight marks the return of serious construction of the space station. The ship will carry a two-part girder with a new set of solar-panel wings.

It was heavy even without its cargo.

"One of the last things they do before the orbiter leaves is weigh it, and Atlantis weighed 189,890 pounds," United Space Alliance spokeswoman Tracy Yates said.
Like Discovery, it got some new hardware for its flight: all-new front windows, stronger main landing gear tires, 1,059 new tiles and 4,868 gap fillers. NASA has replaced gap fillers between tiles so they won't come loose and stick out of the heat shield, posing a problem for the ship's super-hot reentry into the atmosphere.

Jean Wright of United Space Alliance had a hand in making sure the ship was protected from temperature extremes. Her boss told her he had a cool job for her.

"He asked me if I wanted to go sew inside the nose landing gear," said Wright, one of the technicians who stitches thermal blankets for the orbiters. "So over two days, I was up there, wedged for about 14 hours. And we do a lot of hand sewing, so the thermal barriers are all sewn in the nose landing gear doors."

She and Easey were among crowds of workers who came out to see Atlantis make a leisurely trip in the morning sun. The ship paused halfway so a group could pose for a picture in front of it. Others snapped photos of one another with cameras and cell phones.

"Even though I've seen this program for over 20 years, I'm still in awe every time I see it come out," Wright said. "Every time."

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