A swarm of NASA flight controllers, astronauts and engineers have reached one step closer to returning to space agency's shuttle program to launch status, performing the first of many full-scale simulations for its first return-to-flight mission.
With their feet planted firmly at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, flight controllers and the astronaut crew for the Discovery STS-114 mission conducted an eight-hour simulation of the shuttle's rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station (ISS).
Space station astronauts also participated in the docking dress rehearsal, which included a run through of the new shuttle pitch maneuver that will give ISS cameras and crew a good view of Discovery's belly-mounted ceramic heat tiles. That roll maneuver adds about 20 minutes to the already lengthy docking process, but will likely become standard procedure for future missions to the ISS, NASA officials said.
"For me, this is the light at the end of the tunnel," Paul Hill, lead flight director at JSC, told SPACE.com. "We have spent a lot of effort investigating the [Columbia] accident and doing the engineering work to change how we're going to fly."
NASA's three remaining space shuttles have been grounded since the Feb. 1, 2003 loss of Columbia and its seven-astronaut crew during reentry. The shuttle's left wing leading edge was damaged during launch and its crew was unable to survey the damage up close while in orbit.
But NASA engineers are working to change that. During Discovery's ISS docking simulation, its astronaut crew, ISS counterparts and ground flight controllers went through a series of flight maneuvers - in addition to rendezvous pitch - designed to survey NASA orbiters in flight. A second dress rehearsal planned for this week includes using an orbital boom, still under development by NASA engineers, that will allow Discovery's crew to look up close it the shuttle's wing leading edges and nose cap.
"The fact that we're able to do these simulations now shows that many of the milestones for return to flight have been completed," said STS-114 mission specialist Andrew Thomas. "We're getting the rhythm of flying the shuttle again and that's kind of a nice feeling to have."
The Oct. 13 full-scale simulation began on Day Three of Discovery's STS-114 flight plan, starting just after the wake-up call for mission commander Eileen Collins and her crew. The mock shuttle-ISS mission ran through the Day Three timeline until about an hour after ISS docking.
"This integrated simulation is a huge milestone for the crew," Collins said. "The crew is ready to go, the flight control team is ready to go, and we're especially looking forward to the rendezvous pitch maneuver -- something that's never been done before."