While NASA's next astronaut crew prepares to launch spaceward aboard the space shuttle Discovery later this year, engineers and technicians are packing the mission’s crucial cargo of fresh supplies and science equipment.
As part of NASA’s first return to flight mission, Discovery’s STS-114 spaceflight is bound for the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver food, tools and replacement parts that can’t be shipped to the orbital laboratory any other way.
NASA engineers are filling the Raffaello multi-purpose logistics module (MPLM) – a sort of high-tech shipping container for space station supplies – with cargo to be used by Expedition 11 crewmembers Sergei Krikalev and John Phillips, who will be serving aboard the ISS when Discovery arrives.
“It’s a fairly light load for an MPLM because of all the other things we’re flying on the mission,” said NASA’s Scott Higginbotham, ISS mission manager for the STS-114 mission.
To enhance Discovery’s safety, shuttle engineers have equipped the orbiter with a 50-foot (15-meter) boom to extend the reach of its shuttle arm, and a number of sensors to track impacts along its wing leading edges.
“We’re [also] taking up a lot of tools and equipment in the mid-deck,” said veteran astronaut Eileen Collins, STS-114 commander, during an orbiter check-out earlier this year.
Collins said Discovery will also carry enough food and other supplies to support its crewmembers for a “period of time” aboard the ISS in the remote chance the orbiter suffer severe damage.
Discovery’s STS-114 mission is currently set to launch no earlier than May 15 this year. It is slated to be the first shuttle launch since the Feb. 1, 2003 loss of Columbia and its crew. Since that accident, the ISS has depended on Russian Progress cargo ships for vital supply shipments.
Built by the Italian Space Agency, Raffaello is one of four cargo modules designed to ferry cargo to the ISS aboard space shuttles. Each module is designed to hold 16 racks of cargo and fits inside the shuttle’s payload bay where it can be attached to the ISS, then emptied from the inside.
Higginbotham said Raffaello will only carry 12 racks of supplies totalling about 2,600 pounds (1,170 kilograms) when Discovery launches toward the ISS.
But tucked inside the module will be the Human Research Facility rack 2 (HRF-2), a science station designed to boost biomedical research capabilities of the ISS. The HRF-2 rack, which was packed into Raffaello earlier this week, will be installed inside the station’s U.S.-built Destiny laboratory.
“For me, one of the high points is the internal build up of the space station with new laboratory equipment,” said Phillips, ISS Expedition 11 flight engineer, during an interview.
ISS gyros and platforms
Discovery’s crew will deliver one major piece of hardware that has been long-awaited by astronauts and managers working with the International Space Station.
A 620-pound (281-kilogram) device called a control moment gyroscope (CMG) will ride up aboard Discovery to be installed at the ISS during a spacewalk. The gyroscope will replace a failed component and help keep the space station oriented properly. STS-114 spacewalkers Soichi Noguchi and Stephen Robinson will install the CMG during the second spacewalk of their mission.
During their third extravehicular activity (EVA), the two astronauts will attach a 1,522-pound (690-kilogram) platform to the exterior of the space station’s Quest airlock to hold on-orbit spare parts that will arrive aboard the next two shuttle flights, NASA officials said.
More space for the space station
While the Raffaello cargo will only be partially full at liftoff, the STS-114 crew will spare no space loading it up for the return to Earth.
“We’re bringing back a lot of Russian hardware that is used for automated docking,” Higginbotham said. “There are a lot of U.S. items that we want to bring back either to repair and reuse again or to analyze and understand why they failed. “
Higginbotham said the cargo module will be stuffed with 5,200 pounds (2,358 kilograms) of broken or unused equipment, dirty clothes and other material that is currently clogging up space aboard the ISS.
NASA astronaut Michael Fincke, who served aboard the ISS for six months during Expedition 9 mission, said returning the shuttle fleet to flight is critical for the U.S. to regain its space self-sufficiency.
“The space station is just full of things waiting to come back down to the planet,” he told SPACE.com.