Final Push to Launch Countdown Under Way

NASA isstepping through final launch countdown preparations at Kennedy Space Center this week as the agency positions itself for the planned launch next week ofshuttle Atlantis on an International Space Station assembly mission.

Technicianswith United Space Alliance are finishing up work in the shuttle's rear enginecompartment at launch pad 39A, where Atlantis is being readied for a 7:38 p.m.June 8 liftoff.

Also at thepad this week: Technicians will install and test small explosive devices thatwill be used to separate the shuttle from its mobile launcher platform andjettison its twin solid rocket boosters and external tank in flight.

Senior NASAand contractor managers will gather at KSC on Wednesday for a traditionalFlight Readiness Review -- a meeting during which engineers and managers willdiscuss all technical issues that must be resolved before clearing Atlantis andits seven-man astronaut crew for flight.

Chief amongthem: Reviewing the repair work done to the shuttle's 15-story external tankafter thermal insulation covering its aluminum-lithium shell was damaged duringa Feb. 26 hail storm.

Some 2,500dents and gouges were repaired in the KSC Vehicle Assembly Building before the shuttle rolled back out to the launch pad earlier this month. Managers willreview the work done as well as engineering analyses that were carried out todetermine whether critical damage would be done to the orbiter's thermalprotection system if foam insulation used to repair the tank fell off inflight.

Thestandard pre-launch work at pad 39A is proceeding on schedule and it appearsNASA will be in position to make a launch attempt on June 8. A firm launch datewill be set at the conclusion of the two-day Flight Readiness Review.

As itstands, the crew for the station construction mission is scheduled to arrive atKSC around 6:30 p.m. next Monday, and a three-day launch countdown is slated tostart at 9 p.m. next Tuesday.

Led byveteran astronaut Rick Sturckow, the crew includes pilot Lee Archambault andmission specialists James Reilly, Steven Swanson, Patrick Forrester, JohnOlivas and Clayton Anderson. The astronauts are to deliver a station centraltruss segment that's equipped with power-producing solar wings that willstretch 240 feet from tip to tip once unfurled in orbit.

Anderson will remain onboard the station,replacing NASA astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams, who will return toEarth on Atlantis after a seven-month stay on the outpost. Landing istentatively scheduled for 2:44 p.m. June 19.

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