NASA Discusses December Launch Plan for Shuttle Atlantis

Astronauts Ready to Tackle Space Station Construction
At the slidewire basket landing on Launch Pad 39A, the space shuttle Atlantis STS-122 crew responds to questions from the media on Nov. 19, 2007. From left are commander Steve Frick (with microphone); pilot Alan Poindexter; and mission specialists Leland Melvin, Rex Walheim, Hans Schlegel, Stanley Love and Leopold Eyharts.
(Image: © NASA/Kim Shiflett.)

Top NASAofficials are expected to set a firm December launch date today for the shuttleAtlantis and a European laboratory bound for the International Space Station(ISS).

Shuttle missionmanagers are holding a day-long review at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) inCape Canaveral, Fla., to determine whether Atlantis is ready for a planned Dec.6 launch to the ISS. The agency will formally announce its decision during apress conference later today.

"Froma shuttle viewpoint, I think everything is looking very good," NASAspokesperson Kyle Herring told SPACE.com Thursday.

Commandedby veteran shuttle flyer Stephen Frick, Atlantis' STS-122 astronaut crew is chargedwith delivering the European Space Agency's (ESA) Columbus laboratory to theISS and swapping one member of the three-person Expedition 16 crew currentlyserving aboard the station.

Frick andhis six crewmates plan to stage at least three spacewalks to install Columbusat the station's Harmony connecting node during their11-day spaceflight. ESA astronaut Leopold Eyharts,of France, will replace U.S. spaceflyer Dan Tani aspart of the Expedition 16 crew.

Theirmission follows a packed month of ISS construction by Expedition16 commander Peggy Whitson, Tani and flightengineer Yuri Malenchenko. The astronaut trio stagedthree spacewalks in 15 days and performed tricky robotic arm work to outfit theHarmony node with a shuttle docking port, move it to the front of the ISS andwire it into the station's cooling and power grid.

Engineers on Earth continueto study the impact of metallic grit in a massive gear that rotates thestation's starboard solar arrays like a paddlewheel to track the sun. They are also continuing work to determine if indications of a slight air leak aboard the station's Harmony module are genuine or the result of false signals from ISS instrumentation.

Duringtoday's Flight Readiness Review (FRR), a standard meeting that precedes everyshuttle mission, NASA officials are expected to discuss plans that call forSTS-122 spacewalkers to wear protective overglovesduring their excursions to avoid cutting their spacesuit gloves on sharp edgesoutside the ISS, Herring said. Mission managers will also continue talks over potentialexterior coating defects on heat-resistant panels lining space shuttle wingedges and nose caps, he added.

A newinspection technique to examine the reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) panels priorto the Oct. 23 launch of NASA's shuttle Discovery found indications of slightdefects in the exterior coating of some panels. After a lengthy discussion,mission managers cleared Discovery for flight, but vowed to continue studyingthe coating issue to determine its cause. Discovery's STS-120 crew returned toEarth on Nov. 7 after a successful ISSconstruction flight.

Earlierthis month, mission managers also cleared Atlantis' heat shield, which consistsof the RCC panels, heat-resistant tiles and thermal blankets, of any concernsfor next week's planned launch.

NASA has anup to nine-day window to launch Atlantis to the ISS in December before anglesbetween the station's power-generating solar arrays and the sun becomeunfavorable for docked operations. Mission managers have said they wouldreschedule the mission to early January if a December launch proves untenable.

Atlantis'STS-122 mission will mark NASA's fourth shuttle flight of 2007 and the secondto deliver a new orbital room to the ISS.

NASAwill hold a press briefing no earlier than 4:00 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) on NASA TVto discuss today's Flight Readiness Review meeting for Atlantis' STS-122 shuttle mission. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission coverage and NASATV feed.

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