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STS-134 crew walkout
The cre of STS-134 waves to the media just before boarding the van that was to take them to the launch pad; it turned around en route when the launch was scrubbed. (credit: J. Foust)

A muddled future

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In the days leading up to last week’s scheduled launch, the numbers ballooned. 200,000. 400,000. 500,000. 700,000. And those were just the official estimates. Others, be they hotel and restaurant workers on Florida’s Space Coast or people exchanging second-, third-, and nth-hand rumors on the Internet, suggested the numbers could be even larger: up to or even over one million people crowding the area to attempt to witness the launch of space shuttle Endeavour on its final mission, and the penultimate flight overall for the shuttle program. In short, no one knew how many might show up, other than a lot.

Those who did make the trip, though, came away disappointed. More than three hours before the scheduled 3:47 pm EDT launch, while many were still making their way to viewing sites along the coast, shuttle managers scrubbed the planned launch after heaters in one of the orbiter’s three auxiliary power units (APUs) failed to turn on as expected. What was initially a 48-hour delay soon became a 72-hour delay and, as of Sunday, a delay to no earlier than next Sunday, May 8—and even that might be optimistic. The shuttle program, it seems, is limping into the sunset.

Anatomy of a scrub

At first, the challenge to an on-time launch appeared to come not from machine but Mother Nature. On Wednesday a brush fire broke out not far from the Kennedy Space Center press site: too far to pose any risk to the shuttle but enough to unsettle some people. Hot and humid conditions on Thursday gave rise to lines of thunderstorms that pummeled the space center in the evening, delaying the rollback of the Rotating Service Structure (RSS) that covers the orbiter while on the pad for nearly five hours, leaving little margin for error in the schedule. Showers returned near KSC on Friday morning; while they quickly passed, clouds and gusty winds lingered.

“Frankly, this was a pretty straightforward scrub,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach.

It would be technical issues, though, that posed the greater obstacle to the launch. First, the pressure in a fuel tank in Endeavour’s right Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pod was slightly higher than acceptable limits. Shuttle officials downplayed the issue, though, and found a way to handle the problem. Everything seemed to be on track when the six-man STS-134 walked out of the Operations and Checkout Building around noon and boarded the Astrovan, bound for the pad.

They never made it to the pad, though. As buses carrying media who photographed the crew’s walkout made their way back to the press site came word that the launch had abruptly been scrubbed. The Astrovan had made it far as the Launch Control Center (LCC) when it stopped, lingered for a while, then turned around and headed back when it word came that the launch was scrubbed.

While news of the scrub was surprising, shuttle managers said at a press conference later Friday they had been working the problem for some time that morning. The first indication of a problem was when heaters that keep hydrazine fuel lines from freezing in one of the shuttle’s three APUs failed to turn on as expected once the shuttle’s external tank was filled with liquid oxygen and hydrogen. Efforts to turn on the heaters also failed. “We talked for a couple of hours about if we could get comfortable launching in a configuration like this,” said shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach, since there was a redundant heater system, but later decided it was better to understand the cause of the problem. “Frankly, this was a pretty straightforward scrub.”

Leinbach added that the crew was aware of the issue even before they boarded the van, “but in order to stay on the timeline, had we gotten lucky, we had to keep them headed towards the pad.” The fact that the van turned around at the LCC “was just happenstance” based on when discussions for calling a scrub wrapped up.

The cause of the heater failure on Friday wasn’t clear, but NASA officials were hoping that it was simply a problem with the thermostats that control the heaters. Those thermostats, they said, could be quickly replaced, and allow them to get back on track for a Monday launch attempt. By Sunday morning, though, it was clear that the problem was not with the thermostats but instead a device called the Load Control Assembly (LCA), which serves a role analogous to a secondary fusebox in a house. Although engineers weren’t clear what the problem was with the LCA, they concluded they needed to replace it. “This one just failed on us,” said Leinbach.

Mission management team chair Mike Moses said the notional schedule was to remove the failed LCA on Monday and install the new one on Tuesday, followed by two full days retesting all the systems it routes power to. That makes the earliest possible launch date May 8, although Moses admitted “that looks like a pretty aggressive schedule,” and thus declined to set a new launch date until more progress is made on the repairs over the next day or two. In addition, an Atlas rocket carrying an Air Force satellite is scheduled for launch Friday from Cape Canaveral, creating a range conflict NASA has to work around.

“The team is upbeat, I’ll tell you; a little disappointed, of course, that we couldn’t launch,” Leinbach said Sunday. “Responding to problems is one of the things we do best around here, and the team always likes a good challenge.”

Obama’s visit and Florida’s concerns

In addition to being the next-to-last shuttle launch, Friday’s attempted launch captured the public’s attention because of plans by President Obama to watch the launch from KSC and meet with Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman married to STS-134 commander Mark Kelly and recovering from a near-fatal shooting in Tucson in January. Despite the scrub, Obama and his family still traveled to KSC for a two-hour visit, getting a close-up look at shuttle Atlantis as it is prepared for its final mission this summer and also meet with the STS-134 crew.

“The president supports our spaceflight program. He’s very supportive of what we’re doing,” KSC director Cabana said.

Friday was not the president’s first visit to KSC: on April 15th of last year he also made a brief visit to the space center, delivering a major speech on his space policy (see “Hitting the reset button”, The Space Review, April 19, 2010). This visit, though, was very different. There were no speeches or even brief comments to the media or public during his visit, and even very little live coverage beyond his arrival and departure.

Pressed for details about the president’s visit in a NASA press conference Friday after his departure, KSC director Bob Cabana could offer only generalities. “He was extremely supportive of what we were doing,” Cabana said. “I think it was great that he came down today. I think the family really enjoyed the visit.”

Later, Cabana said, “The president supports our spaceflight program. He’s very supportive of what we’re doing,” adding that the president “is supportive of us building a large rocket and crew vehicle to go beyond our home planet” as well as the commercial crew program. “Everybody that he ran into, he thanked them for what we’re doing,” Cabana said. “He enjoyed his tour and seeing all that he saw, and he wants us to keep doing good things.”

Locals in particular were perhaps expecting something more, given their concerns about the economic impact to the Space Coast when the shuttle program retires later this summer, laying off thousands of workers. Leading up to the trip political publications like POLITICO and The Hill anticipated the president would use the visit to “mend fences” and “ease the political damage of job losses” in the region. But there’s little evidence his brief visit did much on those issues.

Exacerbating the problem was news earlier in the week that $40 million in economic aid to the region—promised by President Obama in his KSC speech last year—wasn’t included in the final 2011 spending bill passed by Congress in April. Exactly how the money, mostly in the form of grants to support new businesses in the region, fell through the cracks of the budget isn’t clear, but there was no shortage of finger pointing among various politicians.

However, there’s perhaps little President Obama could have said, short of doing a complete about-face and vowing to continue to fly the shuttle indefinitely (if that were even technically possible), that would have mollified the local community. The issue of jobs on the Space Coast is something that Republicans are likely to bring up in their 2012 campaigns there against both the president and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who is running for reelection.

But as the political wrangling continues, the shuttle program lurches towards its inevitable end.

For example, on the same day as the president’s visit, the campaign of George LeMieux, running for the Republican nomination for Nelson’s Senate seat, issued a video lambasting Nelson for allowing what it claims will be 23,000 lost jobs—on the high end of estimates—when the shuttle ends. “Florida, we have a problem, and his name is Bill Nelson,” read the graphics on the 42-second video, which features no narration or other comments by LeMieux. “Bill Nelson is letting NASA die on his watch.” The campaign, by contrast, positions LeMieux as “a champion for our space program and a defender of our American exceptionalism,” without offering any specifics about what he would do differently.

(There is now, more than two days after the visit, perhaps an alternative explanation regarding why President Obama’s visit was so low-key: he had other things on his mind, after the stunning revelation Sunday night that US forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The president reportedly approved the action just a few hours before his trip to KSC.)

But as the political wrangling continues, the shuttle program lurches towards its inevitable end. A year ago, after the on-time launch of Atlantis on STS-132 after a trouble-free countdown, some wondered if the shuttle was being retired too soon. “We’re like a pro athlete performing at the top of their game,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, after that launch (see “The long goodbye”, The Space Review, May 17, 2010).

That pro athlete is now clearly showing lots of signs of age: since that May 14, 2010, launch, the shuttle has flown only once: the launch of Discovery in February, after months of delays because of technical problems. While the near-term plans for Endeavour and the long-term effects of the shuttle’s end on the Space Coast remain equally unclear, one thing is certain: a long-running chapter in the history of human spaceflight is approaching its conclusion.