Despite the recent decision to delay the shuttle’s return to flight by another two months, morale here remains strong with workers determined to get shuttle crews back into Earth orbit soon, but as safely as possible.

“It’s a speed bump. But everybody feels that it was a good upper management call. We’re going to keep on pressing forward like we have been,” said Jody Tobin, site test conductor in Orbiter Processing Facility Bay 1 for United Space Alliance, the prime shuttle contractor.

“We all want to see launch … and we will see a launch … but it will be safer,” Tobin added.

In addition to the preparations for Discovery’s launch, NASA also must contend with preparing the space shuttle Atlantis for its projected liftoff in the mid-September timeframe, Tobin said. Within the vast innards of the Vehicle Assembly Building, dual solid rocket motors and a huge external tank now are ready to be attached to Atlantis.

Launch on need

Tobin said Atlantis has to be prepped and ready for flight within 35 to 40 days after Discovery’s takeoff.

This “Launch on Need” approach gives NASA a rescue capability in the event that Discovery is found incapable of safe re-entry to Earth. In that case it would remain with its seven-person crew sheltered on the international space station until help arrives.

“If something does happen, then that means we have the capability to go up and return with the crew onboard the international space station,” Tobin said. Discovery has gone through a full-blown Orbiter Maintenance Modification to ready it for return-to-flight duties, he said.

NASA announced in late April that July 13 to 31 is the new launch planning window for the shuttle Discovery’s return-to-flight mission. It will be the first shuttle flight since Columbia tragically broke apart during re-entry killing its seven-person crew in February 2003.

The delay in Discovery’s launch was prompted by the need for more work to validate engineering analyses of debris and ice hazards during a shuttle’s liftoff, as well as propulsion system troubleshooting. The extra time also will be used to make additional modifications to Discovery’s large external fuel tank — changes meant to reduce the risk of insulating foam hitting the space plane during ascent.

The physical cause of the loss of Columbia and its astronauts was a breach on the leading edge of the space plane’s left wing when it was struck by a piece of insulating foam coming from the external tank during takeoff.

NASA still has to decide whether repairs right on the launch pad are possible to avoid rolling the shuttle transportation system back into the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Putting on the speed brakes

During Discovery’s flight, safety improvements such as the new Remote Manipulator System/Orbiter Booster Sensor System– designed to survey the orbiter’s wing leading edge for damage — will be appraised by engineers.

The results of those assessments, Tobin advised, will be carried over into readying Atlantis and Endeavour for future flights.

Meanwhile, shuttle Atlantis now is surrounded by an elaborate skeleton of work platforms and scaffolding holding work personnel. The space plane already is outfitted with its thermal protection system of tiles, as well as a set of ready-for-flight wheels.

Rudder speed brake hardware in Atlantis’ tail section is slated for checkout and their control rates will be set, Tobin said. Rudder speed brake mechanisms were discovered last year to have been improperly installed and also found to be suspect on all three remaining orbiters, he said.

Safety first

Out on launch pad 39B, Discovery patiently sits mostly cloaked within a fixed and rotating service structure. That launch pad equipment has undergone a blasting of crushed coal slag — stripping it of old pealing paint and rust flakes — and is now freshly recoated, said Tracy Yates, a United Space Alliance spokeswoman.

The refurbishment was on the need-to-do list. It also met one of the requirements of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which stressed the need to reduce foreign object debris, Yates said . As the prime shuttle contractor, some 6,500 employees of United Space Alliance are at the Kennedy Space Center supporting the effort, she said.

Regarding the Discovery launch slip, Yates said that employees remain upbeat and committed to achieving a return-to-flight of the shuttle system. The attitude is safety first, she emphasized.

“The saying around here is no orbiter will fly before its time,” Yates said.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...