Everything but the Liftoff
Golden twilight sunshine welcomed the STS-115 astronauts on Monday as they swooped into Kennedy Space Center, Fla. for an intensive week of training and a realistic launch rehearsal to get them ready for their upcoming mission.
Known as the terminal countdown demonstration test, the event includes seemingly every part of a launch but the actual liftoff. The event takes place approximately two weeks before the mission and gives the crew the chance to perform important tasks like check the fit of their spacesuits, "shoot" landings in the Shuttle Training Aircraft and take part in a full launch day simulation.
Image to right: STS-115 Mission Specialists Steven MacLean (left) and Joseph Tanner are ready for a ride in a slidewire basket. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston + View High-res Image
Participating in the test was the entire STS-115 crew, consisting of Commander Brent Jett, Pilot Christopher Ferguson and Mission Specialists Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper, Joseph Tanner, Daniel Burbank and Steven MacLean, from the Canadian Space Agency.
The astronauts opened the event by meeting with members of the news media after flying to Kennedy from their home base in Houston aboard T-38 trainer jets. The press conference took place from the ramp of Kennedy's airfield, known as the Shuttle Landing Facility. Afterward, Jett and Ferguson spooled up the twin engines of the Shuttle Training Aircraft to practice the precision landing Space Shuttle Atlantis will make.
On Tuesday morning, the astronauts started the day's training with a little "off roading" to practice driving the M-113 personnel carriers. The vehicles are essentially little unarmed tanks and offer a quick escape from the pad launch area in an emergency. The training was serious, but that didn't keep smiles from spreading across the faces of the crew members as they bounced around dirt roads behind the pad. The fun continued in the evening when Jett and Ferguson took another turn at the training aircraft's stick to further perfect their landings.
When Wednesday morning arrived, the STS-115 crew once again greeted reporters with a question-and-answer session -- this time from a field near the launch pad.
Image to left: Mission Specialist Steven MacLean takes his turn at driving the M-113. Photo Credit: NASA/Cory Huston + View High-res Image
After the news conference, they resumed their training by practicing emergency evacuations from the site. During this important safety exercise, the astronauts acquainted themselves with "slidewire baskets" they can quickly hop into and ride to a nearby safety zone. The baskets are stationed high on the pad near the orbiter and can be released to zoom down a cable anchored a healthy distance from the pad. It's a simple, reliable and, best of all, fast way to clear the area.
The training week peaked on Thursday with a dress rehearsal and simulated countdown that had the look and feel of a real launch day. The astronauts were a familiar sight in their bright-orange launch and entry suits as they made their way to the silver Astrovan for a smooth ride to the launch pad. There, they entered Atlantis and began the process of setting switches and systems aboard the ship for flight as launch controllers ticked through the mock countdown.
Image to right: The astronauts may look tired from a week of training, but they're actually getting a good look at the P3/P4 truss inside the orbiter payload bay. Photo Credit: NASA/Cory Huston + View High-res Image
After a successful launch simulation, the crew members finished up their test week with a careful look at the P3/P4 truss segment secured inside the payload bay of Atlantis. After ensuring the next space station component was fit for flight and safely tucked away for launch, the astronauts brought the week of training and preparations to a close.
Leaving the way that they came, Jett and his team returned to the Shuttle Landing Facility where the T-38s awaited to take them home to Texas. Under the amber haze of a Florida setting sun, much like the one warming the sky on Monday evening, the STS-115 astronauts raced into the air, ready and awaiting their ultimate liftoff.
Charlie Plain and Cheryl Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center