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Raffaello Packed for Flight
A crane guides Raffaello over the other modules. April 25, 2005, was moving day at NASA's Space Station Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The building is the final stop for hardware en route to the International Space Station. On this day, many of the components are covered with long, silvery sheets of fireproof and anti-static plastic as though packed for the trip. All the components appear dark from a lack of power. All, that is, but one: the gleaming Raffaello.

The day has arrived to lift the 18,000-pound Raffaello module from its support scaffolding and gently place it inside the Transportation Payload Canister for delivery aboard Space Shuttle Discovery this summer. The lights are on in Raffaello's bay, labeled "Footprint 3," and technicians clad in powder-blue cleansuits are moving with intention as they double-check to ensure the module is ready to go.

Image to right: Raffaello is carefully guided over other ISS modules with the help of a crane and technicians holding tight to control ropes. The cargo carrier is the last item to be placed in the payload canister. Credit: NASA/KSC

"It's just been a marathon for us and we are just about to cross the finish line," said Scott Higginbotham, NASA's ISS mission manager. "It's been a multi-year effort to get this mission ready, and to see us this close to launching is just a wonderful feeling."

Raffaello is officially known as the MPLM, or Multi-Purpose Logistics Module. Built by the Italian Space Agency, the cargo container is loaded with parts, food and equipment for the ISS. Raffaello will fly to the Station on the STS-114 Return to Flight mission. The massive vessel is the final piece of hardware to be loaded for the flight, joining two other components already inside the Payload Canister.

The LMC is lowered into the payload canister. The first item loaded into the container was the External Stowage Platform-2 pallet, which holds spare parts for the Station. After launch, Discovery's crew plans to attach the pallet to the Station's airlock. This handy location provides astronauts easy access to parts they might need during maintenance spacewalks.

Image to left: Technicians cautiously watch as the LMC is lowered into position. Credit: NASA/KSC

Also locked into the Payload Canister is the Lightweight Multi-Purpose Experiment Support Structure Carrier (LMC). The girder-like structure includes a spare Space Station attitude-control gyroscope that will help to keep the Station steady in space. This gyroscope will replace an inoperable unit currently onboard the ISS. Bolted down alongside the gyroscope is NASA's new Thermal Protection System Repair Sample box, a test kit designed to evaluate techniques for repairing an orbiter's protective heat shielding.

Before Raffaello can be carried to the Payload Canister, technicians need to verify its weight and center of gravity. This procedure ensures the MPLM's weight matches engineering calculations and will behave as expected come launch day. The process takes place in Footprint 7, at the opposite end of the room from the Payload Canister.

The ESP-2 rests inside the payload canister. A crane that provides the mechanical muscle to lift the MPLM spans the ceiling and rides on two tracks mounted along the walls. After only a couple brief minutes, Raffaello is hovering roughly 30 feet above the floor and slowly gliding back to the scale.

Image to right: The ESP-2 pallet rests securely inside the Payload Canister. Credit: NASA/KSC

After repeating the measuring process three times, the moment arrives for the MPLM to make its ultimate run toward the canister. With Raffaello now in the final stretch, everyone in the facility takes notice. Technicians and engineers begin gathering in the aisles between modules. News photographers suddenly stop chitchatting and stand ready to capture the cargo carrier's approach.

A clean-suited technician following Raffaello from the floor radios the crane operator to begin moving Raffaello. Dangling from the MPLM are guide ropes technicians use to steady its journey, like a giant parade balloon. Before long, the interior of the Payload Canister swells with more than a dozen technicians to help Raffaello settle in. After a "flight" of 35 minutes, the MPLM completes the 300-foot trip, landing safely inside the container.

"Now here we are essentially finished and ready to go to the pad," said Higginbotham. "We're ready to get on with continuing the assembly of the International Space Station."

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center