Mission STS-123 Makes Space More International
In the dark and early morning hours of March 11, space shuttle Endeavour roared off Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, through a blaze of smoke and steam, destined for history.
The shuttle carried a precious payload of seven astronauts and two new components that will further 'internationalize' the International Space Station.
Endeavour delivered the first segment of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Kibo module, Kibo means "hope" in Japanese, and the Canadian Space Agency's Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, called Dextre.
Commander Dominic Gorie, a veteran of four spaceflights and Pilot Gregory H. Johnson, a first-time space flyer, brought Endeavour into orbital position about 20 minutes after launch.
The major activity on day one of the mission was the customary inspection of Endeavour's heat shield. Gorie, Johnson and Mission Specialist Takao Doi from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, used the shuttle’s robotic arm and orbiter boom sensor system for the five-hour inspection of the shuttle wings’ leading edges and nose cap.
Mission Specialists Robert L. Behnken, Mike Foreman and Garrett Reisman, making their first flight into space on Endeavour; and Rick Linnehan, having four spaceflights under his belt, including the Hubble Servicing Mission in 2002, were busy checking out their spacesuits for the five spacewalks planned while on the station. Preparations for docking to the orbiting outpost also were under way.
Commander Gorie flew Endeavour to within 1,000 feet of the station and performed a back flip, called a rendezvous pitch maneuver. The station crew photographed the heat shield for analysis by engineers at mission control to make certain the heat shield was in good condition for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the station crew commanded by Peggy Whitson including Flight Engineers Yuri Malenchenko and Leopold Eyharts prepared for the shuttle's arrival by conducting a leak check of the docking port attached to the Harmony node where Endeavour 'parked' during the mission.
Leak checks completed, the hatch was opened and the two crews enthusiastically greeted each other.
After Whitson briefed the Endeavour crew on station safety rules, the next order of business was for Reisman to replace Eyharts as Expedition 16-17 flight engineer. Reisman's customized seatliner, for his return trip to Earth via the Soyuz spacecraft also was transferred to the outpost, completing the 'official' change-over.
Linnehan and Reisman camped overnight in the Quest Airlock. Their first task was to remove the Kibo module from the shuttle's payload bay. Doi, assisted by Gorie, used the station's robotic arm to gently attach the newest international component to its temporary position on the Harmony Node.
Kibo will be relocated to a permanent location during the STS-124 mission when the Discovery crew delivers the Pressurized Module and robotic arm of the Japanese Experiment Module - the second section of Kibo.
Linnehan and Reisman also gave Dextre's arms a new set of "hands," called Orbital Replacement Unit/Tool Changeout Mechanisms or OTCMs. The OTCMs look like jagged jaws and can be used to hold a tool or haul payload.
Johnson and Behnken lifted the Spacelab Pallet containing the robotics system using the Canadarm2 and temporarily parked Dextre on the station's truss.
Good news came from mission control reporting that Endeavour's heat shield had been cleared for re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Reisman was asked during a ground to station press briefing how the first spacewalk went. "Everything is perfect," he said. "The station is looking great … (it's) growing in leaps and bounds."
On Saturday, the hatch to the Japanese Experiment Logistics Module-Pressurized Section was opened and Doi and Whitson were the first to enter.
Sunday, during the second spacewalk of the mission, Dextre received a pair of 11-foot-long arms installed by astronauts Linnehan and Foreman. Tests on Dextre's arm movements were successful and the robot was ready for the next stage of assembly.
Linnehan and Behnken completed the building of Dextre on the third spacewalk. The two-armed robot, now attached to the end of the station’s robotic arm, will be able handle jobs that previously needed a space-suited human, venturing out into the void of space, to accomplish.
Behnken and Foreman were slated for the fourth spacewalk. Their assignment was to repair sample damaged heat shield tiles with a tool called the Tile Repair Ablator Dispenser or T-RAD that dispensed a glue-like substance. The sample repaired tiles returned with the shuttle and will undergo extensive testing to see how well the repairs went in microgravity.
After using the shuttle's orbital boom sensor system to do a final inspection of the vehicle's heat shield, the fifth and last spacewalk was dedicated to moving the boom system to a temporary home on the space station. The system normally is carried in an orbiter's cargo bay every flight.
However, because of the immense size of the next Kibo module, the robotic boom had to be left behind. After Discovery delivers the next component of the Japanese laboratory, the boom system will be stowed back into Discovery's payload bay for the ride home.
Along with some maintenance tasks and inspection of the right Solar Alpha Rotary Joint, the final spacewalk lasted a little more than six hours.
After nearly two weeks in space, it was time to say farewell to the space station and its crew. The hatches between the two spacecraft were closed and Endeavour undocked, completing a record-setting 12-day stint in orbit linked with the station.
Pilot Gregory Johnson flew Endeavour around the station to snap some photos and take a final look at the newly-expanded orbiting complex and the amazing work accomplished by both crews, before firing the shuttle’s jets for the final separation.
Two landing opportunities at Kennedy were available for Endeavour on March 26. The first scheduled for 7:05 p.m. EDT, was waved off due to thick cloud banks around the Shuttle Landing Facility.
After one more orbit around the Earth, Endeavour broke through the darkness and safely touched down at 8:39 p.m. EDT - the 16th night landing at Kennedy and the 22nd in space shuttle history.
"The weather (last night) wouldn't quite cooperate on the first opportunity," Gorie said, "But I think it was destiny because we had trained for a night landing, and that's what we were going to do."
The successful and ambitious STS-123 mission came to a close, but set the stage for NASA's next venture into space on Discovery's STS-124 mission -- to bring the International Space Station one step closer to completion.
Elaine M. Marconi
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center