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STS-109 Space Shuttle
Question and Answer Board

Omar from New York
Is the Orbiter Columbia capable of docking with the International Space Station, and if it is, will it be going to the ISS in the future?
Omar, actually Columbia cannot go to the International Space Station right now. It does not have what we call an external docking system, or the orbital docking system as we sometimes call it, which would allow it to dock to the International Space Station. That is a modification that probably will be done during it's next major modification period. So, don't look for Columbia to be traveling up to the International Space Station anytime in the next few years.
Damian from Richmond
How long does it take for the orbiter to reach orbit and for the payload bay doors to open?
Well Damian, the launch itself takes about eight and a half minutes for us to get into the initial orbit that has a very low point and very high point in that orbit. About 45 minutes after the launch we will be reaching the high point at which time we will fire the orbital maneuvering systems engines and that will help circularize our orbit at the point that we want. Only after that time, can you open the payload bay doors. Until that time you need the structural rigidity that the payload doors provide when you do that orbital maneuvering system engine firing.
Stephen from Brisbane (Aust)
I am coming over from Australia to watch the launch on Thursday. Can you tell me about the possible "APU hydraulic pump bolt problem?" Is it something new or is it a recurrent issue from previous missions? Is it serious, and do you know whether it may delay the launch?
The first thing I want to say to Stephen is g'day mate. I'm glad you came over from Australia. I'll tell you about APU hydraulic pump bolt problem we've had. That will not delay the launch. As you can see we are well into the countdown right now, and when the problem occurred we did an analysis and paper work and found some bolts that weren't expected to be there. We've done a lot of testing and a lot of inspecting. We did some worst-case testing. We said OK, if the bolt problem is the worst it can possibly be, then we understand that we would get a hydraulic leak. We've done all that, it is all behind us, and we are ready to go. It is not a problem that has occurred before so it was brand new to us this mission. We worked through it. And we're now ready to go!
Marty from Long Island, NY
Why are there programmed holds in the countdown? Why not just make the countdown longer?
Good question Marty - that was decided a long time ago. We learned back during the Apollo program that it is a good idea to have periods of time where you have no planned work. Because during something as complex as the launch countdown for a spacecraft you are going to run into some inevitable problems. So what we wanted to do was allow the launch team the time to go work those problems without the constraints of the clock ticking on and on. And when you see that happening in the firing room it's a very clear signal to you, you got to be in a bit more of a hurry. So we built in these program holds to give everyone a little breathing space to go work some of the problems that come up during the launch countdown.
Teresa from Madrid
How long does it take after landing to get a shuttle ready for it's next launch?
Good question. Teresa, the answer can vary quite a bit. The general answer is 3 to 6 months. However the record was less than 30 days back in 1985 on Atlantis. And of course if you are in a major down period for an orbiter it can take several years. There are a lot of factors that go into the answer, how many modifications are you going to do to the orbiter during its downtime, what level of detail inspections you want to do. So, as I said it can vary, but the average is between 3 and 6 months.
Mark from Bolingbrook
In the launch of Columbia, what length of time does it take for the shuttle to do the 120-degree roll during ascent?
Well Mark, the 120-degree number is just an approximation. Sometimes it is more sometimes it's less depending on the orbital mechanics and what inclination of an orbit we are going into. The reason we do that roll is the launch pad had to be situated in such a way that the orbiter could not be pointed in the correct direction when we launch. It just saved a lot of money when we building the launch pad. So once they liftoff and you see them start that roll, which by the way is done by the solid rocket booster nozzles that pivot cause the shuttle to do that little walk-around. We do that so that the orbiter will fly up in a heads-down configuration - its more stable that way and it also gives the astronauts a view out their window that gives them some orientation to where the Earth's horizon is in case something were to happen. That's why we do it.
Robin from Mobile
During the countdown what happens in the Launch Control Room?
Well that depends, Robin if it's early on in the count say three days prior to launch they could be loading some of the hydrogen and oxygen for the power reactant supply and distribution system. It could be a lot of things going on. But I am sure what you are most interested in is what is going on right now. If there are no big problems to be worked everyone is monitoring their screens, having discussions about things the way they see data trending that sort of thing. We get down to the T-20 minutes and T-9 minutes OK are we ready to go? Various managers are looking to their engineers to discuss their status of readiness for the launch. Once you get below T-9 minutes generally speaking you can head a pin drop in the firing room. Everybody is very, very focused on what is going on because there are a lot of dynamic things happening out at the launch pad. That gives you some general idea of what's going on.
Jeff from Orlando
How long will it take for the shuttle to reach the Hubble from the time it takes off?
This is a fairly easy question. Jeff, we are supposed to rendezvous with the Hubble space telescope on flight day 3. And the way you calculate that is when the astronauts wake up on day one that is considered flight day one. So when they wake up for flight day 3 it will occur on that day.
Christian from Vienna
Do the astronauts do any mission training at Kennedy Space Center or do they just arrive right before launch?
Well actually they do come out here about two weeks prior to the launch and we go through what is called a terminal countdown demonstration test or in NASA's parlance TCDT. What we will do that day is pretend like it is launch day. The crew will get up and have their breakfast, put on their orange pumpkin suits they will go out to the pad, climb into the orbiter just like they will on the launch morning. The biggest difference of course being we don't close the hatch. And there are still literally hundreds of workers still around the launch pad during that test. At various times prior to the countdown demonstration test they will come out and do some training with some of the flight hardware that we have here. But as far as actually getting into the orbiter and practicing some aspect of the launch and ascent that doesn't happen until two weeks prior to launch.
Ben from Washington
What kind of upgrades did Shuttle Columbia receive?
Well Ben, it had a lot of modifications done to it. The primary one is what we call the MEDS M-E-D-S, which is a Multi-functional Electronic Display System. It really is just a glass cockpit. We used to have old-style gauges and meters in there. But we are trying to bring it up to date with what you see in most airliners these days, and glass cockpit is the term they use. You also may remember that Columbia had a wiring problem on one of its last missions before the major down period. So what we did was we went in and inspected 95 percent of all the wires inside Columbia and replaced actually about 210 miles worth of wiring which actually is a significant percentage but not as much as you might think. There is a lot of wire inside each orbiter. We also removed about 1,000 pounds of structure we did that by replacing some steel with aluminum pieces - before Columbia was built rather strongly since it was the first orbiter built. We actually took some of the structure out and didn't have to replace it. Those are the major things that have been done to Columbia.
Allan from Pompano Beach
Can I go to the beach and see the shuttle launch...will the shuttle take a southern launch path?
Very interesting question, Allan no it will not be taking a southern launch path we never do that out of the Kennedy Space Center. The closest you will ever see is a due-east launch and that is what this one is going to be. For those of you who understand orbital mechanics, we are going into a 28.5 degree inclination only because that is the latitude at which the Kennedy Space Center is located. If we are going to the International Space Station we will take kind of a northeast track out of the Kennedy Space Center. For viewing, yes Allan you can go out to the beach and watch it. But it's best if you want to be about 50 miles north or south of the launch pad.
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center