STS-117 Astronaut Webcast

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STS-117 Astronaut Webcast
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LISA MALONE: Welcome to’s mission STS-117 prelaunch webcast! Thanks for joining us. I'm Lisa Malone, director of public affairs at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Space Shuttle Atlantis is on the launch pad ready to fly and we are about to take a closer look at STS-117, a mission to continue building the International Space Station.

Coming up, NASA astronaut Leland Melvin will join us to talk about the challenges of this mission. He will also answer some of your questions about spaceflight, submitted via our Web site. He'll show us a solar cell and explain how they power the station.

Speaking of challenges, mission STS-117 presented some unique ones for NASA. The mission, originally planned for March, was delayed after an unusual storm swept over the Center in February, battering the external tank with hail. That hail dented the foam insulation on the tank. This required Atlantis to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs. With the work complete, Atlantis rolled out to the launch pad again on May 15.

As a result of the delay, the agency decided to conduct an astronaut swap, exchanging Clay Anderson with current space station resident Sunita Williams. The exchange was originally planned for mission STS-118. Adding Anderson for launch and Williams for the trip home meant NASA had to make changes to accommodate an additional crewmember. We'll have more on that later.

But first, we'll begin with the mission! The crewmembers of STS-117 will find themselves working hard almost around the clock as they fly around the Earth.

Here’s how the 11-day mission should unfold:

NARRATOR: Reaching orbit is the first day's main goal, of course.

The second day will see the crewmembers examine the orbiter using the robot arm and cameras at the end of a long boom.

They should catch up with the International Space Station on their third day in orbit, but even after docking, there will be some major work before they board the space station.

RICK STURCKOW: Before we even open the hatches to the space station and go greet our partners in this 13A assembly mission, the crew of increment 14, we will already begin with the shuttle arm grappling the S3/S4 truss so that we are all ready to start taking it out of the payload bay that same afternoon of flight day three. Then we’ll slowly remove it and take it to the handoff position, where it’ll be grappled by the station arm.

NARRATOR: The truss will be "parked" until the fourth day. On that fourth day, shuttle pilot Lee Archambault will maneuver the truss and its solar arrays onto the far end of the station's growing backbone.

The construction work begins on flight day four, when Mission Specialists Jim Reilly and John Olivas are slated to conduct a pair of spacewalks to connect the solar arrays to the station.

Later, Mission Specialists Patrick Forrester and Steve Swanson are to take part in another spacewalk when they help retract the solar arrays on another section of the station.

While the construction work is taking place outside, some crewmembers inside will move new supplies from the shuttle into the International Space Station.

After switching Clay Anderson for Sunita Williams, the STS-117 crew will back Atlantis away from the space station on flight day 10 and get a first good look at the new solar arrays. The Atlantis crew will spend flight day 11 readying the ship for its glide back to Earth and a landing scheduled for Kennedy Space Center.

MALONE: As you know, the goal of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program is to continue building the International Space Station. Each shuttle flight carries an important segment to complete the orbiting outpost and the hardware tucked inside Atlantis’ cargo bay is no exception. Take a look:

NARRATOR: Right now, the third of four solar arrays to be connected to the station is tucked into Atlantis' cargo bay. Once in space, astronauts will use the robot arms onboard Atlantis and the station to lift the S3/S4 segment out of the cargo bay, and move it to the starboard end of the long girder or truss that forms the backbone of the station.

After electrical and tubing connections are made by spacewalking astronauts, the arrays will be unfurled and stretched out to 240 feet and will provide power for the station. When all four are installed, they will convert enough sunlight to power 42 large homes.

MALONE: Now I’d like to welcome astronaut Leland Melvin, who will fly his first mission this winter aboard Atlantis on STS-122. Thanks for joining us today, Leland!

LELAND MELVIN: Thanks for inviting me, Lisa, and hello to everyone out in webland.

MALONE: Well, trivia fans would be interested to know that you were drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions as a wide receiver in 1986, and took part in training camps for the Dallas Cowboys before an injury ended your football career and pointed you toward space. Any regrets?

MELVIN: Well, I have no regrets. I mean, playing football is a great thing and it gets you prepared to work on a team, and this is a very, being an astronaut is working on a very highly functioning team. So that, you know, working there, helped me to get to this position here. No regrets.

MALONE: Well, there aren't many people who get to be an NFL player and be an astronaut! In fact, one of your roles on STS-122 is going to be flight engineer, helping the commander and pilot during launch and landing. So, was it harder to learn an NFL playbook, or all of the procedures involved with launching a space shuttle?

MELVIN: That’s a good question. The playbook – I was a wide receiver, so the playbook is really thick for the Dallas Cowboys and has lots of variations. It’s about, about that size, and the equivalent astronaut playbook is called the SCOM, the Shuttle Crew Operations Manual. It’s about as thick, but it’s a quite bit more complex, and I tell young athletes, if you can learn how to read a playbook, you can lean what it takes to be on a shuttle team as long as you are just as dedicated.

MALONE: Well, let's take a closer look at the reason for this flight. This little item is a solar cell. Can you explain what that is and how are they used?

MELVIN: Wow, they’re very fragile, aren’t they?


MELVIN: The solar cells, they take light from the sun into the semiconducting material and they turn it into electricity. But the, the space station uses tens of thousands of these to provide electricity. In fact, each of the station’s four solar array segments carries enough of these cells to cover a quarter of an acre. That’s a lot. The S3/S4 truss holds two solar array wings, with each wing being 115 feet long and 38 feet wide, and these arrays will produce enough power to power 30 average homes. Solar power is used because the sun is the only consistent source of energy available in low- Earth orbit. Solar cells can basically provide electricity to power things like a calculator, a house, an electric street sign or even a space station.

MALONE: Leland, what makes these different from other solar panels that we've seen before?

MELVIN: Good question. These are much smaller than the rigid panels used on Skylab in 1973. They are about the size of an apple and some of the most efficient cells produced. Because these solar cells are so small, we can weave them onto blankets and fold those blankets up so they will fit inside the space shuttle's cargo bay. It’s very important to have lightweight and flexible solar cells because it allows us to take up more to space, taking up a smaller volume in the payload bay.

MALONE: And are they more effective than previous models?

MELVIN: They’re extremely effective. They are so effective that they can even produce power when they are not facing the sun. They fly into space tucked inside thin boxes, and the crew unfurls them at the station. Each wing reaches about 240 feet and really gives the space station a signature appearance. You see it in the, in the night sky. They are also incredibly light, which is equally important when it comes to carrying them up into space.

MALONE: Wow, that’s really amazing technology. Leland, as you know, delivering the solar cells is one of the mission's primary objectives. Delivering a new crewmember to the station is the other. In fact, adding Mission Specialist Clay Anderson to the crew required last-minute changes for NASA, not to mention for Clay and his family.

CLAY ANDERON: And at that point, they decided to move me to 117, which now launches earlier than my original date on 118, so, from the perspective of my family getting ready, my guests being ready to go to Florida to watch a launch, all that’s a little hectic but, uh, it’s going to work out.

MALONE: So, how does a crew change like this affect planning and camaraderie on a flight?

MELVIN: Well, Clay, and Clay was going to go up on STS-118 and he was going to fly with two other “penguins,” Barbara Morgan and Tracy Collins. Now, penguin is, we have 31 astronauts in the penguin class. We’re a very tightly knit group of astronauts. But on this flight, on 117, he’s going to go up with three penguins. So that, that part is going to be about the same camaraderie, because we all worked together as a team before.

MALONE: So what kinds of work had to be done to accommodate the extra crewmember to and from the space?

MELVIN: That’s a good question too. We obviously had to add another seat to the orbiter, because we had six before, now we have seven. In fact, the seat will be set up so Williams can lie on her back during the return to Earth.

That is common for astronauts coming home after months in the weightlessness of orbit. The mission will also take another “pumpkin suit,” the orange suits that we wear, so Williams can have that for the trip home.

MALONE: Leland, you've had two dream jobs and understandably some people may want to follow in your footsteps. For instance, Adam from Greensboro submitted this question: "Can you tell me everything there is to know about being a, astronaut?

MELVIN: Hmm, everything... I don’t know, Adam. There’s a lot to tell you. You know, we do spacewalks, we fly in the T-38s, we work in the MBL, which is the big pool for training for spacewalks, and we also act as mission specialists for flying the orbiter up and down, ascent and entry, as well as working robotic arms. So there are lots of different things that you do to become an astronaut, but my suggestion for you is eat your green beans, study hard, listen to your parents and focus on something that you really enjoy doing – science or math and engineering – and that will get you ready for spaceflight.

MALONE: And Sara from Detroit, Michigan, has a question that I’m interested in: How do astronauts with long hair like Sunita Williams wash their hair in space?

MELVIN: Sara, that’s a very good question and, actually, since I don’t have very long hair, I don’t need to know about this. But I sent Suni an e-mail yesterday and she sent me back a response which is right here. I cut and pasted it into this page. And she said she wets it with water, she puts in some herbal Russian shampoo that doesn’t really foam up a lot, and then she rubs it around. She towels it off, she adds more water, rubs it around again and then she towels it off again. She does this a couple times to get all the, all of the shampoo out, and she says it really, really works well. And she also said the U.S. shampoo makes her hair feel like straw. So I’m glad I don’t have that problem.

MALONE: And Deborah from Orlando is asking, “Why weren’t any women assigned to this mission?”

MELVIN: Deborah, good question. You know, the astronaut office assigns these flights based on the current people we have that are ready for a mission, the people that haven’t flown before, and it just happened that, you know, all of these crew members turned out to be men. However, if you think about the flight before this one, STS-116, we had Suni Williams on that flight, as well as Joan Higginbotham, so those were two women on that flight. And then STS-118 will have Tracy Caldwell and Barbara Morgan, both penguins that Clay’s going to, going to not see this time. But also, on STS-120, after that, we’re going to have the second female commander in Pam Melroy, and mission specialist 2, the flight engineer is going to be Stephanie Wilson. So there are women everywhere working shuttle missions.

MALONE: From Germany, we have a question from, from Hendrick: “Why is it important to retract the P6 arrays?”

MELVIN: That’s a good question too. Hendrick, the P6 arrays will actually be in the way when we go to adjust the S4 solar arrays. So we want to make sure that those are all the way retracted before we start pointing and adjusting so that we can track the sun. But very good question.

MALONE: Kim from Nesbin, Norway, asks, “What do you think will be looked at as the biggest accomplishment of the International Space Station?” MELVIN: Kim, very good question. I, you know, I really think there’s the science, the experiments, the assembling this large structure. But really, when you think about it, we as a civilization have come together with Russian components, European components, Japanese components. We’re building this thing as a team together, which spans all borders and all nations. So I think probably the biggest accomplishment is that we all work together as a team to put this station in orbit, International Space Station into orbit.

MALONE: Again, that teamwork concept very important.

MELVIN: Exactly.

MALONE: Raymond from League City is asking, “Can astronauts take their own iPods into space when they live on the shuttle or space station?”

MELVIN: Good question. We like to listen to tunes in space. I have an iPod nano, but the problem with the iPod is that it has a rechargeable battery in it. So we can’t plug that in in space. We don’t have the right power adapters. So what we do is we get a NASA-issued iPod, and we take our playlist and we download our playlist to that iPod, and these iPods are reconfigured with AA batteries. You can use them with AA batteries. Good question.

MALONE: And David from Seattle is curious about the timing of the day that we launch the space shuttles.

MELVIN: OK. If I’m, if this is the Earth, the space shuttle is going from the south to the north. So as we’re going around in an orbit that’s, this is the equator, this is about 51 degrees inclination for the orbit. We launch from Florida at an angle of 28 degrees and we have to launch after the station is ahead of us, so we have about a five-minute window which allows us to launch behind it. And then we do an additional series of burns to catch up with it, both in phase and in altitude. That’s a good question.

MALONE: And speaking of altitude, the next question is from Chandra from Durham, North Carolina, wanting to know the altitude of the space station. Why was that chosen?

MELVIN: OK. Chandra, that’s a good question also. The space station, when it flies, you want to be able to do microgravity research and, and, you know, assembly. So you don’t want to have it too low where there will be debris and other things that we can have hit the space station, but you don’t want to be too high either, because the higher you have to go, the more fuel you need. So that’s a balance between not being too low, not being too high, but being serviceable by the space shuttle. So, very good question.

MALONE: And Graham from London is asking, “Can the space shuttle land itself like a conventional airliner, or does it require the pilot always to land?”

MELVIN: OK, good question, Graham. We have a system which will allow us to land the shuttle autonomously. So that’s without a pilot or a commander, but we haven’t used the system yet because we really haven’t had to. But if we were in a situation where the orbiter were docked, we could connect a cable and actually undock from the station and fly it back like a, like a conventional airplane and land without a pilot or commander in there. So, very good question.

MALONE: Megan from Lumbard is asking, “What are some of the exciting things planned for the future space missions?”

MELVIN: Good question, Megan. Currently, we’re going to finish building the International Space Station assembly complete. We’re going to retire the space shuttle in 2010 and we’re working on a new vehicle for the Constellation Program that will take six astronauts to the International Space Station, but also will be able to take four astronauts to the moon. And so our next outpost will be on the moon, and so maybe you can study hard and become an astronaut and go to the moon, and maybe after that, we’re going to work on going to Mars.

MALONE: That’s exciting. Final question is from Lou from Hardington. He’s asking: “When the shuttle is ascending, during liftoff to main engine cutoff, is there a lot that the commander and pilot have to do, or is it mostly controlled by computers?”

MELVIN: That’s a good question. Lou, when we fly, right before we start, we have to connect some essential buses. There are some essential buses that have have to be connected by the crew before we launch. But after that, everything is pretty much autonomous. We’re monitoring systems, looking at monitors, making sure that everything is functioning properly. And after we get to orbit, MECO, we’re then doing more manual activation of systems, but it’s pretty much an automatic ride unless there’s a malfunction. Very good question.

MALONE: Leland, thank you for being here. We really appreciate your time. Want to wish you best of everything for your flight coming up on STS- 122.

MELVIN: Thank you, Lisa.

MALONE: And thanks to everyone who submitted questions on the NASA Web site. Be sure to check out mission coverage at as STS-117 proceeds. There, you'll find a launch blog, launch countdown videos and podcasts. You can also watch NASA TV for regular mission coverage and updates from Atlantis and the International Space Station. From all of us here at NASA, and our special guest, astronaut Leland Melvin, I'm Lisa Malone. Thanks for watching.

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