NASA space shuttle Discovery: What's left?

NASA Discovery has communications problems

NASA space shuttle Discovery rocketed into orbit this morning and despite some communications problems, is slated to dock with the International Space Station in the wee hours of Wednesday, April 7. After this mission NASA has only 3 shuttles scheduled to launch though speculation is that the program may be extended. 

NEWS: NASA Discovery has communications problems

NASA said that shortly after its space shuttle Discovery hit orbit today, the shuttle's Ku-Band antenna did not activate and it not working. 

The dish-shaped antenna is used for high data rate communications with the ground, including television, and for the shuttle's radar system that is used during rendezvous with the International Space Station. Discovery can safely rendezvous and dock with the station and successfully complete all of its planned mission objectives without use of the Ku-Band antenna, if needed, NASA said. 

The Ku-Band system is one of several shuttle communications systems that can be used for transmission of voice and data to and from the ground. The Ku antenna is typically used by the crew and the ground teams during the exterior inspection of the shuttle once in orbit. If the Ku still is not working tomorrow, the crew will record all of the inspection video and play it back after docking with the station, using the space station's Ku antenna. The crew will monitor the video in real time tomorrow and will note the time stamps of any areas of concern. The shuttle's other systems -- S-band and UHF -- are working.  

Meanwhile on this mission, Discovery will carry a multi-purpose logistics module which is basically a big storage unit that in this case will be filled with science racks for ISS laboratories. The mission has three planned spacewalks, with work to include replacing an ammonia tank, retrieving a Japanese experiment from the station's exterior and switching out a gyro, NASA stated. 

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Inside Discovery's cargo bay is the flying moving van known as the Leonardo multi-purpose logistics module that will be attached to the station temporarily on April 7 and returned to the shuttle's cargo bay Thursday, April 15 - the shuttle is schedule to land back in Florida on the 17th. Leonardo is filled with supplies, new crew sleeping quarters and science racks that will be transferred to the station's laboratories. This is the final complement of laboratory facilities that will complete the station's overall research capabilities, NASA stated. 

The fact that the ISS is nearly complete has generated excitement and concern from experts. Detractors say the ISS is a costly lab that may never see a great return on investment, building the ISS has cost NASA $48.5 billion.  But leaders of ISS agencies from Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia, and the United States recently reaffirmed the importance of full exploitation of the station's scientific, engineering, utilization, and education potential. 

The group says now that the ISS is mostly complete, the station's crew and its US, European, Japanese and Russian labs will expand the pace of space-based research to unprecedented levels. Nearly 150 experiments are currently under way on the station, and more than 400 experiments have been conducted since research began nine years ago. These experiments already are leading to advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells and the development of more capable engines and materials for use on Earth and in space. 

NASA has identified 197 US-integrated investigations that have been conducted on orbit as of April 2009, though 55 of these investigations were conducted on the Space Shuttle missions to the ISS instead of on the ISS. According to NASA, as of February 2009, US ISS and research have resulted in over 160 publications, including articles on topics such as protein crystallization, plant growth, and human research. According to NASA, there have also been approximately 25 technology demonstration experiments flown on the ISS. 

The ISS now houses a multicultural crew of six and has a mass of almost 800,000 pounds and a habitable volume of more than 12,000 cubic feet - approximately the size of a five-bedroom home, and uses state-of-the-art systems to generate solar electricity, recycle nearly 85% of its water and generate much of own oxygen supply. Nearly 190 astronauts have visited the space station, which is currently supporting its 22nd resident crew. 

The group noted "there are no identified technical constraints to continuing ISS operations beyond the current planning horizon of 2015 to at least 2020, and that the partnership is currently working to certify on-orbit elements through 2028."

NASA's budget currently reflects plans for retirement of the ISS at the end of 2015. The Review of Human Space Flight Plans Committee has proposed extension of the ISS until 2020 in three of its five possible scenarios and Congress has directed NASA to take steps to ensure that it remains capable of remaining a viable and productive facility for the United States through at least 2020, but there has not been a commitment yet to continue operations. 

As for the future shuttle missions, in May, shuttle Atlantis will use a 12 day mission to deliver an Integrated Cargo Carrier and a Russian-built Mini Research Module to the International Space Station.  The Russian Mini Research Module will be attached to the bottom port of the ISS's Zarya module. The module also will carry US cargo.

Three spacewalks are planned to stage spare components outside the station, including six spare batteries, a boom assembly for the Ku-band antenna and spares for the Canadian robotic arm extension. Other parts such as a radiator, airlock and European robotic arm for the Russian Multi-purpose Laboratory Module also expected top be on this flight, according to NASA.

In July shuttle Endeavour will return to space for a 10 day mission that will have it delivering a variety of spare parts to the ISS, including two S-band communications antennas, a high-pressure gas tank, additional spare parts for the Canadian robotic arm and micrometeoroid debris shields. Such shields are considered to be ever more important and the amount of space junk flying around or near the ISS has been increasing. 

In September Discovery is set to be the final shuttle launched into space.  Its nine day mission will bring the Express Logistics Carrier 4 and other spare components to the ISS. This will be the 134th and final shuttle flight and the 36th shuttle mission to the station. The logistics carriers add cargo space to the ISS.

The space shuttles' retirement follows almost 30 years of service and will after September leave the US without any major way of launching astronauts into space (NASA has plans to fly astronauts onboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft after 2011). NASA says it could ramp the program back up if it were instructed to do so at a cost of about $200 million a month. 

On April 15, President Barack Obama will host a White House Conference on the Administration's new vision for America's future in space. The President and space experts will further outline the controversial course the Administration is charting for NASA. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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