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International Space Station Computers Fail, Threaten Mission

Top News Story of 2007 # 3


The ISS Seen From Atlantis

The ISS Seen From Atlantis

January, 2008

The STS-117 mission was a bit hairy for the crew aboard the space Shuttle Atlantis. First, sections of a thermal blanket were found to be peeled back, bringing to everyone's minds the memory of the space shuttle Columbia. NASA extended the mission two extra days and added a fourth spacewalk to the mission in order to make in-space shuttle repairs. While NASA engineers did not believe the extreme heat of reentry would damage the shuttle or risk the lives of the crew, they were concerned it would still require some repair work by ground crews.

Next, their home away from home, the International Space Station had a computer failure. This wasn't just any computer, it was the system that controls the station's orientation and supply of oxygen and water. In other words, the computers that keep the International Space Station in space and controls the air and water for the crew.

As a temporary measure, the Space Shuttle Atlantis used its own resources to make up for the loss. The International Space Station’s control moment gyroscopes were handling attitude control, with the shuttle’s propulsion providing backup. Despite extending for 2 days for its own repairs, Atlantis and her crew were prepared to remain with the station for an extra day to ensure the computers were working properly. This could only be a temporary solution, though until the shuttle itself ran out of provisions.

Two days later, as Mission Specialist Suni Williams set the record for the longest-duration single spaceflight by a woman, efforts to bring the Russian navigation computers back to full operation continued. The previous day, Russian flight controllers and the station crew were able to power-up two lanes of the Russian Central Computer and two lanes of the Terminal Computer by using a jumper cable to bypass a faulty secondary power switch. The first system brought up was the scrubber, which removes carbon dioxide from the air in the International Space Station. Anyone who knows the story of Apollo 13 knows how important the scrubbers are.

By Monday, controllers were ready to run tests on the ISS computer systems, which would allow Atlantis to make a Tuesday departure for home. Everyone was keeping their fingers crossed. Fortunately, the Russian navigation computers received a passing grade. The next morning STS-117 crew members closed space shuttle Atlantis’ payload bay doors and made other preparations for landing.

The STS-117 crew had one more obstacle to overcome, the weather. Thunderstorms in the vicinity of Kennedy forced flight controllers to wave off both opportunities Thursday. They had five landing opportunities available as flight controllers and forecasters continued to monitor the weather at Kennedy Space Center, FL, and Edwards Air Force Base, CA. Weather forecast for Kennedy called for the threat of thunderstorms in the area and high winds were a possibility at Edwards.

Finally, Atlantis descended to a smooth landing at Edwards Air Force Base, concluding a successful assembly mission to the International Space Station. With Commander Rick Sturckow and Pilot Lee Archambault at the controls, Atlantis landed at 3:49 PM EDT.

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