Frontier Status Report

Frontier Status Report #28

Frontier Status Report #28

December 12, 1996

Dale M. Gray

As with other frontiers, small problems cause big headaches. A portion of the shuttle Columbia's mission, the spacewalk was canceled due to a stuck door. Otherwise the Columbia's flight was successful and landing smooth. Mars Pathfinder is on its way and is reported to be functioning well. A Delta II carrying components of the Iridium network has been postponed to later this month and a number of American rockets including Delta, Atlas and Titan are scheduled for launch in the coming weeks. A recently released study indicates that the current launch boom will peak in 1999 with 235 satellites put into orbit. However, with the EELV contract progressing and other programs designed to significantly lower launch costs, launch numbers could well increase in the dawning years of the next century.


After a record breaking 17 days 17 hours in space, the shuttle Columbia returned to Kennedy Space station on Saturday December 7. While the two retrievable satellites successfully completed their missions, the planned space walk by Tammy Jernigan and Tom Jones was canceled when the outer door of the air lock refused to open. This was to be the first spacewalk for both the astronauts and for the Columbia, the oldest shuttle in the fleet. Return to earth was delayed for 2 days because of weather at both the Florida and California landing strips.

While the next shuttle mission, the flight of Atlantis to MIR, is slated for January 12, the discovery of erosion channels in the lining of both solid rocket booster nozzles used by Columbia has put the launch date in doubt. Similar erosion channels had previously been observed in one of the SRBs used on the last shuttle flight. The Atlantis flight will transfer Jerry Linenger to MIR and will pick up John Blaha.


Official sources now place the Service Module of the International Space Station 8 months behind schedule. The SM is now unofficially slated for launch from Baikanour in late December of 1998. The Service Module will control navigation and the ability to boost the 440 ton station. Lack of funding is given as the prime reason for the delay. This will set-back occupation of the space station, but NASA and Russian officials contend that the station will still be completed on schedule by June of 2002. The first component of the station, the FGB, will be launched from Russia in November of 1997, followed by Node #1 from Florida in December of 1997. These components are expected to be launched on time. Earliest permanent habitation of the station is now expected to begin no earlier than January of 1999 (Flatoday).


First the weather and then a computer glitch caused the Mars Pathfinder launch on a Delta 2 rocket to be delayed. The spacecraft was finally launched from Florida early in the morning on December 4. The launch proceeded normally and the spacecraft separated from the upper stage without problem. The craft is in contact with JPL controllers on Earth. Although one sun sensor is operating at lower than expected voltage, all systems appear to be healthy. Pathfinder is due to touch down on the Mars Surface on July 4, 1997 (Laurie Cochrane).


The next launch of a Lockheed Martin Atlas rocket is scheduled for December 19 with an international maritime communications satellite - from Cape Canaveral Air Station's complex 36. There is a possibility that the flight will be moved up two days to December 17 (Flatoday).


A Delta II carrying elements of the Iridium network was scheduled for launch on December 6, however it was rescheduled for December 22. The next launch from Vandenberg is now a classified military payload on a Titan 4 which will be launched on December 18. On January 29 a Minuteman III test launch is scheduled. On March 14 a Minuteman II will be launched as part of a test of the observation capabilities of the MSX satellite. Delta IIs will be launched on March 18 and April 10 (Brian Webb).


"The Russians initially believed the Mars 96 spacecraft and its hardened plutonium radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) had fallen into the Pacific, but revised U.S. Space Command tracking data late last week indicate the spacecraft fell near the Chilean city of Irquiqie on the border with Bolivia. Credible witnesses in the area reported seeing a fiery reentry in that area." (AW&ST).


The U. S. Air Force is preparing to announce the two finalists for the $1.4-billion Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program. EELV will be a new family of vehicles designed to cost half as much to operate while being able to lift heavier payloads than current systems. In mid-December the two finalists will be awarded $130 million "second phase" contracts. The final selection will be made in early 1998. Alliant Techsystems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas are currently competing for the second phase contracts (AW&ST).


A new study has indicated that launch demand will decline at the end of the century. New commercial constellations are predicted to increase the number of satellites launched from 88 in 1995 to 235 in 1999. However, the same report forecasts the number to drop to 93 satellites in 2000 (AW&ST).

While this report reflects current plans, it cannot predict frontier market conditions. Indeed, predictions made three years ago painted a far different picture of today's robust launch industry. Remember in the late 1800s the director of the Patent Office recommended that the office be closed because everything of significance had already been invented.


After the landing of the shuttle Atlantis, the current space population has dropped back down to three: two Russians and one American on-board MIR.

Frontier Status reports will be taking a Christmas break and will resume coverage of space activities beginning in early January 1997.

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