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STS-101: Mission to Save ISS

Space Shuttle Atlantis performs a critical mission to the International Space Station

by Michelle Evans


Committed to in 1984. Original completion scheduled for 1992. After an untold number of redesigns, program slippages, congressional axes, and foreign intrigue, the International Space Station is slowly taking shape. “Slowly” has certainly been the operative word. Completion has recently slipped until 2007, a mere 15 years behind schedule!


As most of you may already be aware, the biggest road block to continuing with the construction of the ISS has been the much delayed launch of the Russian service module, also known as Zvedza.


Now over two years behind schedule, this module should hopefully make it to orbit sometime this month. If there are further delays, or if Zvedza is lost during a launch mishap, NASA has built a smaller control module which it will fly to ISS this fall so that construction will go on regardless of further problems from our Russian partners.


STS-101 was the 98th flight of the Space Shuttle program and it was not supposed to fly until after Zvedza was on orbit and docked to ISS. Unfortunately, there were too many problems piling up with ISS that required STS-101 to launch before the Russian module.


The primary difficulty was that ISS was slowly falling back to Earth. The Russian service module carries the propulsion system that is to be used to keep ISS in a stable orbit. Without it, there was genuine concern that once Zvedza launched, the rest of ISS would have already plunged into the atmosphere.


Another major problem was that the air circulation system in the Zarya module, already attached to the American Unity segment of ISS on orbit, did not function properly. Astronauts on a previous mission were nearly overcome with carbon monoxide because fresh oxygen was not moving around in the module. Even worse was the fact that none of the astronauts on that mission (STS-96 in May 1999) ever reported the problem until after the mission was completed. (Their bosses on the ground were very upset about this and it will be interesting to see if any of that crew ever fly in space again.)


So, these and other problems, forced NASA to go ahead and fly Atlantis on mission STS-101. Since three of the crew members (Lu, Malenchenko, and Morukov) were well versed on working on ISS with Zvedza already docked, and they would still be needed later this year to go aboard the module and prepare it for the first permanent crew, they were transferred to a new mission, STS–106. Three new mission specialists were assigned (Helms, Usachev, and Voss) and the final flight plan took shape.


Atlantis was rolled out to Launch Complex 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Launch was to take place on the afternoon of April 16, but weather forced a delay that day, and the two following days.


Because of other commitments to launch rockets at Cape Canaveral, the shuttle launch was postponed over a month to May 18. The change also meant that the position of ISS would change in its orbit, so the launch time was moved up in the day until just before sunrise.


It was at about this time that I was presented with a very unique opportunity. The Chinese Space Expo (see page 3) needed some very specific video footage of a Space Shuttle launch that was unavailable from NASA. I suggested to them that I could get the footage they needed with the help of former OCSS President Michael Cutler. They agreed, and with just a couple days left before launch, we were on our way to The Cape.


This was my fourth shuttle launch and Mike’s first. Soon after we arrived, the launch was delayed an additional day due to an Atlas III launch that had been continually postponed (it finally took off after Atlantis). So right on schedule at 10 minutes past 6 am on May 19, 2000, Atlantis roared aloft in the pre-dawn sky. It was by far the most spectacular launch I have ever witnessed and my feelings were shared by most everyone else present.


As shown in the frames from the launch video at the right on this page, you can see (albeit in black & white) some of the footage that the Chinese will be using in their expo this summer.


STS-101 was a huge success in preparing for the arrival of Zvedza and also for the future of the International Space Station.