HOUSTON — Internal NASA thinking on the timing of the agency’s hoped-for STS-135 space shuttle mission using the Atlantis orbiter has taken a U-turn, with most now favoring the manifested June 28 launch date.
The 11-day supply mission to the International Space Station would mark the end of the 30-year shuttle program. Until recently, NASA station program officials were urging a slip toward late August to ensure the orbiting science laboratory was sufficiently provisioned to support a six-member crew for up to a year, in case U.S. commercial cargo providers face delays in their initial missions. However, with the fiscal 2011 budget still in flux, the June 28 launch date has become much more attractive, according to one of those involved in the NASA planning.
The STS-135 mission’s viability could be jeopardized if the White House and Congress are unable to agree on a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running beyond March 4, the official says. A shutdown would force all but essential government personnel from working until agreement on a new spending plan is reached.
As Discovery’s STS-133 mission returns to Earth on March 7 or 8, NASA will turn its attention to the STS-134 flight of Endeavour, which is targeted to lift off on April 19. Endeavour was towed from the Orbiter Processing Facility hangar to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., on Feb. 28 — its last stop before heading to Launch Pad 39A in March.
During an 11-day flight, Endeavour’s crew will equip the space station with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2 billion external astronomical observatory for studies of dark matter and primordial anti-matter. The high-profile study of the origin and structure of the universe represents the combined efforts of a dozen countries, including China.