Shuttle safety dance

By Phil Plait | April 14, 2009 7:00 am

Right now, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is sitting on launch pad 39A, waiting for its May 12th liftoff to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Interestingly, on Friday the Shuttle Endeavour will be rolled out to pad 39B, which will provide us with one of those very rare times two Shuttles will be out on the pads simultaneously. Why is NASA doing this now?

Two Shuttles wait for liftoff in 2008
Atlantis and Endeavour wait for liftoff before the mission to Hubble was scrubbed back in September 2008. Credit: NASA

After Columbia, a new rule was made that a Shuttle must always have a safe haven, a place it can go in space if it’s found it has sustained so much damage that a safe landing is in doubt. When there are missions to the International Space Station this is no issue, because it can hang out there (hopefully) for long enough to get another Shuttle launched for a rescue mission.

But the Shuttle cannot both get to Hubble and have enough reserve fuel on board to get to the ISS. The orbits are just too different, and would take too much fuel. So NASA is getting Endeavour set up on 39B just in case it’s needed to rescue the good folks going to help out Hubble. If everything is OK, and once Atlantis is cleared to land, Endeavour will be moved to pad 39A, the primary launch facility.

This was done before, last September, again for the Hubble servicing mission. But that launch was scrubbed due to a failure of a component on Hubble. The launch was delayed until May of this year so that a spare part could be moved into the Shuttle manifest to be installed on the observatory.

If Atlantis launches, this will be the last time ever we’ll have this sight of two Shuttles ready to go.

Endeavour will start its move to the pad at 12:01 p.m. (18:01 UTC) on Friday, and it’ll be covered on NASA TV.


Comments (34)

  1. Why do they need to move it to 39A? Is there any reason why they have to launch from 39B for a rescue mission but cannot launch from there to a normal mission?

  2. I can recommend reading the Wikipedia article on STS-400 (the number for the launch-on-need mission Endeavour would undertake) detailing the swaps back and forth needed to move a whole shuttle crew from one to the other using only the available equipment (and no cute docking tube setup). It’d make a neat logic puzzle for a newspaper, I think.

  3. Fry: Hey, buddy, I’m from the same time as you. Remember that song, Safety Dance?
    Steve Castle: Sure do! We can dance!
    [He hums Safety Dance and they both laugh.]
    Fry: Y’know, that dance wasn’t as safe as they said it was.

  4. Mchl

    When I was a kid I imagined that there were dozens of launch facilities around the globe, with dozens of rockets sitting simultaneously on the launchpads, waiting for their crews to get into them and start exploring… It didn’t matter that most of the rockets I imagined were of R-7 descent…

    It’s really a shame, that Shuttle program failed to meet this ‘launch every two weeks’ project… It’s a shame we’ve lost two of them together with crews… It might be flawed in design, but it still is an icon of space travel to me…

  5. Darrin

    We can dance if we want to, we can leave the Earth behind.
    ‘Cause the Hubble don’t dance, and if it don’t dance
    Then it’s no Hubble of mine

  6. Austin L

    Hundreds of astronomy-based Safety Dance parodies just blinked into existence in the minds of blog readers across the world.

  7. Brian Schlosser

    “Armageddon” may have been a terrible, horrible movie, but the scene with the dual shuttle launch was pretty awesome…

  8. Gary Ansorge

    Remind me again,,,why do we have to retire the Shuttle in 2010? If we can mount two of them at once, wouldn’t that imply we still have 100% back up?

    Hope the Hubble mission is flawless,,,

    GAry 7

  9. gopher65

    Gary Ansorge: Some of the parts of the shuttle can no longer be replaced because the corporations that manufactured them have gone bankrupt, taking the necessary equipment with them. The cost involved in having another corporation develop replacement parts from scratch is so great that it’s cheaper just to design and build a new generation of orbital insertion craft.

    IIRC, one of the parts that can no longer be replaced is the shuttle’s hydrogen storage tanks. They only pump them up to full pressure right before the launch because there is a not-insignificant chance that they will simply explode at full pressure due to their considerable age. They’re well past their best-before date. Launching isn’t called the most dangerous part of the mission for nothing.

  10. gopher65

    As an aside, that’s what NASA gets for contracting out critical components to unstable corps. Technically using 3rd party contractors is “cheaper”, but only for a given value of the word (prefixing it with “in the short term” helps. Corps are excellent at short term projects, and piss poor at long term projects).

  11. The Mutt

    Have we ever had two shuttles in space at the same time?

    I will never forget the joy and awe I felt when I saw the pictures in Life Magazine from the two Gemini spacecraft in orbit together. For the first time, we got to see pictures of our spacecraft in space!

    I still have that magazine.

  12. @Mchl:
    I guess one could say that there are dozens of launch pads with rockets sitting on them around the world… only those rockets carry enough power to blow the world up several times over… :(

    Thanks for that headline, Phil… now I have that silly song dancing in my head!

    There have never been two Shuttles in orbit together.

  13. Mchl

    @Michael L:
    These are not waiting for any crews to get into them I’m afraid :)

  14. Gary Ansorge

    The following link/comment has absolutely nothing to do with this post, but it comes from my Defend Science site and I think it’s important for Phil to look at,,,

    GAry 7

  15. actuator

    One of my golfing buddies has a Taylormade R-7 driver that, when swung properly, will launch a golf ball like a rocket. Thrust is rather short lived in this case.

  16. Mchl

    @actuator: How large specific impulse does it have? ūüėõ

  17. actuator

    Unfortunately I don’t know the mass, COR etc of the R-7 or Dave’s club head speed at impact. He hits it about 240 when he does it right.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    So, “safety dance”, is that some sort of jig?

  19. @Mchl…
    No, afraid not, and I would not want to take that ride, anyway!

  20. BP

    Juergen: They don’t want to launch from B if they don’t have to because B is being transitioned for the Ares I-X launch. A shuttle launch would further delay plans to get Ares off the ground soon.

  21. mk

    Well… at least they’re doing something useful this time!

  22. Why do I keep visualizing Richard Crenna, James Franciscus, and Gene Hackman as the first crew?



  23. I’ve really got to get down to Florida to see a shuttle launch before it’s all over.

  24. Charles Boyer

    “One of my golfing buddies has a Taylormade R-7 driver that, when swung properly, will launch a golf ball like a rocket. Thrust is rather short lived in this case.”

    Yet a 300 hundred yard flight with the correct azimuth and trajectory can bring such joy…

    Fellow R7 Owner

  25. Pretty cool. But has it been answered why they don’t launch from there? Is it a camera issue? Also, how long does it take to go from one to the other on the crawler. Looks to be a few miles.

    I understand the companies are gone, but doesn’t NASA have the blueprints? Couldn’t some of the components have been improved upon over 30 years?

    The new Ares is cool, but it can’t service the Hubble, can it? Or drop off or pick up an LDEF type experiment.

    I know the shuttle underperformed, but couldn’t we have come up with something similar/better in the meantime?

  26. PG

    @tony tony tony: Many shuttle replacements have been proposed over the years. The politics involved with keeping the shuttle and ISS running has out-paced the desire for progress on this issue for 30 years.

  27. JB of Brisbane

    As I see it, the only real advantage to a “shuttle” type reusable spacecraft is in providing a platform for servicing satellite objects such as Hubble, or if necessary, bringing them back to earth as with a number of commsats that did not achieve geostationary orbit on launch in the eighties. Perhaps if the shuttle concept is ever revisited, the Russian Energia/Buran model may be more practical.
    Even so, it would have been cool, if pointless and expensive, to see two little dots of light go over Brisbane in formation one of these days and say, “There go Atlantis and Endeavour”.

  28. Steve A

    @ Juergen, tony tony tony

    If this was happening a few years ago, they probably wouldn’t need to move it. However, pad 39B is now undergoing modifications so it can become a launch pad for the Constellation program. Right now, work is being done so the Ares I-X test rocket can launch from there this summer. Already, they have erected giant lightning towers to protect the rocket. I’m not sure how far along it is, but the plan is also to add an abort system so when astronauts are in the craft, they escape quickly if there is a problem

    BTW, the Constellation architecture should be able to service the Hubble if necessary. In this case, service probably means intentionally deorbiting it when the time comes in order to plan where exactly it will land on Earth. IIRC, one of the tasks on the Hubble repair mission is to add attachments so Orion could grab it and place it in a planned orbit when the time come. I’m not sure if this is still happening.

  29. Paul M.

    Good work with the lyrics there Darrin… I take my hat off to you!

  30. Alex

    JB: Bringing back a failed commsat simply isn’t economic.

    Firstly the costs of refurbishing the bird are a high percentage of building a new one from scratch. Unlike your car, which is designed to be repaired in it’s lifetime, the bird is designed to be launched once. So you have to work out how to safely discharge the fuel, disassemble, diagnose & repair damage, rebuild and then refuel. Then at the end of the process you’ve got a bird which cannot be considered new, and probably will have to be sold at a discount to a less well off customer who can’t afford the full price.

    Secondly, you have to consider the costs of bringing the bird back. At the very minimum you’ve got to launch a very heavy vehicle to enclose the bird. That means a lot of fuel. It’s also only been shown to be possible when the bird was originally launched by the shuttle, it’s still controllable (to bring it back into an orbit where it can be grabbed) and by using highly trained humans using specially designed tools which are unique for each design of bird, and at high risks to themselves.

    The economically sensible route is to launch satellites using cheap expendable rockets such as Ariane, Delta or Titan, and if they fail, then shrug, learn why it failed if we can, and rebuild them.

  31. Gopher65, you do not recall correctly. The old external tanks are all gone; new ones have been manufactured in the last year or two at the Michoud facility in Louisiana. They are filled just before launch because loading and unloading fuel is not without risk, so you want to make sure as many things are working as possible before you fuel.

    Darrin, you may have Safety Dance in your head, but I have YMCA:

  32. Can somebody please elaborate further as to why we’ll never see 2 shuttles positioned for launch at the same time ever again? Phil wasn’t clear about this in his article, and I’d like to know….

  33. Peter B

    Christopher A. Eirich asked: “Can somebody please elaborate further as to why we‚Äôll never see 2 shuttles positioned for launch at the same time ever again? Phil wasn‚Äôt clear about this in his article, and I‚Äôd like to know…”

    I assume it’s because there won’t be any more Hubble service missions performed by the Shuttles before they’re retired. All other Shuttle missions will be to the ISS, and if something goes wrong on such a mission, the Shuttle can simply remain with the ISS, so having a second Shuttle on standby isn’t necessary.

  34. don

    @ Peter B
    Your thoughts are correct. They only need the backup shuttle for Hubble missions when getting to the ISS is impossible with the current design limitations (not enough fuel for orbit changes necessary to get to ISS). Since there won’t be any more Hubble missions after this one, there won’t be another need for 2 shuttles to be launch ready at the same time. (At least with the current planning – who knows if they will extend the life of the shuttle while waiting for Constellation/Aries to become available. They did extend the life of the shuttle by 1 extra mission. Maybe more will be added since politically it’s not a popular idea that the US won’t have human launch capability for several years, but there’s also pressure to terminate the shuttle program as quickly as possible. That’s a whole debate unto itself.)

    Missions to ISS could theoretically extend their stay for up to several additional weeks (longer with Soyuz/Progress resupply missions) – hopefully enough time for another shuttle to be prepared and sent for rescue. So at the moment, there isn’t a need for a backup shuttle to be launch ready at the same time.


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