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Herrington's shuttle mission finally set to go

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - The next launch attempt for astronaut John Herrington's flight aboard the STS-113 space shuttle mission was scheduled for Nov. 22, NASA announced Nov. 20 after intensive scrutiny of the shuttle's robot arm.

Herrington, Chickasaw, would be the first enrolled member of an Indian tribe to go into space in the NASA program. NASA, however, will not repeat the elaborate celebration of his Native heritage that led up to the first schedule launch date Nov. 11.

Chickasaw leaders in Ada, Okla., said they wouldn't travel to Florida again, but would honor Herrington with a party at a local theater where a live feed of the shuttle's take off would be broadcast, said Robyn Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Chickasaw Nation.

Herrington, born in Wetumka, Okla., will take eagle feathers and arrowheads on his 11-day space mission.

About 1,000 members of the Chickasaw, Seminole and Navajo tribes attended a ceremony that included tribal music, ancient dances and traditional hymns before the first scheduled launch on Nov. 11.

Independent satellite observers have calculated a launch time of 8:15 p.m. (Eastern Standard Time).

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The first attempt was scrubbed Nov. 10 when a leak was detected in a hose that supplies oxygen to the shuttle's crew cabin. But while fixing the leak, workers bumped the shuttle's robot arm, causing NASA to debate whether to leave the delicate equipment in place or remove it for repairs, a process that could have caused weeks of delay.

The problem started when workers installed a work platform in the shuttle's cargo bay to get access to the location of the suspect hose. A technician assigned as a 'spotter' to ensure that the platform didn't get too close to the shuttle was distracted, and the platform bumped the shuttle's robot arm.

The arm will be needed to lift the 14-ton P1 truss out of the shuttle's cargo bay and move it to an intermediate position where it will be handed off to the space station's robot arm. The 50-foot shuttle robot arm is made out of graphite epoxy. It is designed to be incredibly light and flimsy and can't even lift its own weight on Earth. But in space it can position 32-ton components with great precision.

Technicians examining the arm for damage saw that the composite material was delaminated. Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore compared the delamination to a bruise. He said, "You see something in the nature of the surface that looks different. And you have to judge the bruise whether it's a deep bruise or a surface bruise to determine whether it's affecting the structural integrity. We have identified that there's a delamination or a bruise, but we don't know if that bruise is significant enough to cause us a concern."

The Canadian engineers who designed and built the robot arm flew to Florida to conduct an intense investigation to determine whether or not the 'bruised' arm was acceptable for flight. On the evening of Nov. 20, Dittemore announced, "We had a very good meeting and the bottom line is the [robot arm] is cleared for flight, the [oxygen] line issue has been resolved and we have no constraints to pressing on with the launch count and the planned flight on Friday." Herrington and his crewmates returned to Florida that day.

The key concern for the Nov. 22 launch attempt is bad weather at the emergency landing fields in Spain. Unlike other launch vehicles, the shuttle has the capability to land intact if there is a problem during the eight-and-a-half minute climb to space. While the solid rocket boosters are burning, nothing can be done. But once the solids separate, the shuttle could make an emergency "U-turn" and land back at the Kennedy Space Center if there were a major emergency like a multiple engine shutdown. From two minutes 26 seconds after launch until six minutes four seconds, if one or two engines fail the shuttle can land at an emergency runway in Spain. After six minutes four seconds the shuttle would have enough energy to go all the way around the Earth or make it to orbit, although it could be a lower orbit than planned.

So NASA has emergency support teams at NATO airfields in Zaragosa and Rota, Spain just in case. In the 111 previous shuttle missions no flight has ever come close to a "transatlantic abort," although one did have to do a less risky "abort to orbit" where one engine shut down early. If a transatlantic abort did take place on the STS-113 flight, Herrington, as the flight engineer, would keep track of the timeline and events that would have to occur as well as help monitor the shuttle's systems. But for pilot Paul Lockhart the emergency field would look familiar. When he was an Air Force pilot based in Germany his squadron would visit Zaragosa a couple of times each year. Herrington and the shuttle's flight crew have spent much of the last year in training for just such a scenario in the unlikely case that it becomes reality.