The next attempt to launch into space Native American astronaut John Herrington will be no earlier than Friday, November 22, NASA announced. Herrington had been scheduled to launch on Sunday November 11th. But during the countdown a leak in the system, which provides oxygen to the shuttle's crew cabin, scrubbed the launch.
Within two days technicians gained access to the shuttle's cargo bay and prepared to put a diving board-like platform into the cargo bay. Technicians were assigned as 'spotters' to call a halt if the platform came too close to the shuttle. But something went wrong and the platform bumped the shuttle's robot arm. Shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said: "It was a human error. This particular person got distracted as [the platform] came close to structure and it was a mistake."
The shuttle's robot arm is needed to lift the 14-ton P1 truss out of the shuttle's cargo bay and move it to an intermediate position where it is 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. 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. We're going to go in and do some more ultrasound testing and have more information next week."
NASA expects to know by Monday or Tuesday and will have enough information to go ahead with one of three possibilities.
If engineers decide the damage to the arm is superficial and the arm has not been damaged structurally, the countdown can proceed for a launch attempt on Friday.
If engineers determine it's safe to remove the robot arm while the shuttle is vertical on the launch pad, something which has never been attempted before, and if mission control teams decide it's feasible to do the mission without the shuttle's robot arm, then it would take a couple of weeks to remove the shuttle's arm and train the crew for the revised space station robot arm operations.
In a worst case scenario NASA might decide to roll the shuttle off its seaside launch pad and back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. The shuttle would be removed from the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters and would be rotated from vertical to horizontal. The shuttle would then get transferred to its hangar. There, engineers would remove the damaged arm and install a replacement robot arm. That would take about five or six weeks and would slip the mission to January of next year.
If NASA does decide to go ahead as-is, the launch on the 22nd would occur at approximately 8:15 pm EST.