In The Field

Atlantis Launch: Take Five

The astronauts are strapping in for their fifth attempted launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. For once, things are looking up, the engine cut off sensor problem appears to be well in hand, and the weather, thus far, is cooperating.

My editor yesterday asked why this would be the last attempt for at least a few weeks. The principle problem is the Russians. They’re planning on launching a Soyuz capsule on 18 September, and if the shuttle leaves any later than today, the two would overlap. Docking two spacecraft to the station at once is no mean feat, and everyone would assume avoid that situation.

So why can’t the Russians move their launch date back? Well they have constraints of their own: they’ve got some new contractors recovering the Soyuz, and they want their people to have solid daylight to look for the capsule when it comes down in Kazakhstan. Just as the daylight launch restriction on the shuttle is constraining NASA, the daylight landing restriction restrains the Russians.

Beyond that, there’s always been a bit of a tense relationship between the US and Russian partners. In 2001, Dennis Tito paid $20 million to the Russian Space Agency to fly to the International Space Station, against the express wishes of NASA.

By coincidence, this capsule will also be carrying a space tourist: Anousheh Ansari, who with her husband created the X-prize, will be along for the ride.

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