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Farewell Atlantis! Farewell Space Shuttle!


8 July will see the final launch of a NASA Space Shuttle • For 30 years the US craft carried many Astrium projects into space • ATV will in future have an even more important role in supplying the ISS • Since 2008 “Columbus” has been the place to go for research in orbit

On 8 July 2011, when Space Shuttle Atlantis blasts off from the Cape Canaveral spaceport on its final mission, the end of the Space Shuttle fleet will be almost upon us: flight STS-135 will be the last time a Space Shuttle sees active service. Over the course of three decades, these NASA orbiters have carried into space numerous pieces of experimental equipment, technology demonstrators, satellites, probes and telescopes – not to mention the Spacelab reusable laboratory and Europe’s Columbus module for the International Space Station (ISS) – that were developed and built under the leadership of Astrium, Europe’s leading space company. On its final journey Atlantis is once again bringing along samples destined for the Materials Science Laboratory (MSL) on board the ISS, where they will be fused together in the Solidification and Quenching Furnace (SQF) built by Astrium.

And it is an Astrium patent from Ottobrunn (Germany) that will be providing the necessary thrust for the launch: the patent is central to the Shuttles’ main engines, which were designed in the mid-1960s.

1966: A patent for propulsion

Around the middle of the 1960s, NASA began to turn its thoughts more and more to developing a reusable space shuttle. They hoped such a craft would lower the costs of space transport and drive the commercialisation of space travel. It was at this time that Astrium developed contacts with NASA and the Space Shuttle programme. The Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) was developed based on a patent developed jointly by MBB (now Astrium in Ottobrunn) and Rocketdyne/North American Aviation.

In 1966 a joint proposal was put to the US Air Force. The object of the joint programme was to demonstrate technical mastery of very high combustion pressures in combustion chambers made of copper with milled cooling channels. A combination of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen was chosen as propellant.

In designing and manufacturing the demonstration engine, MBB made use of one of its in-house patents (USP 3,595,025). Only Rocketdyne was in possession of appropriate testing rigs at this time, so testing took place at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna test site in California. The German-US high-pressure programme was given the name BORD 1 (BOelkow/Rocketdyne Division).

The results far exceeded all expectations and combustion chamber pressures of 283 bar were reached. This still stands as a world record for the hydrogen/oxygen propellant combination.

It was on this groundbreaking success that NASA based its decision to award Rocketdyne the contract to develop the cryogenic main engine for the Space Shuttle. NASA paid licence fees for the use of the patent.

The threefold design of the Shuttle, divided into orbiter vehicle, external tank and solid rocket boosters, was officially confirmed by NASA on 15 March 1972. Construction work began five months later.

1981: Free SPAS travel

Columbia’s first four missions in 1981 and 1982 served to test the orbiter in space. In 1983 it was joined by Challenger, meaning two shuttles were available for orbital missions. It wasn’t long before a satellite designed by Astrium was launched “for free” into space aboard flight STS-7 (Challenger in June 1983) as mission SPAS-01. The name Shuttle Pallet Satellite reflected the fact that the satellite was designed especially to meet the requirements of the Space Shuttle and to allow payloads to be taken to Space.

SPAS-01A and SPAS-02 followed in 1984 and 1991. An improved version of the satellite was sent into orbit as part of the German science programme Astro-SPAS between 1993 and 1997, with the two “interchangeable” instruments ORFEUS (Orbiting and Retrievable Far and Extreme Ultraviolet Spectrometer) and CRISTA (CRyogenic Infrared Spectrometers and Telescopes for the Atmosphere) each being carried on board twice (on flights STS-51, STS-66, STS-80 and STS-85).

From 1983 on: A laboratory for space

Following the success of SPAS-01 in June 1983, space engineers were all eyes for the launch of Columbia in November 1983. It was the first time that the orbiter’s payload bay had contained Spacelab, the space laboratory built by Astrium. There were to be 21 further Spacelab flights, with the final one in April 1998 once again aboard Columbia (STS-90).

Astrium was also involved in human spaceflight through its development and construction of the life-support system for Spacelab and numerous pieces of experimental equipment (centrifuges, furnaces, greenhouses, cooling facilities and manipulators) for research under weightless and microgravity conditions.

IPS gets to the “point”

Astrium developed the Instrument Pointing System (IPS) for the Shuttles’ payload bays especially for telescopes and radar devices. This system’s job was to align devices installed on pallets with a particular point (a star) and keep the alignment true over long periods of time (STS-35; STS-51-F).

1989: Travelling through the solar system, looking deep into space

The Shuttle fleet was also central to the transporting and launch of larger satellites and interplanetary probes with Astrium participation: the Jupiter probe (October 1989), which featured a propulsion and braking system; The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ulysses solar probe (October 1990); and the Hubble Space Telescope with the Faint Object Camera (FOC) in April 1990 all went into space aboard a Space Shuttle. There were several missions to repair and renovate Hubble. Flight STS-109 in March 2002 saw astronauts bringing the FOC back to Earth – after more than ten years of service. The flight unit is now on display in the Dornier Museum near the Astrium site in Friedrichshafen (Germany).

EURECA, the first fully automated free-flying research platform

In the summer of 1992, Atlantis released EURECA, a European satellite platform developed by Astrium, into space. EURECA (the European Retrievable Carrier) was an unmanned free-flying research platform for experiments under weightless conditions. One year later it was retrieved by the crew of Endeavour on flight STS-57 and brought back to Earth.

From Shuttle radar to TerraSAR-X

Endeavour also had a key role in three Earth observation missions in 1994 and 2000. The Space Radar Lab filled the orbiter’s entire payload bay, and it featured the X band radar developed by Astrium. For the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM), aboard flight STS-99 at the turn of the millennium, there were indeed two X band radar devices: one in the payload bay and one on an extendable boom. These missions laid the foundations for Astrium’s TerraSAR-X radar satellite family which is currently operating in orbit.

2008: Columbus and the ISS

On 11 February 2008 (STS-122) Atlantis docked Europe’s “Columbus” space laboratory, the successor to Spacelab to the ISS, and for over three years it has been used for basic research in a number of disciplines. Because it too had to fit inside the Shuttle’s payload bay, it is very similar in dimensions to the large habitable module of its predecessor Spacelab: the cylindrical Columbus module is 6.87 meters long and has a diameter of 4.48 meters. 41 European companies produced its various subsystems, and these were then integrated by Astrium into a complete, fully operational laboratory. To date, there are eight Astrium multi user facilities on board the ISS.

2008: ATV – the ISS mothership

For the last three years, Europe has had its own fully automated cargo spacecraft. In March 2008 the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), developed and manufactured by Astrium, completed its brilliant maiden flight. Launched from the Ariane 5 rocket, ATV can carry up to 7.5 metric tons of payload into low-Earth orbit. The ATVs supply astronauts with water, oxygen, food, clothes and personal items and the ISS with propellant. What makes ATV special is the fully automated way it approaches and docks with the ISS. As soon as the Space Shuttle era is over, ATV will become even more important for supplying the ISS, as it is the biggest spacecraft supplying the ISS so far.

ATV does not only bring equipment to the ISS, it also stays connected to the space station for up to six months, using its thrusters to adjust the ISS’s orbit. Friction from the residual atmosphere means the ISS has to be periodically boosted higher. Occasionally it is also necessary to perform evasive maneuvers so as not to collide with space debris.

From SPAS-01 to the final flight of Atlantis Astrium’s 30 years of contribution to the many transporting missions of NASA’s space fleet has been substantial. And the future looks bright too, with the even more fascinating challenge of closing the gap in space transport. Astrium already has ideas up its sleeve for how to develop ATV further , in support of ESA, within the framework of the ESA / NASA coordinated actions.

About Astrium

Astrium is the number one company in Europe for space technologies and a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS, dedicated to providing civil and defence space systems and services.

In 2010, Astrium had a turnover of €5 billion and more than 15,000 employees worldwide, mainly in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. Its three main areas of activity are Astrium Space Transportation for launchers and orbital infrastructure, Astrium Satellites for spacecraft and ground segment, and Astrium Services for comprehensive end-to-end solutions covering secure and commercial satcoms and networks, high security satellite communications equipment, bespoke geo-information and navigation services worldwide.

EADS is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2010, the Group – comprising Airbus, Astrium, Cassidian and Eurocopter – generated revenues of € 45.8 billion and employed a workforce of nearly 122,000.


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