NASA's Mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt
New Horizons Meets its Launch Vehicle
December 19, 2005
This past week New Horizons passed its Mission Readiness Review, a prerequisite to NASA's granting of approval to launch. Down at Kennedy Space Center, Florida, the second and final launch countdown simulation was completed, and the spacecraft was mated to its third stage. Following this, the third stage and spacecraft were encapsulated in the Atlas fairing, which was then transported to Launch Complex 41, where the Atlas has been waiting for us. This move of the spacecraft/third stage/fairing went smoothly, as did the lift and mate operations that put New Horizons atop its launcher.
By Saturday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m., the launch stack of humankind's first mission to Pluto was completed. I think it's particularly fitting that this is on the anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight, just a couple of hundred miles up the coast from KSC.
The week ahead at LC-41 will center on electrical interface testing of the launcher and spacecraft/third-stage stack. Back up north, we have the mission's first major press conference at NASA Headquarters, a mission readiness review at NASA Headquarters, and continued testing of our spacecraft autonomy system using the spacecraft simulator at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
As you may have read elsewhere, NASA has elected to do an extra inspection of our Atlas first stage propellant tank to further ensure we do not have any problem that would be a risk to flight. This test is called a boroscope, and it allows an inspection of the interior of the tank.
In part because we want the launch crew to rest for the holidays before the launch campaign (rather than "boroscoping" for the holidays), and in part because the boroscope requires some days of pre-test drying of the tank after it was drained, it looks like the earliest launch date we can now achieve is Tuesday, Jan. 17. This still gives us over two weeks to launch via Jupiter and almost four weeks to launch in total.
The extra six days also gives us some additional time to complete pre-launch engineering verification paperwork on the spacecraft itself, and it will give our mission operations team some well-deserved time off before we get into flight – with all the work that portends for them.
I had the chance to stand inside the launch fairing this week, with the third stage and New Horizons spacecraft towering above me. It's an awesome sight, and I could only imagine what it will be like during the rock and roll of launch in there. Despite the fact it would have cost us a few pounds of fuel, I have to admit fleetingly wishing we'd decided to fly a camera on the vehicle during launch when I was inside the fairing last week.
-- Alan Stern