45th SW support key for nighttime shuttle launch

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Space Shuttle Discovery and its crew are set to launch from Kennedy Space Center Thursday, Dec. 7 at 9:30 p.m. STS-116 will be the first shuttle mission to launch after dark since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

NASA required daylight launches for the first three shuttle missions after the Columbia disaster in 2003 to allow clear photography of the external fuel tank in case debris fell from it. Foam breaking off the tank and striking Columbia's wing at liftoff was blamed for the disaster.

The 45th Space Wing will support the scheduled launch with the standard array of Eastern Range assets that help monitor mission progress and public safety: including radar, optical, communications and meteorological instrumentation.

According to Maj. Rob Quigg, director of operations for the 1st Range Operations Squadron, personnel are looking forward to the launch and are ready to support.

"Our systems are looking good and our people are well trained and ready to operate. We always look forward to supporting NASA on these missions and are proud to be part of missions to help build the Space Station," Maj. Quigg said.

And if you ask the astronauts and engineers which of the final 14 assembly flights may be the most complex, many would point to STS-116.

"What makes this one singularly unique is the fact that we're going to rewire the space station," Mark Polansky, Discovery's commander, said.

Since it went into orbit in 1998, the space station has been running on a temporary electrical system.

Lead Space Station Flight Director John Curry compared it to the way you might build a house on the ground - until your electricity is hooked up, you probably plug your saws into a generator.

That's basically what the astronauts building and living on the station have been doing for the past eight years.

But with the installation of two new electricity-generating solar array panels in September, all the pieces are now in place to switch to the permanent system. At your house, it would just be a matter of unplugging the saw from the generator and plugging it back into the wall.

The plan is to send astronauts out on two spacewalks, each devoted to rewiring half of the station. The astronauts will head outside, wait for the team on the ground to send commands to switch off the power, and then unplug the power cables and plug them in new places.

There might be the occasional stiff cable to deal with - that can happen in the minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit of space - and the process will likely be slow, but not especially complex.

"You put all your energy into being successful and doing it safely, while making sure you do it efficiently," Lead Shuttle Flight Director Tony Ceccacci said. "Everyone has stepped up, is prepared, and is confident that this mission will be very successful. As with all complex assembly flights, it's going to be interesting."

Portions of this story were taken from a NASA press release.