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Remote landing capability
Should Discovery’s STS-121 spacewalkers be forced to make a serious heat shield repair, the chances of which NASA officials believe to be extremely remote, flight controllers could opt to try to save the orbiter without endangering its astronaut crew.
Herring said that a 28-foot (8.5-meter) cable packed in the orbiter’s middeck has been certified to fly in just such a situation, which would keep an astronaut crew aboard the ISS while the orbiter returns home on remote control.
“It’s kind of like a jumper cable that would only be used in an event where you had done a repair, but couldn’t be 100 percent certain [it] would be something that would be flight worthy with a crew,” Herring said.
The cable would connect an avionics bay in Discovery’s middeck with the controls one level up on its flight deck, effectively allowing flight controllers in Houston to perform landing activities currently done by shuttle astronauts.
Those manual activities include starting the shuttle’s auxiliary power units, deploying an air data probe, unstowing the orbiter’s landing gear and releasing its drag chute after landing, Herring said.
“The things that would be manually controlled, this jumper cable allows them to be controlled from mission control,” Herring said.
In such a contingency, Discovery or any future shuttle would land at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, NASA said.
“We would not target a landing site at KSC or Edwards Air Force Base [in California],” Herring said. “The prime landing site would be at White Sands because of the wide expanse of the range.”