NASA communications satellite damaged during launch prep


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A NASA TDRS communications satellite, scheduled for a August 3 launch on a ULA Atlas 5 rocket, was damaged on July 14 while it was undergoing final preparations for launch.

Though the issue apparently involves one of the satellite’s main antennas, it is unclear what happened exactly or how extensive the damage was. Furthermore, this article about the incident notes that an earlier incident had also occurred during shipping.

It is understood this latest incident is not related to a ‘close call’ that NASA was investigating earlier in the flow. That incident involved the spacecraft’s shipping container – containing environmental instrumentation – which slid a couple of feet on the trailer it was being winched on to.

If I was a customer who might want to buy the launch services of ULA, I would demand detailed information about why these incidents happened, including what measures are being taken to prevent them from occurring again.

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4 comments

  • Edward

    Robert,
    I think that these incidents happened at the manufacturing facility, not at a ULA facility. ULA probably was not involved in either incident. I think that your concern should be for customers of Astrotech.

    These incidents, however, exemplify the bumpersticker “Stuff Happens” (or some other “s” word). A couple of decades ago, I was working on a spacecraft packing operation when a problem happened. I can still hear the technicians words, “I think I heard a crunching noise.” Sure enough, an antenna was not properly stowed, and the upper section (the cover section) of the shipping container landed on it, and we could all immediately see that the container section was slightly tilted from the force of resting on the antenna.

    By the way, the photographs in the second link show the antennas stowed in a way that I have not seen before. It is fascinating, and must have been something to see, when they tested the deployments.

  • Edward: I always bow to your greater engineering knowledge, but the impression I got from every article I read was that the incident occurred as they were prepping the satellite for installation on the Atlas 5. Wouldn’t this involve ULA?

  • Dick Eagleson

    Robert,

    Yes it would involve ULA. ULA does vertical integration of all payloads to all its rockets. That means the payloads get various forms of prepping, including being stripped out of their shipping containers, mounted on a deployment fixture, then the payload fairing halves are brought in from the sides, attached to each other and the deployment fixture, and the payload is sealed up except for power, data and environmental control umbilicals. A day or two before launch, the whole payload unit is taken out to the pad, lifted by crane and lowered into position atop the rocket’s second stage within one of ULA’s vertical integration structures – there is one at each of ULA’s pads. All transport-only umbilical attachments are removed beforehand and then corresponding units atop the rocket itself or the umbilical tower at the pad are hooked up in their place and the whole payload unit secured to the top of the upper stage.

    This accident seems to have taken place at some point fairly early in this whole process, perhaps even during the unpacking of the satellite from its shipping container.

  • Edward

    I can see your point. The first article used the phrase, “the satellite was being readied for flight.” The second article wrote: “an incident that occurred during final spacecraft closeout activities.

    My interpretation, as well as the location being in the Astrotech facility, suggest to me that they were performing final inspections, loading the Monomethylhydrazine and Nitrogen Tetroxide for its Liquid Apogee Engine, closing up the last of the inspection and access panels, perhaps stowing antennas or other movable parts for the final time, removing “Remove Before Flight” items, and similar “punch list” activities. The phrase”final spacecraft closeout activities” suggests that the Astrotech crews were performing these activities to the spacecraft itself, when the incident occurred.

    August 3 is coming up fast, so I can see where you would think that ULA is involved in order to install the spacecraft onto the launch vehicle’s adapter ring and close up the fairing. However, I suspect that three weeks before launch, ULA does not yet have the payload in its hands. I suspect that the incident happened while Astrotech was preparing to take it to the rocket for installation.

    Even as they are installing it onto the rocket, Astrotech is the expert in the lifting sling and the satellite’s center of gravity, but ULA is the expert on mating to the rocket. I would expect a joint effort during that operation. If only slightly, Astrotech will be involved until the fairing is closed. Even during that operation, although it is extremely rare (I don’t know of a case), you never know whether there will be a crunching noise.

    I misstated “manufacturing facility” in my previous comment. I meant to say the final preparations facility at the launch site. In this case, it seems to be owned by the satellite’s manufacturer.

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