Earlier in the day Space Shuttle Atlantis was delivered into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF). This is known as the Rollover we are now ready for the Lift and Mate.
The Lift and Mate involves fitting a lifting rig to the orbiter by four attachment points, moving the orbiter into a vertical position then lifting it into the VAB high bay where the External Tank (ET) and Solid Rocket Boosters are waiting for it. The orbiter is finally lowered into place where is is connected to the ET and SRBs by the 3 attachment points that were used to mount it on the transporter.
This whole process takes many hours as the engineers have to stop the movement and wait for the orbiter to stop swinging at a number of points in the lift. During these periods engineers take photographs of the heat shield tiles for reference comparisons against in-flight images.
More details of the Lift and Mate together with a photo gallery follow:
The transporter that delivered the orbiter into the VAB stands stationary whilst a special lifting rig is hooked up to Atlantis. This will be used to lift the orbiter from the transport, the transport will then leave the VAB leaving Atlantis hanging. The lifting frame has two components: a rear removable frame that is used to transition the orbiter from horizontal to vertical, and a static frame that runs the length of the orbiter to perform the rest of the lifting process.
The lifting frame is attached to 2 cranes one on the rear of the shuttle and one on the nose. The rear crane is only there to support the Space Shuttle as it is lifter into a vertical position. Once this is achieved both the crane and the rear frame are detached from the orbiter. At this point Atlantis was being supported by just the single crane. Once in the vertical position the entire rig is left for a time to allow any vibrations to dampen down before the next phase of the lift occurs.
The Space Shuttle is now rotated into the right aspect to allow it to pass through the transom and into the high bay. There are a set of marks on the floor of the VAB indicating the correct angle of rotation. Once correctly aligned the orbiter is hoisted right up to the roof of the VAB in order for it to clear the transom and enter the high bay. As is nears the top we see why the rotation was required: The access gap between the structures on the VAB are not wide enough for it to pass through in the correct alignment to mate with the ET so it needs to be slotted through at an angle then re-aligned before being dropped down into the high bay where it is positioned to connect to the ET and SRBs.
Unfortunately as the orbiter was being slowly lowered into place a pendulum motion started as it was nearing some of the access structures. Numerous attempts were made to dampen down the motion and align the mounting points. All this was to no avail and eventually work ceased for the night and Atlantis was left hanging in situ until the morning shift signed on. Later in the morning the orbiter was successfully fully lowered and mated to the ET and SRBs. This completed the Lift and Mate process, the next part of the preparation for flight is the Rollout when the orbiter is moved from the VAB out to the launch pad.