NASA will attempt early tomorrow morning to end a four-and-a-half-month drought in space shuttle launches with the planned liftoff of a luckless astronomy mission delayed repeatedly since May by fuel leaks and problems with its four-telescope payload.
The Astro-1 mission -- with a seven-man crew that includes Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Samuel T. Durrance -- is scheduled to be launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1:28 a.m.
"We're obviously just desperate to see this thing finally happen," said Arthur F. Davidsen, a physics and astronomy professor at the university and lead scientist for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope since the project began a decade ago.
He and other mission scientists have watched grimly as launch delays and problems with the Hubble Space Telescope and the Magellan spacecraft have eroded public interest in the 10-day Astro-1 flight, originally set for launch in March 1986.
"Unfortunately, the interest now seems to be not in the fine science we expect to do, but in whether or not we'll ever get off the ground," said Theodore Gull, mission scientist for Astro-1 at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. "That's a shame."
The countdown for the flight has been halted three times: twice by hydrogen fuel leaks that revealed themselves only during prelaunch shuttle tanking with super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and once by a faulty communications link to one of the four telescopes.
After replacing numerous fuel system parts, NASA technicians located and fixed last week a previously overlooked crushed seal on a hydrogen line to one of the Columbia space shuttle's three main engines.
If Columbia is indeed ready to fly, the $150 million Astro-1 observatory may begin as early as Wednesday to explore ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from some of the hottest objects in the heavens.
It could provide important new information about the life cycle of stars and such cosmic mysteries as black holes, quasars and the nature of the vast areas of space between galaxies.
The mission includes four astronomers: civilian payload specialists Mr. Durrance and Ronald Parise of Computer Sciences Corp. in Silver Spring, plus veteran astronauts Robert Parker and Jeffrey Hoffman.
They will operate the observatory in 12-hour shifts, taking time out on Sunday to participate in a science education program called "Space Classroom."
Thirty science students from Howard and Prince George's counties will visit Goddard for an lesson on the electromagnetic spectrum and a question-and-answer session.
The public can watch the launch on wide-screen television at the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Doors open at midnight tonight for the launch at 1:28 a.m.
A special telephone hot line with Astro-1 launch information is also available at 338-8444.