Md. crewman poised for Astro-1 launch after 18 delays

November 30, 1990|By Luther Young

Becky Durrance has a T-shirt you'll never find in a NASA gift shop: "Astro-1: Don't Worry, Be Happy," it reads, and lists an astounding 18 launch dates that have come and gone for the still-unlaunched space shuttle mission.

At Johns Hopkins University, scientists who built one of the four telescopes in the $150 million astronomical observatory have pinned up a cartoon that shows three aged, stooped astronauts emerging from the shuttle with canes and long white beards.

Astro-1 is the longest-delayed shuttle mission ever, with the most launch dates, the most failed launch attempts, the oldest crew and the oldest commander. The seven-man crew has spent more time in pre-flight quarantine than any other in the history of the program.

Mrs. Durrance -- whose husband, Sam, is a 47-year-old Johns Hopkins astrophysicist who has trained as a payload specialist for the mission since 1984 -- laughs at the T-shirt, but with a weary shake of her head at the human cost of the delays for her family and others.

"Has it got a good chance to fly this time? Let's just say probably its best chance so far," she said. "But, after being burned so many times, you realize anything can happen."

Set to launch at 1:28 a.m. Sunday aboard Columbia, Astro-1 will remain in the open cargo bay during the 10-day flight, operated during around-the-clock shifts by Dr. Durrance, fellow Marylander Ron Parise and astronomer-astronauts Robert Parker and Jeffrey Hoffman.

It has its "best chance" yet because -- after four launch attempts beginning in May that were scrubbed because of hydrogen fuel leaks and a telescope problem -- Columbia has undergone a comprehensive leak test and Astro-1 a reassuring checkout of its instruments.

Still, "Getting it launched was never supposed to be the hard part," said Arthur Davidsen, the lead scientist for 13 years on Astro's Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope (HUT), who now feels "the shuttle is clearly not the way to do astronomy in space. It's taken far too long to get here."

In the beginning, it looked like the best way, with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration promising frequent flights of the shuttle and as many as four or five encores for the observatory and its crew of astronomers.

So Dr. Durrance had every reason to believe he was making a good career move when he applied for astronaut training and was accepted in 1984, two years after joining Dr. Davidsen and HUT. It was the realization of a lifelong dream.

"He wanted to do it real bad, but I was initially opposed to it, because I knew there was a lot of hype to it all and he'd be gone a lot," Mrs. Durrance, 38, recalled recently in their Lutherville home. "Of course, I had no idea how much he'd be gone."

The burden of frequent separations caused by his training at Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama was eased when the family --including Ben, 3, and Susan, 11 months -- moved to a condominium near Johnson in November 1985, expecting an early 1986 launch.

It was a heady time. They were pursued by the media from Baltimore and south Florida, where Dr. Durrance grew up. They were flattered to be part of the astronaut culture, still shining from the Apollo triumphs, and Mrs. Durrance planned to write a handbook for wives of payload specialists to help them adapt to their temporary homes.

"I went real gung-ho, and that kept me going through all those months, until Challenger," she said, softly mentioning the Jan. 28, 1986, shuttle explosion that killed seven astronauts. "Then I sort of lost my party spirit. I was so fearful for him."

The worst disaster in U.S. space history was just the beginning of the loss of innocence for the Astro-1 crew, their families and the scientists from Johns Hopkins, Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Wisconsin who designed and built the telescopes.

"Nobody ever stopped and said, 'We're not going to launch for five years.' It was always only one year away, sometimes only months away," Dr. Durrance said from astronaut headquarters, where he entered quarantine on Nov. 25. "And if they had, I still would have stuck with it."

The family moved back to Baltimore in April 1986, and he was home for nearly six months before an early 1988 launch date was chosen, allaying fears that the mission might be canceled. That hiatus was the longest stretch he would be with his family for the next four years.

"There was no order in our lives. It's that feeling that you just can't make any long-range plans, your life is on hold," said Mrs. Durrance, who moved to Houston with the children in August 1989, after one launch date in 1988 and two in 1989 had already been postponed.

And the emotional roller coaster went into high gear in 1990, when the family gathered for four launch attempts at Kennedy Space Center between mid-May and mid-September, each time returning home with their hopes --ed.

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