Shuttle's close call raises questions Glitch aborts liftoff at 3 seconds to go

August 13, 1993|By Martin Merzer | Martin Merzer,Knight-Ridder News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- It was another heart-stopping drama on the launch pad, at the most perilous moment possible for astronauts.

T-minus 10, nine, eight, seven. Three huge engines roar into action. Space shuttle Discovery shudders to life. Exhaust billows. The shuttle strains at its holddown clamps. And then, trouble.

The launch of Discovery and five astronauts on a routine satellite-delivery mission was abruptly halted yesterday -- with only three seconds on the countdown clock, with the engines kindled.

No one was injured. The shuttle sustained no serious damage. But it was another close call. A very close call.

Whenever the engines ignite and the shuttle is not permitted to blast off, danger is close at hand. The shuttle could tumble off the pad. It could catch fire. It could explode.

"The first thing you think is, 'I'd rather it didn't happen this way,' " mission Commander Frank Culbertson Jr. said later, his green eyes raised toward the sky.

"I'm always concerned about my crew's safety. NASA always puts our safety first. That's why we're still standing here."

Technicians said a sensor reported a fuel-flow problem in one of the shuttle's engines.

Although a great deal of inspection is still required, it appears the problem was within the sensor rather than the fuel system, officials said.

Another attempt to launch this jinxed mission -- this was the third equipment-related scrub in a month and the second within the final 20 seconds of a countdown -- is three to six weeks away.

The failure follows a series of questionable events at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which has been struggling to justify its budget and its mission.

Not only have equipment problems plagued NASA throughout the shuttle's 12-year history, but serious administrative and operational problems appear to be developing.

Perhaps most astonishingly, NASA did not recognize the possible danger that Wednesday's Perseid meteor shower could pose to an orbiting shuttle until the issue was raised by a reporter.

NASA officials concede the strong possibility that shuttle managers did not even know of the existence of the meteor shower until the reporter -- William Harwood of Space News, an industry magazine -- mentioned it earlier this month.

Once the matter was raised, NASA bumped the scheduled liftoff from last week to yesterday.

"NASA is not very well organized, and it's rather sad that you have a multibillion-dollar agency that should know what's going on up there in space and just isn't able to pull all the information together," said Daniel Green, an astronomer at Harvard University's Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

"NASA obviously has some astronomers working for it, but the people working on the launch aren't in touch with all their scientists. There's a missing link here that definitely needs to be improved upon."

NASA spokesman Jim Cast said the agency had discovered there was "no real, hard, firm mechanism" to relay fundamental events such as a meteor shower to shuttle managers.

But, he said, "As far as I can tell, everybody assumes that we would have known about this shower from another source, unidentified right now, and not just from Bill Harwood."

Also, NASA recently confirmed that an incorrect command transmitted by a technician at mission control in Houston caused sparks and a 10-minute power failure on the shuttle Endeavour during its flight in June.

In response, the agency convened a rare meeting of a safety advisory board to help avoid similar problems in the future.

All that was in the back of many minds yesterday during the first, tense moments after liftoff was aborted at Launch Pad 39B.

The failure was only the fourth time in 57 shuttle missions that a blastoff was scrubbed after the engines had ignited. But it also was the second time this year: On March 22, the launch of Columbia was halted at T-minus three seconds by an engine problem.

And this crew already had been through nearly the same thing: On July 24, Discovery's countdown was halted with 19 seconds remaining because of a faulty steering mechanism in one of two solid rockets.

That was dramatic, but it couldn't hold a candle to yesterday's events.

Said Commander Culbertson, wearing a blue jumpsuit and now destined only for a return trip to astronaut headquarters in Houston: "It's been an interesting day."

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