Weather may delay shuttle's mission to map Earth

April 08, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- A bank of low clouds threatened to delay today's launch of the shuttle Endeavour and the inaugural flight of Astronaut Tom Jones, the Marylander aboard this mission to map the Earth's surface with a new radar device.

The launch was set for 8:06 a.m. If postponed, it is scheduled for the same time tomorrow.

"We look forward to flying as soon as the weather allows," Brewster Shaw, the space shuttle program director, said yesterday.

A cold front passing through Florida brought with it low clouds, crosswinds and the chance of rain, officials said. The weather forecast for tomorrow "looks slightly better," Capt. Tyree Wilde, an Air Force meteorologist, said at yesterday's prelaunch briefing.

Until now, nothing has gotten in the way of Tom Jones' childhood aspirations to fly in space. He was a boy from Essex with the ambition to be a space explorer, and the launch of Endeavour will realize that dream. His mother, Rosemarie Jones, two brothers and a sister and their families have driven here from Maryland and Virginia to witness the launch. But Dr. Jones, a planetary scientist, is the first to admit that the space flight "is not just a personal experience."

The nine-day mission presents a unique opportunity to study the Earth's surface with sophisticated radar and measure environmental changes, he said.

"We lose sight of the fact that the Earth is not just our world but a planet," Dr. Jones said in an interview before he headed into medical quarantine last week.

The flight, part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program, will test a new technology, the Space Radar Laboratory, and measure carbon monoxide in the lower atmosphere. Carbon monoxide slows the atmosphere's ability to cleanse itself of chlorofluorocarbons, which are responsible for the deterioration of the ozone layer.

Developed jointly by U.S., German and Italian scientists, the new radar technology resembles a flat solar panel the size of a transit bus that nearly fills the payload bay of the shuttle.

The six astronauts will direct the radar over more than 100 geographic sites around the globe, from Death Valley in California to the Galapagos Islands. The radar -- which can pierce clouds, ice, vegetation and sand -- will scan rain forests, rock formations, even snow packs. The Endeavour crew, working in shifts around the clock, will complement the radar with 14,000 still photographs of test sites.

Dr. Heinz Stoewer, managing director of the German space agency, described the sophistication of the radar device in connection with studying a tropical forest. The equipment uses three radar bands that penetrate the forest at different levels. There is the height of the trees, the mass of the branches and then the density of the underbrush. "You integrate all of these to see into the tropical forest," he said.

As the radar works above the earth, as many as 2,000 scientists and researchers on the ground will measure land and weather conditions at the various sites across the globe.

A second flight is planned for August, enabling project scientists to compare data over a growing season, said Dr. Charles S. tTC Kennel, associate administrator of the Planet Earth program.

"If you look 20 years ahead in time, I can imagine a worldwide global monitoring system using radar," said Dr. Kennel.

During the mission, Dr. Jones will have with him a stone ax unearthed in an archaeological dig in the Sahara. The ax, some 200,000 years old, was found after a radar experiment 13 years ago discovered a buried river channel in the Sahara, Dr. Jones said.

"A little bit of serendipity," the 39-year-old father of two said.

Dr. Jones will have a couple of other items on board that might be more familiar to Baltimoreans: a photograph of the students at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Elementary School, a plaque from Stemmers Run Middle School and a T-shirt from Kenwood High School.

"I guess I'll get a chance to wear the shirt during the flight," said Dr. Jones, an alumnus of all three schools.

He also brought along a neckerchief from an Essex Boy Scout troop and a picture of his wife, the former Liz Fulton of Hancock, Md. He is wearing a medal of St. Christopher (the traditional patron of travelers).

"Much more important than that is my wedding ring," he said.

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