Shuttle launch fizzles at last moment all safe

August 19, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The crew braced for launch. The main engines ignited. The countdown clock ticked to 00:00:00. A cloud of vapor and exhaust rose. Space shuttle Endeavour strained at its hold-down clamps.

And then . . . a heart-stopping shutdown at the most hazardous moment of a shuttle mission.

Endeavour and its six astronauts flirted with catastrophe yesterday, coming within seconds -- maybe milliseconds -- of a flawed launch and a variety of disasters.

Blastoff, scheduled for 6:45 a.m., was aborted at the last possible instant by an engine failure.

Though rattled, the crew was uninjured in the close call.

Never before has a countdown clock reached zero and a shuttle not been launched.

"We were quite obviously very concerned," said Deidra Baker, wife of the shuttle's commander, Michael Baker. "I don't think anybody's happier than the families that the safety systems worked and everybody's OK."

The astronauts were protected by a rapid sequence of emergency procedures, including a deluge of 300,000 gallons of water sprayed on the shuttle by fire-protection systems.

Within moments of the heart-stopping failure, status reports echoed in swift succession through Firing Room 1 at the Kennedy Space Center:

"Ignition systems are safe."

"All main engines are on standby."

"We have no fire detectors tripped at this time."

"Primary safing is complete."

"No leaks detected at this time."

"Everything appears to be safe with the crew."

Clad in their iridescent flight suits and still wearing their helmets, the astronauts left the shuttle about an hour after the aborted launch. They appeared sweaty, disappointed, relieved.

One patted the arm of a ground crew member.

Mr. Baker later described the harrowing experience, one that began with red lights flashing on the control panel and the shuttle swaying six feet from side to side and the engines shutting down.

"You get a lot of rumble and a little bit of vibration, and then you're ready for that big kick of the SRBs [solid rocket boosters] and it just doesn't happen," he said.

The final countdown "seemed longer than usual," he added dryly.

Also aboard Endeavour were pilot Terrence Wilcutt, 45; and mission specialists Daniel Bursch, 37; Thomas Jones, 39, of Essex; Steven Smith, 35; and Peter Wisoff, 36.

The crew's environmental research mission will be delayed for about a month as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration analyzes the failure and repairs the shuttle.

Mr. Jones' chance of setting a record vanished with the launch abort.

He flew on the April mission and would have had the shortest time between U.S. space flights if Endeavour had flown.

Also disappointed -- and concerned -- were thousands of tourists who gathered around the space center for a spectacular sunrise show. Instead, they experienced high drama.

"I couldn't take my eyes off of it," said Jessica Milano, 16, of North Kingston, R.I.

"I was scared. I didn't know if there was a fire or what."

Said her mother, Marion: "It took so long for them to say the crew was safe that I was beginning to worry."

At Mission Control, everyone connected with the space program sought to bring their heart rates back to normal.

Many people found themselves thinking about the Challenger disaster of January 1986. That shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard.

Although four previous shuttle liftoffs were halted after the engines were lighted, never before had a blastoff been aborted so late in a countdown.

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