Countdown begins for long-awaited shuttle flight

Forecasters put odds of favorable weather for launch at 70 percent

July 11, 2005|By Robyn Shelton | Robyn Shelton,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. - NASA began its countdown yesterday for shuttle Discovery's planned launch this week, marching toward its first manned flight in 2 1/2 years.

Liftoff is targeted for 3:51 p.m. Wednesday from Kennedy Space Center, with forecasters predicting a 70 percent chance of good weather. A shuttle manager pronounced Discovery in excellent shape yesterday, saying Kennedy Space Center workers finally can "see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Discovery's mission to the International Space Station is the first shuttle voyage since seven astronauts were killed on Feb. 1, 2003, when Columbia broke apart on its return to Earth.

The countdown clock began ticking at 6 p.m. yesterday.

"There's a great anticipation for launch and also maybe a quiet reserve as well just remembering where we've been," said Jeff Spaulding, NASA test director who is overseeing the countdown. "But we all do feel confident we've done it right."

In the years since Columbia's disastrous flight, Discovery has undergone extensive inspections and changes. Many improvements are intended to reduce the risk that debris will strike the shuttle during launch and cause the kind of damage that doomed Columbia.

A large chunk of foam broke off Columbia's external tank after liftoff and smashed into its left wing, creating a gaping hole that allowed hot gases inside the ship when it re-entered the atmosphere for landing.

Since then, NASA has revamped its procedures for applying foam to the tank and redesigned the section of the tank where the debris came loose. In addition, Discovery is outfitted with heaters to reduce ice buildup on the tank, which holds more than 500,000 gallons of super-cold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Ice also can become a dangerous projectile during flight.

Spaulding said he has no doubt these and other upgrades will pay off.

"We can say without hesitation that this is the safest vehicle we've had to launch to date," he said.

Discovery's crew, led by retired Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, arrived in Florida on Saturday. They flew in a day ahead of schedule to avoid Hurricane Dennis.

The crew also includes Air Force Col. James Kelly, the mission's pilot; Soichi Noguchi, an astronaut with Japan's space agency; and NASA astronauts Charles Camarda, Wendy Lawrence, Stephen Robinson and Andrew Thomas.

The main objectives of the 12-day mission are to restock the space station and conduct a series of spacewalks that include testing techniques for repairing the shuttle in orbit, in case another mishap damages a future ship. The spacewalkers, Noguchi and Robinson, also are slated to make repairs and perform maintenance tasks on the station itself.

NASA managers are eager to be back in business.

"It sure does feel good to be back in the saddle again," said Scott Higginbotham, payload manager for Discovery's mission. "It's been too long."

While the countdown continues, forecasters will be watching closely to see if Florida's volatile summer weather becomes an obstacle.

Although Kennedy Space Center has been spared most of Hurricane Dennis' fury, shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters said remnants of the storm could cause weather conditions to deteriorate over the Southeastern United States later in the week.

As it stands for Wednesday, NASA's main concern is the possibility of thundershowers drifting into the Kennedy Space Center area. If the shuttle launch is delayed, Winters said the chance for favorable weather drops to 60 percent on Thursday and Friday.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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