Seven lives, along with the fate of America's manned space program, the $100 billion International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, are riding on Discovery today as the countdown for the first post-Columbia shuttle launch nears zero.
Liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla., is scheduled for 3:51 p.m., but there is a 40 percent chance that showers or thunderstorms could postpone the launch, forecasters said late yesterday.
Workers were replacing thermal tiles that were damaged yesterday when a cockpit window cover fell off the shuttle and struck a bulge in the fuselage. Officials said they don't think the repairs will delay the launch.
The major broadcast networks plan to break into regular programming to televise the launch.
The flight is nominally a mission to service the space station, but its more urgent task is to test NASA's costly efforts to address safety lapses blamed for the destruction of the shuttle Columbia and its crew during re-entry more than two years ago.
NASA workers in Maryland will watch as intently here as their colleagues will on the pad in Florida or at mission control in Houston.
"We're always excited," said Russ Werneth, who heads a team at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt that is supporting three planned spacewalks by Discovery astronauts. "But I have to admit, I have a different type of excitement for this mission. We want the shuttle flying again. We need it."
Hundreds of people at Goddard - many of whom were on duty the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, when Columbia and its crew were lost - have played key roles in preparing for the return of shuttle flights. Many others will be working around the clock to support the 12-day mission.
From the moment when the umbilical cables that link Discovery to the Earth fall away at liftoff until just after the shuttle's scheduled landing July 25, all tracking and communications between the spacecraft and the ground will be managed from Goddard's campus outside the Capital Beltway.
Goddard engineers who worked on past Hubble repair missions developed some of the specialized heat-shield repair tools that spacewalking astronauts will try out. Goddard also built the carrier in the shuttle's payload bay that secures equipment bound for the International Space Station.
W. Bruce Schneck, a Baltimore native and Patapsco Senior High School alumnus who manages the shuttles' far-flung communications network, recalls vividly the morning Columbia and its crew of seven were lost.
"I won't forget that day," he said in a quiet moment this week at Goddard's shuttle communication center. "It was like you lost a piece of your family."
The 600 people on his team, in Maryland and at stations around the world, have been practicing two years for this mission, challenging themselves with all imaginable contingencies. And they're confident.
"You could see when we first did it we had lost that edge," Schneck said. "Now we've got it back. I look forward to Wednesday morning."
Now 22 years old, Discovery is making NASA's 114th shuttle flight with liftoff scheduled from the Kennedy Space Center during a 10-minute launch "window" this afternoon.
The timing will enable the shuttle to chase down the orbiting space station - and provide full daylight from the launch pad in Florida to the point, far to the east, where the external fuel tank separates 8 1/2 minutes later.
NASA needs the light for an unprecedented effort, with more than 100 cameras deployed on the shuttle, on the ground and aboard aircraft, to record any damage from the sort of falling debris that punctured Columbia's wing and doomed that ship on re-entry.
The Discovery mission's commander is Eileen M. Collins, 48, a retired Air Force colonel and mother of two making her fourth shuttle flight and second as commander. Her pilot is James M. Kelly, 41, an Air Force colonel from Burlington, Iowa.
The five mission specialists are:
Soichi Noguchi, 39, an aeronautical engineer from Japan.
Stephen K. Robinson, 49, of Sacramento, Calif., who has a doctorate in a mechanical engineering.
Andrew S.W. Thomas, 53, of Adelaide, Australia, also with a doctorate in mechanical engineering,
Wendy B. Lawrence, 46, of Jacksonville, Fla., a 1981 Naval Academy graduate from with a master's degree in ocean engineering.
Charles J. Camarda, 53, a Queens, N.Y., native with a doctorate in aerospace engineering.
The astronauts will deliver tons of supplies to the space station, install a replacement gyroscope, an external storage module and a research storage container called the Raffaello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module.
Their real mission is to return safely and test numerous shuttle and fuel tank modifications, new procedures and materials developed at the insistence of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.
On Day 2 of the mission, the crew will begin an exhaustive inspection of the shuttle for damage to its heat shields, using cameras and lasers on a new, 50-foot mechanical arm.