Preview of Space Shuttle Discovery's Launch

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The liftoff of space shuttle Discovery is planned for Wednesday. Richard Harris talks to Scott Simon about problems that had previously plagued the shuttle, its mission and the possible effects Hurricane Dennis may have on the launch.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, books worth swearing on.

But first, Hurricane Dennis ripped over the Caribbean last night with 145-mile-per-hour winds. Ten people are reported to be dead in Cuba, another 10 have died in Haiti. At this hour, the storm is closing in on Key West and is expected to pound southwestern Florida en route to the Gulf of Mexico, but Dennis is apparently staying clear of the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, and that is encouraging for NASA which has a space shuttle on the launch pad. NPR's Richard Harris joins us.

And, Richard, thanks very much for being with us.

RICHARD HARRIS reporting:

My pleasure.

SIMON: And NASA calls this a test flight. Why a test flight?

HARRIS: That's an interesting question because it actually is a full crew--all seven seats are filled on this flight--but they have to do so many things that they need all those folks. But they are also testing a lot of stuff. They've made numerous modifications to the space shuttle, particularly to the external fuel tank which was the cause of the Columbia accident. And they are testing repair gear and stuff like that. So there's a lot of experimental stuff going on. They're also--in addition to that stuff, they're carrying up a canister of goods to resupply the International Space Station, and they're planning three space walks.

SIMON: And what are the space walks for?

HARRIS: Well, the first one will actually be to test out some of this repair gear that they're hoping they can develop in case there are accidents on future launches--they can get up there and actually patch over holes or whatever has been created by that. That's a very ambitious goal, but that's one thing they're hoping to do. The second space walk will be to replace a broken component on the outside of the International Space Station. This is a gizmo that helps hold it steady in orbit. And there are numerous of them, but one of them needs to be repaired. So astronauts will do that. And the third one will be to mount a platform on the exterior of the space station to be used in future missions.

SIMON: It's taken a good deal longer than NASA had hoped to get the shuttle flying again. I know this is a story that you've reported every step of the way, but remind us again why it took longer than they'd hoped.

HARRIS: Well, it took seven months really to figure out what had really gone wrong. There was an investigation that did a very detailed job and really got to the bottom of what it was. And that investigation board then handed NASA a list of 15 tasks that they would really need to complete before they got the shuttle flying again. It turns out that some of those tasks were a lot harder than expected. In fact, three of them were actually never realized. There are three of them that have been deemed not completed. They don't have a proven technique for repairing shuttles if they get damaged during launch. They haven't completely eliminated the risk of falling debris during liftoff, although they believe they've really limited the risk of that. And they also haven't toughened up the orbiter as much as this board had hoped.

So a lot of things just turned out to be much harder than it seemed when they were setting out on this. They had been hoping that within a year of the accident, they'd be back and flying. And here it is almost two and a half years. So NASA, though, says it's good enough. They are confident that it's safe, as safe as it can be, which is of course never 100 percent, but good enough.

SIMON: And given the weather and all other factors, how likely is the launch on Wednesday?

HARRIS: Well, the hurricane is probably not going to be a factor, but the deal is you have to have clear skies and you cannot have a threat of thunderstorms if you're going to launch a space shuttle. And here it is July, peek thunderstorm season for Florida. So I would be quite surprised if in fact it did happen on Wednesday, but I'm prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

SIMON: Rocket ships are so powerful. Why is it that they have to avoid storms?

HARRIS: Well, you certainly don't want to get struck by lightning while you're blasting off. And you don't even want to be struck by lightning when you're sitting on the launch pad. You have to remember the fuel tank is loaded with highly explosive stuff and you really do not want sparks around that. It's also true that NASA wants very light winds during liftoff to reduce the amount of buffeting that the shuttle takes as it lifts off, but also if something goes wrong, one of the escape scenarios is for the shuttle to land again at the Kennedy Space Center. And they cannot land with significant crosswinds. So there are lots of reasons to avoid thunderstorms.

SIMON: NPR's Richard Harris, thanks very much.

HARRIS: My pleasure.

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