Weather May Cloud Shuttle's Monday Return

NASA officials expect Discovery to return to Earth in Florida early Monday. But weather problems could force the shuttle to seek an alternate landing site — or delay re-entry by another day.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

NASA managers say everything's looking good aboard the space shuttle Discovery for a landing on Monday morning. In preparation for landing, Discovery undocked from the International Space Station earlier today. The only thing that could get in the way is the weather. A chance of showers is in the forecast for the Florida coast on Monday. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been monitoring the mission from Washington and joins me in the studio now.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Hi.

LUDDEN: So how bad does the weather have to be before NASA would call this off?

PALCA: Well, not all that bad. I mean, rain showers, no good. You can't land in rain because the rain can damage the tile on the bottom of the shuttle, that heat-protective tile. Lightning, no, can't use that either because the lightning bolt can scramble the electronics that controls the wing surfaces so, you know, a big bolt of lightning--can't fly the shuttle at all. Poor visibility--you can't fly around and wait till the fog clears. You only get one shot--it's a glider; it's coming in. So you want to be able to see where you're going.

LUDDEN: OK. So what if this can't happen Monday then?

PALCA: Well, wait till Tuesday is the short answer and NASA is planning to try to land the shuttle in Florida.

LUDDEN: As opposed to why not just going to Edwards Air Force Base out in California Monday?

PALCA: Well, they do have a backup. Edwards is a landing strip in the Mojave Desert out about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles, but they want to land the shuttle in Florida because otherwise they have to fly it back to Florida after it lands, and that's not only expensive and time--it's time-consuming, and in order for the next shuttle flight--there's a lot of what-ifs here--but in order for the next shuttle flight to get off, they have to have Discovery ready as a standby in case it needs to fly on an emergency mission. Just like Atlantis has been standing by if there was a problem with Discovery, now for Atlantis to fly, Discovery has to be ready, so they don't want to fly around and--they want it in Florida.

LUDDEN: Now those future flights--haven't they been postponed?

PALCA: They've been postponed, but NASA is still saying, `You know, keep your fingers crossed. We still might get off with Atlantis by the end of September.' It may be optimistic, but they're saying it's a possibility.

LUDDEN: You're talking Monday or Tuesday. I mean, could they postpone beyond that?

PALCA: They can land on Wednesday. That would be considered bad. That would be the very last possible day 'cause after that they run out of air and water, and so they have to land at that point. So they're saying they're going to bring it down on Tuesday if they possibly can.

LUDDEN: OK. Well, if they do go with Plan B and land at Edwards Air Force Base, which is out there in the Mojave Desert, not far from Los Angeles...

PALCA: Right.

LUDDEN: ...considering the tragedy that happened with the last shuttle, are there some concerns there?

PALCA: Yes. In fact, they've already taken a look at the landing track for this backup plan for Tuesday, and they've said that at least in one of the circumstances it would come over the LA Basin. So before they do the burn that takes it out of orbit, they would adjust the orbit slightly, I presume, to move it out to sea a little bit so that it would be coming down not over the Los Angeles Basin.

LUDDEN: Not over populated areas.

PALCA: Yeah.

LUDDEN: NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: Coming up, the Voting Rights Act turns 40. That's just ahead on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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