Weather Delays Shuttle Landing Until Tuesday

Clouds, fog and lightning along the Florida coast convince NASA to keep Discovery in space for another day, awaiting a safer opportunity to land at the Kennedy Space Center. The space agency will now make plans for a Tuesday landing.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

NASA has canceled today's attempted landing of the shuttle Discovery. Low-hanging clouds at the landing site in Florida forced that decision and the astronauts will have to try again early tomorrow morning. Here to discuss this decision is NPR's David Kestenbaum, who is at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

And, David, looks like you'll be waiting there another day and a whole lot of other people will, too.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

Yeah, us and everybody else. It's not unusual for them to postpone because of weather. We did hear ground control talk to the astronauts and they said, `We regret not getting you home today.' Eileen Collins, the commander said, `You know, it's OK, we'll see you on Earth tomorrow.'

When the landings cancel they have to get out of their orange space suits. They have to undo all the setup they did over the last, you know, four hours and they open the cargo bay doors to help with temperature regulation. But, really, it's going to be a free day for them, they get to finally be tourists and look out the window. It's some nice unscheduled time in a way.

INSKEEP: You mentioned that it's virtually routine for a landing to be scrubbed like this, but this is an occasion where the landing was scrubbed with the whole world watching in a sense and everybody at NASA anxiously watching as well.

KESTENBAUM: You do get that sense, actually, when you listen to ground control talking to the astronauts. In their voice you sort of hear the fact that everyone is listening to everything they say, so they--you know, often in these measured tones, or the joking is very kind of tentative.

INSKEEP: So now the flight director for Discovery gave out this quote saying, "the shuttle will land somewhere tomorrow." What are the possibilities here?

KESTENBAUM: There are two pos--he said his first choice is to land here at Kennedy. There's one opportunity just after 5 AM Eastern time, and another landing opportunity at around 6:45 Eastern. And the backup plan is to bring it in at Edwards Air Force Base in California, which has more reliable weather and the weather for there looks good and landing times are around 8:15 and 9:47, I have right now.

INSKEEP: So if the landing does not work tomorrow in Florida, they wouldn't wait yet another day, they would just go ahead and put it down at Edwards?

KESTENBAUM: Right. They really want to put it down tomorrow because they have--the supplies start to run out on Wednesday. So Wednesday is a real backup. They're gonna really try and bring it down one place or another tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Now does this one-day delay mean any big changes for the flight path or what happens with the orbiter?

KESTENBAUM: Actually it does change the flight path. The ground path for today cut sort of Northeast, it used to go through Central America, over Cuba to Florida, that was for today. Tomorrow the landing is going to be--the landing path would take it more West to East. It goes across Mexico, then over the Gulf of Mexico, and basically skirts the Southern coast of the United States and then west to east over Florida and lands here on the Atlantic coast.

This is one thing that has changed since Columbia is that they're now taking into account public safety. So during Columbia some 85,000 pounds of debris fell from the sky and nobody got hit, but the idea now is to fly in over the ocean or unpopulated areas or at least avoid big cities.

INSKEEP: We're talking to NPR's David Kestenbaum. He's at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where they're waiting another day for the arrival of the shuttle Discovery.

And, David, of course, one of the reasons that we're watching so closely here today is because the last shuttle mission ended in disaster in 2003. This was billed as the return to flight. How has it gone overall so far?

KESTENBAUM: You know, NASA said they're very happy with things; obviously, they'll be a lot happier when it lands. You know, until it's over, it's not over. But a lot of the mission has been devoted to making sure these new safety systems they put in are working. They delivered supplies to the space station, they fixed their gyroscope and that was all good. But their top priority was really to inspect the heat resistant tiles on the underside of the space shuttle, then Eileen Collins had the space shuttle do a back flip as it was approaching the space station before it docked so the astronauts on the space station could take pictures of the underside, and they really went through, as they said, every fiber of the bottom and the leading edge of the wing. So that now in some ways they're more confident than they have been in the past because they know what the bottom of the shuttle looks like and they feel very confident that it's a clean bird, as they say, and they're expecting a very smooth landing.

INSKEEP: Are there any doubts, any questions that you know of as we prepare for this landing attempt tomorrow?

KESTENBAUM: No. I mean, everybody--the astronauts have said, you know, they expected to go just as they've rehearsed and the people on the ground have--they said they've rehearsed this literally hundreds of times. This specific landing hundreds of times.

INSKEEP: I suppose if there were any doubts they wouldn't go ahead, they'd try something else.

KESTENBAUM: Yup. They're going to bring it down tomorrow one way or the other. That's what it looks like.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks, David.

KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Kestenbaum at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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