Shuttle Crew Gets an Extra Day in Space

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Discovery won't land as planned on Monday. NASA will try again Tuesday, and could divert the shuttle from Florida to an alternative landing site in the California desert. NASA's Carl Walz offers his insights. He's flown four shuttle missions.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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

NASA officials have canceled today's attempted landing of the space shuttle Discovery. They did so just before 5:00 Eastern time today.

Unidentified Man: The one word that describes all this all night has been unstable. So we're going to officially wave you off for 24 hours.

Commander EILEEN COLLINS (Space Shuttle Discovery): OK, Houston, we copy that. We'll be a wave-off for today. We copy all the weather and we are going to take Street S-12(ph) for the 24-hour extension.

INSKEEP: Here to discuss the decision is Carl Walz. He's an astronaut who works at NASA's headquarters. He has flown four shuttle flights himself, and he's in our studios.

Good morning.

Mr. CARL WALZ (Astronaut): Good morning.

INSKEEP: And it's nice to hear you by the way not on a scratch phone line from space this time, so good to talk to you. What's it like when you get to that moment when you're expecting to be home, you're expecting to be on the ground and you get the word that you can't do it today?

Mr. WALZ: Well, I think the crew has worked very, very hard during this mission, and so it's actually for them a chance to spend another day in space, and so they'll take off their suits, they'll pull out the cameras and they'll start to, you know, enjoy being in space one more day.

INSKEEP: Do you get to be a space tourist at this point, or is there something lined up for you to do?

Mr. WALZ: No, typically this is kind of space tourist time. So the crew gets to take it easy. You don't want to break out a lot of equipment that you've just stowed since you're going to have to do it all again the next day.

INSKEEP: Although I do want to know, you have been in this very same situation. You've been waved off on shuttle flights before. It must be disappointing in a sense because you've got your adrenaline up, you're ready to go and then somebody says, `Nah, not today.'

Mr. WALZ: It is. I mean, you spend a lot of work to get this shuttle ready to go. I'm sure that the crew were in their launch-and-entry suits which are fairly not tedious to put on, but, you know, take some time so you have to take all that off, stow it again. And so it's work but, you know, it's part of the deal. You know, if the weather's not, you know, a hundred percent good for landing, we'd rather be conservative and wait for the next day when the weather will be good.

INSKEEP: Now, Mr. Walz, we mentioned that the weather is not so ideal at Kennedy and Florida. There are alternative landing sites. Why not bring the shuttle down today at Edwards in California? Why try another day to land at Kennedy if possible?

Mr. WALZ: Well, I think when we land at Kennedy, it minimizes the amount of time it takes to turn the vehicle around. When you land at Edwards, you have to prepare the vehicle for shipment across country on the top of a 747, and that takes about two weeks. You have to worry about weather during that transition as well, and so just from the point of view of safety and risk, it's always better to go to Kennedy if at all possible.

INSKEEP: It is said outside the agency that the whole shuttle program depends upon a successful completion of this mission. What do people say about this mission inside the agency?

Mr. WALZ: Well, they feel it's a very important mission as well, and I think, you know, we've seen a lot of great things on this mission, unprecedented views of the vehicle, an unprecedented space walk beneath the shuttle and also a very important resupply mission and also bringing down cargo from the station.

INSKEEP: How are people viewing this last phase of the landing?

Mr. WALZ: Well, I think, you know, certainly no phase of a mission is routine, and so they're, you know, certainly very concerned, but I think that we have confidence in the vehicle. We'd know more about this particular vehicle and its shape than we've ever known about any space shuttle before it's re-entered. So we have confidence, but we would like to get them safely on the ground.

INSKEEP: Absolutely. And just one last thing very briefly, how long can they stay up if they are required to stay up a number of days past this?

Mr. WALZ: Well, I think they easily have two more days, and then after that, the consumable folks--that's the oxygen, the electricity, food--you know, they'll start looking to see if they could even get even an additional day after that, but right now I think they'll try either to go to Kennedy, and if that doesn't work probably to Edwards tomorrow.

INSKEEP: OK. That's astronaut Carl Walz. Thank you.

Mr. WALZ: Sure. You bet.

INSKEEP: And we'll bring you more on that story as we learn more.

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