Shuttle Landing Delayed Due to Poor Weather

Astronauts aboard space shuttle Discovery will spend another day orbiting Earth, after the scheduled landing was postponed due to bad weather in Florida. The seven-member crew is now slated to attempt a landing Tuesday morning — in the words of one NASA spokesman, it's coming down somewhere, and there are many alternate landing spots. Madeleine Brand gets an update from Joe Palca.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, we'll talk about the legal record of President Bush's Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.

But first, the seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery will be enjoying another day in space. Unsettled weather at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida prompted NASA to call off today's planned landing, and the shuttle's orbit will not allow another landing attempt in Florida until tomorrow morning. If the Florida weather refuses to cooperate, Discovery could land tomorrow in California. Joining me now to talk about the delay is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

And, Joe, just how bad is the weather in Florida?

JOE PALCA reporting:

Well, it's your basic summer weather in Florida: isolated thundershowers, scattered thundershowers, occasional thundershowers, but unfortunately, the shuttle needs good visibility. It needs no thunderstorms. It needs no rain. And that wasn't the case this morning. It'd actually--the forces just looked almost right for the second landing, but with an abundance of caution, they decided to wait a day and see if things got better.

BRAND: And what's the forecast like for tomorrow?

PALCA: About the same.

BRAND: Oh.

PALCA: So unfortunately, it's not clear whether tomorrow will be any better, but they'd really like to get back to Florida because that's where they do all the processing on the shuttle and, you know, it's much easier to land there.

BRAND: And what's the backup plan?

PALCA: Well, the backup plan, as you said, is to come into the Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert. The weather there has been looking great all week, and there doesn't really seem to be any problem with bringing the shuttle back there. It's got all the landing facilities they need and that wouldn't be a problem, I shouldn't think.

BRAND: Well, why didn't they just try for Edwards today?

PALCA: Well, it's just--that's part of this business of trying to get back to Florida. I mean, the faster they get back to Florida, the faster they can turn the shuttle around. And, in fact, if the shuttle program is able to move forward after this, I mean, if they're able to get to a situation where they feel comfortable that they've figured out this foam problem--you remember earlier in this mission, a piece of foam fell off the external tank and they thought they had that all figured out, but it turns out they didn't. Well, if they get back to flying Atlantis and if they get back to flying Atlantis in September, which they dearly would like to do, they have to get the Discovery ready because the new rules say you have to have another shuttle ready to fly as a rescue mission. So if they wind up in California tomorrow, then they have to put it on a 747. They have to fly back to the East Coast. It adds time. It adds money. It's a big mess.

BRAND: And, Joe, in the grand scheme of things, what's next for the shuttle program?

PALCA: Well, you know, the shuttle program has got a problem because the shuttles are aging. They spent a lot of this mission--they delivered the cargo that they had to the space station, but they spent a lot of the mission just making sure that the shuttle itself was safe to fly. So now they're going to have to do that again obviously because they haven't fixed this foam problem. And so they've got this situation where the shuttle is basically going to serve the space station until it's phased out, and I think that's scheduled for 2010 now. So it's space station or nothing, it seems right now, for the space shuttle program.

BRAND: And that's the priority this week, getting the shuttle back to Earth, but NASA has another big mission, I understand, going on this week.

PALCA: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, this is one of these strange things. NASA's had problems, unfortunately quite a few problems, with the manned space program, but the unmanned program continues to go gangbusters. And on Wednesday, they have another mission scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center that's going to send a probe to Mars. It's supposed to go into orbit for a couple of years, taking these incredible close-up pictures, and you probably remember, Madeleine, that there's two little rovers that are still roving around on the surface of Mars, and they're still working great and sending back pictures. Those were supposed to last for 90 days. They're now both over 500 days. So, you know, the manned space program or, I should say, piloted space program, some problems. Unmanned, they've got some good things going right now.

BRAND: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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