Discovery Launch Conditions Said Favorable
SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
The Shuttle Discovery is on the launch pad in Florida and ready for an afternoon lift-off, although bad weather could still cause a delay. It is the first space shuttle launch in nearly a year and a critical launch for the space agency, which is trying to return to routine space flight.
Three years ago, the Shuttle Columbia suffered fatal damage after a piece of foam fell from its fuel tank. NASA officials believe the foam problem is now under control, but some of the agency's engineers say the shuttle needs more work before it should fly.
NPR's Nell Boyce joins us from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Nell, thanks for being with us.
NELL BOYCE reporting:
SIMON: And yesterday you had this extraordinary, openly acknowledged public disagreement between NASA administrator Michael Griffin and some critics. And Mr. Griffin said we're playing the odds. Explain that to us.
BOYCE: Well, he did say that a little bit, but he also said it's NASA's job to understand those odds in minute detail. If you look at the space shuttle program, they've flown 114 flights. They've had two disasters. So the risk is about 1 in 57 that something could go seriously wrong.
That said, there's lots of reasons to think this flight will be safer. For one thing, over the last year they've made a lot of fixes to the shuttle's external fuel tank. That's to prevent the same kind of problem that caused Columbia to crash during reentry. And they think that if there is a problem during launch that damaged the shuttle's heat shield and made it unable to return, they could stow the astronauts in the International Space Station and then rescue them.
So even though some of the engineers, prior to the launch, thought the shuttle itself might be at risk, they didn't think that the crew was at any special risk, and that's why NASA is going ahead with the launch.
SIMON: Explain to us, though, what a serious problem with this launch would mean, absent the safety of the crew. If we assumed that they can get to the space station intact, what would launch problems indicate for the rest of the program over the next few years?
BOYCE: Well, if there was a serious problem where the space shuttle had to be sort of abandoned once it was in orbit because they couldn't bring it back down, NASA's administrator, Michael Griffin, has said that he might just work to shut the whole space shuttle program down. He doesn't think they could continue with only two space shuttles left.
That would be a big deal. I mean, the shuttle is supposed to retire in 2010, but in the next four years they hope to get at least 16 more flights so they can complete the international space station. If we couldn't finish that space station, our international partners would not be happy and they might not be excited about participating in a future moon mission or even a Mars mission. That's what NASA's administrator said yesterday.
SIMON: And could you remind us quickly, Nell, in addition to just getting launches, what's the goal of Discovery's mission?
BOYCE: It's pretty routine. They're going to bring some supplies. They're going to do some chores once they're up there. And for launch it's looking pretty good. I'm standing here now looking at shuttle. The sky is looking clear and they think there's a pretty good chance that they'll be able to launch at 3:49 p.m. today.
SIMON: NPR's Nell Boyce speaking from the Kennedy Space Center. Thanks so much for being with us.
BOYCE: Thank you.