Weather Forces NASA to Delay Launch

Thunderstorm clouds passed over the launch zone all day Saturday, finally leading NASA to cancel the launch with just nine minutes to go. Discovery will try again for a rendezvous with the space station Sunday afternoon.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Cloudy skies forced NASA to scrub today's launch of space shuttle Discovery. The weather doesn't look particularly good for tomorrow either. It's been almost a year since the last mission.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

The sky in the morning was clear blue and the astronauts in their orange suits sat down for their morning snack. They went out to the shuttle and got strapped in, but clouds had gathered and they did not go away. Anvil clouds, which can carry electric charge.

Launch director Mike Leinbach broke the news to Commander Steve Lindsey, waiting on his back inside the Discovery shuttle.

Mr. MIKE LEINBACH (Launch Director): Well, Steve, sorry break your string, but we're not going to make it today. So I appreciate your support, both from the crew and the whole launch team, and the team worldwide trying to get this vehicle off the ground today. But it's not a good day to launch your shuttle, so we're going to try again tomorrow.

KESTENBAUM: Steve Lindsey so far had a perfect record of launching on the first attempt.

Three of the seven crew have not flown before. Rex Walheim, an astronaut, was watching from the ground.

Mr. REX WALHEIM (Astronaut): I've never gotten this close to a scrub. (Unintelligible) before I got out to the pad, but I can imagine it's pretty disappointing.

Some of my classmates are on board and they've been astronauts for ten years, almost ten years now, and they still haven't flown yet, so I was so happy to see them flying. And they will. It's just going to be a few days later, but it's got to be a little bit disappointing.

KESTENBAUM: You're sitting on the launch pad, he says, and you know you are just an eight and a half minute flight from being in space, or, as in this case, you're a few hours from getting out of your suit and going back to a kind of hotel room on earth.

Mr. WALHEIM: There's a saying they have in aviation. It's better to be on the ground and wishing you were flying than flying and wishing you were on the ground. Sometimes when the weather's bad you've got to remember that.

KESTENBAUM: One of the Discovery crew has spent a lot of time in space. German Thomas Reiter lived on Mir for six months. The plan is to drop him off at the International Space Station, where he will stay for another six months.

The shuttle is basically running a supply mission to the International Space Station this mission. It will carry food, also an ultra cold freezer, and a new oxygen generator.

But the crew's top priority is to inspect the shuttle and make sure its heat shield made it safely through the launch. The shuttle's external fuel tank, which holds ultra cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen, is covered in foam to keep ice from forming.

During the Columbia launch, a piece of foam came loose and punched a hole in the shuttle's wing. The shuttle burned up during re-entry.

On the next flight, a good sized piece of foam came off again and NASA has spent the last year fixing the problem. The agency hopes to get 16 more flights in before 2010.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

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