NASA Set for Third Attempt at Shuttle Launch
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Today NASA will attempt, for the third time in four days, to launch the space shuttle Discovery. The weather looks pretty good, and NASA officials say there are no technical problems. NPR's David Kestenbaum joins me from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
And David, when we talked yesterday, there was a technical problem. There was a crack that had appeared in some foam on the fuel tank, and there was actually a broken piece of foam they found on the launch platform. But did the NASA officials decide that it wasn't a big deal?
DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:
Foam is certainly something that they worry about. I mean, remember with the Columbia space shuttle, it plowed into a piece of foam about the size of a briefcase on the way up and that punched a hole in its wing, which turned out to be fatal. It burned up on re-entry.
So whenever there's anything involving foam, you know, everybody scrambles, but last night at about 8:00 p.m., the mission managers met and then one of them, Bill Gerstenmaier, head of Space Programs, came out to talk to the press. And he had the foam in a little Ziploc bag, and you could see it was small, it was sort of three inches by four inches. And he said they'd taken some really high-resolution photos of the area where it had broken off, and they were convinced there was enough foam left there to keep the stuff cold in the tank and do what the foam is supposed to do, and it didn't look like there was a danger of anything else coming off.
They said they think they understood why it came off. Some ice formed on that day, that it rained and that sort of pinched a joint and some of the foam popped off. So they said they're not concerned about it and they're ready to go ahead.
BRAND: And they're confident in their decision to launch?
KESTENBAUM: He was asked, Is NASA suffering from go fever? In other words, are there problems, but you're saying, Oh, that's okay, oh, that's okay, just because you're really eager to launch? And Gerstenmaier said no. He said, We ask ourselves this all the time, and we really feel like these problems are small and we've looked at them very seriously and resolved them.
The other problem that they had in the past few days was with a broken thermostat on a thruster that they use to do some subtle maneuvering in space like docking with the space station, and there are six of those and they decided they could do without one of them, but they had to go through a special procedure and approve a waiver for that.
BRAND: And the weather looks good? No storm clouds?
KESTENBAUM: I'd say it would be nice if this were a winter launch, because (unintelligible) out here, but I see some clouds, but you know, what do I know? The weather guys say it's 80 percent go. The NASA officials have made some disparaging remarks about the weather predictions, saying, you know, Well, we can't tell the difference between 40 percent go and 60 percent go, and basically unless it's zero percent chance of good weather, we're going to suit the guys up and get them on the launch pad.
BRAND: And do the guys, the astronauts, do they get impatient with all these scrubbed launches?
KESTENBAUM: I don't know. Three of them have not flown before, so I bet they're anxious to get up there. It has been a bit like, you know, the movie Groundhog Day. Every day we see the astronauts. They get their morning snack, they get in their orange suits, they get in the astro-shuttle van and they go over and they get strapped in, and it's quite a lengthy procedure, and they sit there. They're in the space shuttle now, on their backs.
You know, imagine being in your front seat and putting your legs up on the dashboard. That's sort of the position they're in. They sit there for a few hours, but we're told they train so many times that actually, when the shuttle actually lights and rockets burn, sometimes they're shocked because they're so used to drilling, and it going three, two, one, zero. Okay, drill's over. Get out. So when they actually liftoff sometimes, it's even a surprise.
BRAND: What about you guys? Are you running out of clothes?
KESTENBAUM: I have seen some reporters, repeat offenders, wearing the same clothes days in a row. And I saw a New York Times reporter in a bowling shirt, but other than that...
BRAND: Oh my gosh, that - wow. I don't know about that.
KESTENBAUM: I'm wearing fresh clothes every day. I have a week's contingency clothes.
BRAND: Thank goodness. The ever-prepared David Kestenbaum. Thank you.
BRAND: That's David Kestenbaum at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
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