It's official: Discovery launch set for July 13
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: July 1, 2005
NASA managers wrapped up a two-day flight readiness review Thursday and formally cleared the shuttle Discovery for blastoff July 13 on the first post-Columbia shuttle mission. If all goes well, the countdown will begin at 6 p.m. July 10 for a launch attempt at 3:50:47 p.m. on July 13, weather permitting.
Shuttle program manager Bill Parsons said engineers still must close out open paper work and resolve a few last-minute issues, including questions about the age and certification of an actuator that drives the shuttle's body flap.
The body flap is used during re-entry to help control the shuttle's descent. But Parsons said he believes engineers will resolve the open issues in time to launch Discovery as planned.
"From an open paper standpoint, we have a number of exceptions to the certification of flight readiness that have to be worked off between now and (two days before launch)," Parsons said. "We have a program requirements control board scheduled for (July 7 and 8) and the majority of that paper will be closed out at those two PRCBs.
"And then, as we work on toward L-minus 2, there are a few other things that will be closed out. As far as the body flap actuator ... it looks like we'll be able to clear this for flight with no problems, but again, they have a little bit more work to do."
But Discovery's launch window only extends through July 31 and NASA managers opted not to give up any opportunities at the front end of the window even though a one-week delay would have moved takeoff to the early afternoon.
"Somebody once said, 'it's been raining a long time, will it ever stop?' And the answer, of course, is it always has in the past," said launch director Michael Leinbach. "So the rain will let up and we hope it lets up on July 13th."
But, he added, "launching in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of July is going to be a challenge, let's face it."
"And so we'll deal with that real time," Leinbach said. "We have very strict criteria we will not violate and if we have acceptable conditions, you'll see Discovery fly. Simple as that."
Shuttle commander Eileen Collins, pilot James Kelly, flight engineer Stephen Robinson, Andrew Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charles Camarda and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi plan to fly to the Kennedy space Center the morning of July 10 for the start of their countdown to blastoff.
"The crew is go for launch," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said Thursday. "They want us to be go for launch. They don't want us to rush to flight, but they are ready to return to flight."
The goal of the 114th shuttle mission is to deliver a new stabilizing gyroscope to the international space station, to deliver needed supplies and equipment, to make preparations for upcoming assembly flights and to carry back trash and no-longer-needed equipment that has built up since the shuttle fleet was grounded in 2003. During one of three planned spacewalks, Robinson and Noguchi also plan to test rudimentary heat shield repair techniques.
Asked if he planned to celebrate Discovery's takeoff, Griffin said "I personally don't think we're going to be doing any celebrating until we have wheels stopped on the landing."
"There is an old saying among pilots, the flight's not over until the engine's off and the airplane's tied down," he said. "So we will go from the launch to looking at how our inspections go on orbit, carrying out our detailed test objectives for the flight, resupplying the space station, bringing up a new control moment gyro to replace the failed one, cleaning up some of the stuff that's accumulated on the space station for the last two-and-a-half years we've been unable to get to it. We have a lot of work to do."
Said Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space flight: "This isn't about weighing anchor, this is about when Discovery's back safe in harbor here at the Kennedy Space Center after a successful mission. At that point, I think there will be plenty of celebrating."
Earlier in the week, an independent panel of aerospace executives, academics and former astronauts held a final hearing to assess NASA's implementation of 15 return-to-flight recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in August 2003. The review panel, led by former Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford and Richard Covey, a former shuttle commander, concluded NASA had failed to fully implement three of the CAIB's most critical recommendations.
But board members said that primarily was due to the literal nature of their interpretation of the recommendations and NASA's much improved understanding of the shuttle's susceptibility to debris impact damage.
Asked if he was disappointed by the results of the Stafford-Covey review, Griffin said to the contrary, he was "delighted."
"They were specifically tasked with assessing NASA's compliance with the literal wording of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report," Griffin said. "Now it is an interesting question as to whether that should have been the tasking or not. That was two and a half years ago, I'll leave that aside. The fact is, they did what they were asked to do.
"The fact is, several CAIB recommendations, taken word for word, are not implementable with the state of our knowledge today. We do not know how to repair large holes in re-entry carbon carbon heat shields or even small holes, maybe. We're not even sure whether we know or don't know how to repair small holes. We are being as smart about this as we know how to be but we are up against the limits of our human knowledge.
"If someone wants more, they're going to have to find smarter humans. So the recommendations as they were written are not strictly speaking implementable, at least not all of them are, and ... that was not a surprise.
"The Stafford-Covey group also noted that the failure to meet those recommendations ... was not a constraint for flight in their opinion," Griffin continued. "If you read their report, on balance it contains really pretty much nothing but praise for the way NASA conducted itself in returning to flight."
Griffin said he agreed with former shuttle commander and moonwalker John Young, who views all rocket launches as test flights.
"That's exactly right," Griffin said. "The people who fly these things are taking risks on behalf of their country. Spaceflight is risky. As the years and the generations unroll, we will learn how to make it routine as we have done with airline travel after a hundred years. So we have a ways to go.
"All of that said, it is my assessment from the technical reviews that have been held over the last weeks and months that I've been involved is that the proximate causes of the loss of Columbia have been addressed. Many other things which could have been of concern or would have been a concern have also been addressed.
"We honestly believe this is the cleanest flight we have ever done. The only other flight that will ever be cleaner is the next one. So it's risky, we've done what we can do to minimize that based on the state of our knowledge today."