Astronauts arrive for launch
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: October 19, 2007
The shuttle Discovery's crew flew to Florida Friday for launch Tuesday on what many observers consider the most challenging and complex space station assembly flight yet attempted. Commander Pam Melroy, speaking to reporters at the Kennedy Space Center's shuttle runway, said the crew agreed with the decision earlier this week to press ahead with launch despite a recommendation from an independent engineering group to replace three wing leading edge panels that have areas of degraded coating.
Three of the 44 reinforced carbon carbon - RCC - wing leading edge panels on Discovery have areas of known degradation. NASA managers decided after a lengthy flight readiness review Tuesday it was safe to proceed with flight while engineers continue to study the issue. There is no evidence the mechanism responsible for coating degradation will suddenly get worse and even if it somehow did, program managers concluded, the crew would see it during normal heat shield inspections and would be able to make repairs if necessary. The managers decided the odds of a sudden coating failure in the few days between the final heat shield inspection and re-entry were too low to warrant a two-month or longer launch delay.
"Of course, we watched the flight readiness review with great interest on Tuesday," Melroy said today. "Tuesday was a busy day for us, it was the day we went into quarantine, we had an integrated entry simulation that took up most of the morning and other activities in the afternoon. We finally settled into crew quarters at Johnson Space Center and I found myself wondering why I hadn't heard yet what was going on."
She said Ellen Ochoa, director of flight crew operations at JSC, told her that agency managers had spent 12 hours reviewing Discovery's readiness to launch, including a lengthy discussion about whether the leading edge panels should be replaced.
"The issues were discussed in tremendous detail and I think for me, the biggest thing that I got out of that is that with a 12-hour discussion, I feel very confident that everybody's voice was heard," Melroy said. "Everybody discussed every element of the vehicle that needed to be discussed. And I think that is what makes me so confident that the process that we have in place now allows everybody's voice to be heard.
"We were also allowed to review the data ourselves and have all our technical questions answered. And as a result of that, I'm proud to say that the STS-120 crew is totally confident that the RCC on Discovery is ready to protect us on our ride home."
Discovery's countdown is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. Saturday for a launch attempt at 11:38:20 a.m. Tuesday. Forecasters are predicting a 40 percent chance of showers and cloud cover that would prevent takeoff.
Joining Melroy for the year's third shuttle mission are pilot George Zamka, flight engineer Stephanie Wilson, Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli and spacewalkers Scott Parazynski, flight Doug Wheelock and space station crew member Dan Tani.
The goal of the flight is to deliver a new multi-hatch module to the space station that will serve as the connecting point for European and Japanese research modules scheduled for launch in December, February and April. The astronauts also plan to move a huge set of stowed solar arrays from an interim mounting point to its permanent location on the left end of the lab's main power truss.
Five spacewalks are planned, including one devoted to testing a promising heat shield repair technique.
"We're like a bunch of kids on Christmas Eve here, full of anticipation, both personal and professional," said lead spacewalker Parazynski. "I think by almost any measure this is one of the most challenging and audacious missions in the shuttle-ISS era. And we're all very proud to serve and be part of this flight."
Aboard the international space station today, outgoing Expedition 15 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin formally turned over control of the lab complex to Expedition 16 commander Peggy Whitson, the first woman to be put in charge of the outpost. Whitson, flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko and Malaysian guest cosmonaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor were launched Oct. 10 aboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft.
Yurchikhin, flight engineer Oleg Kotov and Shukor plan to return to Earth early Sunday aboard the Soyuz TMA-10 capsule. Astronaut Clay Anderson, launched to the station aboard the shuttle Atlantis last June, will remain aboard the complex with Whitson and Malenchenko until his replacement - Tani - arrives. Anderson will fly home aboard Discovery.
"On a personal note, there's something special, always very special about showing up in Florida," said Melroy, the second woman to command a shuttle. "I'm just really excited to come out and actually get going. There's a time when you need to talk and the flight readiness review was the time to talk. And then there's a time to go do it. And I'm happy to say we're really here and ready to go do it."