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Miami Herald June 29, 2006

NASA program rides on this launch

Overcoming objections from key engineers and trying to avoid birds, NASA hopes to launch the shuttle Discovery this weekend.

By Martin Merzer

No human space mission is routine and all are perilous, but few have more riding on them than the launch of shuttle Discovery, set for this weekend despite dissent within NASA over the spaceship's condition.

At risk: seven lives, the future of the International Space Station and the near-term fate of the nation's human space program.

''If we have another major incident in launching a space shuttle, I would not wish to continue with the program,'' NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said.

Liftoff of Discovery and its astronauts is scheduled for 3:49 p.m. Saturday, but if the launch is scrubbed, other attempts can be made until July 19. The weather forecast is uncertain, with meteorologists calling for a reasonably promising 40 percent chance of avoiding late afternoon thunderstorms and lightning.

Also uncertain is the condition of the shuttle.

At least two high-ranking NASA officials -- the agency's chief safety officer and chief engineer -- voted against this launch pending additional renovation of the ship's troublesome external fuel tank. Some outside experts also are concerned.

Nevertheless, top NASA managers said Thursday that the shuttle and its crew are ready for a launch Saturday. It will be only the second shuttle mission since the February 2003 accident that destroyed Columbia and killed its seven astronauts.

OFFICIALLY PREPARED

''At this point, we're right where we want to be, which is on schedule and tracking no significant issues,'' said Pete Nicolenko, a NASA test director.

But they are tracking a newly identified hazard. Are you ready? Birds.

The last flight struck a vulture three seconds after liftoff. No damage was absorbed by the 4.5-million-pound yet surprisingly brittle shuttle, but that was primarily through good luck.

''We laugh about it, but it is a serious risk,'' said John Shannon, the shuttle program's deputy manager. ``We should not minimize it.''

This time, NASA is hoping to trap most of the winged trespassers, but if any swoop too close to the launch pad, liftoff will be delayed until they leave. It even could be scrubbed until the next day.

FOAM CONCERNS

Still, the foam insulation that has peeled off the fuel tank during previous launches remains the primary concern. The defect doomed Columbia and, despite sweeping and expensive renovations, complicated Discovery's first post-Columbia mission last summer.

Now, a year later, NASA managers again insist that all major foam-related problems have been resolved.

Still, they concede that the foam surrounding some components on the tank, called ice-frost ramps, still could pose modest hazards.

But they say that even in the worst case, Discovery would remain intact during launch and its astronauts could seek refuge aboard the space station until they were rescued by shuttle Atlantis, which could be ready for emergency launch in a few weeks.

Others are less confident and they say engineers would need only six months to deal with those remaining foam-related problems. Some also emphasize that the shuttle depends on thousands of other ''mission critical'' components.

''I'm very concerned about how this will all play out,'' said Don Nelson, an engineer who retired from NASA in 1999 after 36 years of work on the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and shuttle programs. He has been fruitlessly demanding for years that NASA add a crew escape pod to the shuttle.

''No NASA manager would support the crew escape plan, so now the only option is to go forward with our fingers crossed,'' he said.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington military and aerospace policy study group, identified another, more draconian option -- permanently grounding the shuttle fleet.

`CUT YOUR LOSSES'

He said the problems encountered by Discovery last year convinced him that ``enough was enough.''

''My advice to them would have been just to cut your losses,'' Pike said. ``It would have seemed to me that would have been the rational course of action -- just to say that this just doesn't make any sense any more.''

But that would mean abandoning the still-under-construction space station, which can be completed only by 16 more shuttle missions -- and must be finished by 2010, when the shuttle program is scheduled to end, even if no additional accidents occur.

During this 12- or 13-day mission, Discovery's crew will deliver a new crew member, supplies and an important component to the station.

NARROW WINDOW

And so, the space agency is pressing forward, hoping to launch Discovery during the long July 4 weekend.

The orbital dynamics required to rendezvous with the space station -- the space faring equivalent of a golfer's hole-in-one -- limit mission managers to 10 minutes each day and only until July 19 to get the shuttle off the pad.

Jeff Spaulding, a NASA test director, was asked if he or his team resented having to work during the holiday.

''That's my job and I love my job,'' Spaulding said.

``My job is launching space shuttles and it doesn't get any better than that. People out here have always made sacrifices to the space program and they will continue to do so.''


Copyright 2006, MiamiHerald.com and wire service sources