Countdown to the Cape…Holding at 1…

Photo by NASA/Jack Pfaller

Our experience at the Cape has become a lesson in patience. When we booked our flight and lodging, we planned for a week, just in case. Though Discovery’s launch was scheduled for Monday, there existed launch windows every afternoon November 1 through November 7. By the time we left for Florida, the launch had been delayed until Tuesday, in order to fix a few leaks. By the time we arrived at the motel in Titusville, the launch had slipped to Wednesday. A slip in launch is our new, insider lingo.

It is now Wednesday, and the launch of Discovery is delayed until Thursday, November 4, 2010, at 3:29:42pm or within roughly ten minutes of that earliest time. The countdown clock usually holds at -11:00:00, but it’s now holding through a 24-hour scrub. The reason: a main engine controller.

The “little glitch” (that’s what NASA called it in yesterday’s status briefing) occurred yesterday during power checks. One of the three phases in the computer dedicated to the third main engine didn’t come up, but it was in the redundant, not the primary, system. Besides, it came on later, and then they scrubbed whatever oil or carbon had built up by power-cycling the circuit breaker five times. No biggie. But later, the team saw “a little blip in all three phases” of the same circuit: “dribbling.”

Apollo 8 Control Room

Mike Moses, the Launch Integration Manager, called for the 24-hour time-out of sorts in the launch schedule because he wants to be careful “not to craft a solution based on what we think is the problem.” The events themselves, had they happened during launch, would not have presented a problem. Still, he wants his teams to take a day to “polish that story and bring some history” to the explanation. They need a narrative—mathematical and physical explanations—to connect and explain the two events and predict any risk. That’s a good lesson too: build a narrative to get to your conclusions, instead of merely jumping.

Even though the countdown is holding, time doesn’t stand still here. NASA is busy, the Cape is crowded, KSC is buzzing. We’re busy, too. In fact, our divide-and-conquer approach to preparation and research for this trip to the Cape has worked well since our arrival.

Doug in Apollo 8 Control Room

Doug has spent a lot of his time at Kennedy Space Center’s Visitor Complex, which is part historic site, part museum, and part theme park. He’s viewed one of the three remaining Saturn V rockets (originally intended for Apollo 19), preserved only because the last three Apollo missions were cancelled. He’s visited defunct launch pads, once buzzing with preparations for Mercury and Gemini missions. On the tenth anniversary of continuous human residency in space, he watched the IMAX film about the International Space Station. He’s still going. There’s more to see, more to research.

Ed Mango, Launch Director for Ares 1-X Rocket, at Launch Pad 39B

Meanwhile, Anna has been to a press conference about the International Space Station, where she asked a question, and to two countdown status briefings. She’s been hauled out to Launch Pad 39B, which is currently being refurbished in hopes of a future manned space program and heavy lift launches. She’s interviewed three-time Discovery astronaut and current Director of Johnson Space Center Mike Coats, who said that all three Shuttles are technically the same, but that he sort of likes Discovery best. If the countdown clock starts up again later today, Anna is off to the retraction of the Rotating Service Structure from the Shuttle on Launch Pad 39A.

The slip in launch, then, is an opportunity for Lofty Ambitions, and we’re taking full advantage of it. We’re worried that tomorrow’s launch time is unrealistic, as showers, winds, and thunderstorms move in, leaving only a 20-30% chance of launch. We won’t be at the Cape indefinitely, and we’ve heard others lament their necessity to leave before Thursday.

Saturn V for Apollo 19

But at least in public, NASA talks one day at a time, knowing that there are launch windows for three more days—and then again in December. They’ve tanked—filled the external fuel tank—under similar weather predictions and launched fine. The launch is a go, until it’s not. In the words of Mike Leinbach, the Shuttle Launch Director, “You fly when you’re ready, and if you’re not ready, you don’t go.” In the words of Mike Moses, “It’s another day in paradise.”

We keep expecting exhaustion to overtake us. But we can’t let our guard down. There are poisonous snake colonies in the wet ditches surrounding the KSC Visitor Complex (warning signs are posted), and we keep our eyes out for alligators. We see at least a couple of gators every day.


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