Countdown to the Cape: Meaning in the No-Go

Bird at Space View Park

Yesterday, Anna was at Kennedy Space Center by 7:30am, scheduled to wave to the astronauts a few hours later as they departed for the launch pad. By 8:30am, word trickled out that the launch had been scrubbed at 8:11am for at least three more days. Doug headed out for a saunter to the Space Walk of Fame, where he would have watched the launch in the afternoon. Instead, he watched birds, a small shark, and a manatee, then walked back to the motel.

By 1:00pm, the Post Launch Scrub News Conference began. Discovery won’t go up until at least November 30 (and we’re plenty busy elsewhere then). A ground umbilical carrier panel (GUCP) leaked as the tank was fast-filling, violating both ground safety and launch criteria. Right after the Mission Management Team had made the decision to scrub and take their time understanding and fixing the GUCP—a piece of hardware they thought they had fixed after leaks later in tanking on STS-119 and STS-127—somebody said they noticed a crack in the foam on the external fuel tank. If it hadn’t been one thing, it would have been another.

Gantry Arm from Pad 39A for Apollo Crew to Enter Capsule

It’s as if Discovery is in no mood to leave. She’s not in a hurry to get to the National Air & Space Museum. No, she’s just sitting there on Launch Pad 39A, holding her breath, until she’s reassured that, if her service must end, something new will follow in her flight path.

During Tuesday’s Countdown Status Briefing, Chair of the Pre-launch Mission Management Team Mike Moses and Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach expressed mixed feelings. They wanted Discovery to launch, of course, and to accomplish her mission. But they knew they were going through this pre-launch process with this Space Shuttle for the last time. They didn’t come out and say, she doesn’t want to go. But the words they chose and their intonations made it clear that Discovery’s delays this week were part of the story of the beginning of the end for the Space Transportation System (STS) program.

Mike Leinbach said on Tuesday, “You fly when you’re ready, and if you’re not, you don’t go.” In a sense, everyone who’s worked on, flown in, or watched Discovery here at Kennedy Space Center wasn’t quite ready to see her go, even though they want her to succeed. On Friday, Leinbach said, “We want to do the right thing for this vehicle.” The delays give her a little more time in service.

In a one-on-one interview, three-time Discovery astronaut and current Director of Johnson Space Center Mike Coats told us that she is “the work horse” of the fleet and admitted he’s more fond of her than of the others. Discovery has flown more missions than any other Space Shuttle. STS-133 will be her 39th mission. Discovery was the Return To Flight orbiter after both the Challenger and Columbia accidents. She was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, she took the Hubble Telescope into space, and she added the Japanese Kibo science laboratory to the International Space Station.

On Tuesday, Mike Moses quipped, “It’s another day in paradise.” Certainly, part of his meaning was sarcastic. They’d already missed three launch days—and would miss another because of weather, then Friday’s—and the weekend’s—because of the leaky GUCP. On Friday, Moses said, “It’s the way the space business works.”

Discovery Remains on the Pad

We think what he also meant was that, even when things don’t go as planned, even when there’s a blip and a glitch—or even an accident—putting human beings into space is an undertaking in which he’s fortunate to participate. We think he meant, too, that NASA knows that every launch is a new scenario, a challenge, a risk, and that’s why they do it. As he put it, the launch schedule is their work schedule.

Mike Leinbach said on Friday afternoon, “It’s a machine, and every now and then, machines break. […] We’re not jinxed at all.” We feel the same way about our trip to the Cape. We thought seeing the launch was the story we were seeking, but we’re not disappointed that it was a no-go. On the contrary, we feel lucky. In fact, we spent several hours today talking in person with astronauts—we’ll have more on that in future posts!

The end eventually will begin, and then Discovery will have eleven days left in space.

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