The space shuttle shell game
June 8, 1999
ATLANTA (CNN) -- Now that Discovery is back in the barn, you may wonder when the next shuttle will fly. As it turns out, many people at NASA are asking the same question, and so far, concrete answers are as rare as hailstorms over Launch Pad 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Nominally (as NASA wonks like to say), the next shuttle to fly will be Columbia (OV-102) on shuttle mission No. 93 (which would actually be the 95th shuttle flight).
This mission is a big deal for astronomers. They are anxious to see the fruits of Columbia's primary payload: The Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The $1.5 billion telescope is designed to record -- one guess -- x-ray images that may tell astronomers more about dying stars and colliding galaxies.
STS-93 is a big deal for the media because of who will be in the commander's seat. Col. Eileen Collins (USAF) will become the first woman to command a NASA mission.
To step back, or leap forward?
Columbia is now slated for launch on July 22 at 12:28 a.m. But there are a few things in the works that may change that. First of all, there is a lot of talk circulating around NASA about moving the launch back one small step -- to July 20th. That's a big day for NASA, in case you forgot.
But there are bigger issues that could move this mission a giant leap forward in time. There is some real concern about the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) rocket, which will send Chandra from its 153 mile-high perch in Columbia's payload bay into an oval orbit with an altitude of 6,200 to 87,000 miles. This will put Chandra above some radiation belts that would interfere with its sensitive instruments.
The two-stage solid fuel IUS is a suspect in one of those unmanned (there I go again) launch failures that, of late, have become as common as humidity in Houston. In particular, the IUS let the Pentagon down as it tried to park its $800 million Milstar communications satellite in just the right place. It ended up orbiting in no-man's land, a rather pricey piece of space junk.
The Air Force is on the case, but we can't be certain exactly how the investigation is going. (If they told us, they'd have to launch us!) And that goes for NASA. Presumably someone at the agency is eligible for at least a wink and a nod once the galactic gumshoes find the smoking gun in the Milstar debacle. For now, as far as anyone knows, the investigation is still active -- and the causes are undetermined.
No rescue for Chandra
NASA chief Dan Goldin is unequivocal about this one. He says the Columbia-Chandra-Collins combination will not launch until "the NASA team walks into my office and says they understand exactly what went wrong, they understand how it was fixed." No one wants another Hubble. And, at the lofty heights Chandra will fly, there's no way to send astronauts to the rescue.
Now here's where things get even more complicated. If the answers are elusive and Columbia doesn't launch by mid-August, the shuttle shell game may take this mission out of the flow for another year. After mid-August, NASA and the United Space Alliance will have to stand Discovery back on its end in anticipation of the launch of the third Hubble repair run (planned for October). Endeavour must also be stacked and ready for an Earth radar-mapping mission in September.
During hurricane season, NASA is not allowed to have more than two orbiters in a vertical configuration. The reason: cavernous as it may be, the Vehicle Assembly Building can only shelter two stacked shuttles. If a storm with a name started bearing down on the Cape, there would be no place for a third shuttle to hide. That would make last month's hail storm seem a bit trivial, I suppose.
Also, Columbia is due for an overhaul (or, as NASA insists on calling it: OMDP -- Orbiter Modification Downtime Period). If that gets delayed much past August, flights scheduled for Columbia once it is out of the garage might face a slip.
So when will Columbia launch?
"If it takes a year, it will take a year," Goldin said. "Time is not an issue."
I wonder what Eileen Collins and her crew think about that.
Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears on Tuesdays.
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