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Countdown to the Launch of Discovery

Aired July 26, 2005 - 10:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Now 39 minutes to the intended launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Live pictures. Launch Pad 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center. The crew's strapped in. The orbiter ready. And we are, too.
Stay with us for a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING.

ANNOUNCER: "Return of the Shuttle" with Miles O'Brien, live from the Kennedy Space Center.

O'BRIEN: It is a beautiful day here at the Kennedy Space Center. You see some white, puffy clouds that have only recently developed. The weather, not going to be an issue here. We're told it's only a 10 percent chance that weather, in fact, will be the fly in the ointment today. Safe to say that's being conservative. The weather, not the issue.

So far, we have had a countdown that has been amazingly free of trouble, as the Space Shuttle Discovery sits on the pad, its crew of seven ready to fly for the first time in two-and-a-half years, since February 1, 2003, when Columbia and her crew of seven were lost.

Take a look at the scene out there. As you see right now, barely a cloud in the sky. The countdown began several days ago. The fueling in the overnight hours, about 1:00 a.m. local time, 500,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen now in that orange fuel tank. And those fuel sensors that have been giving such great difficulty and caused this 13-day delay after the first attempt, causing not a single problem so far in this countdown.

Truthfully, some engineers kind of had hoped that they would see the same sorts of problems they saw before, predicted problems, because it would give them some insight into what is causing it. It remains unexplained. But since the sensors are working, right now we are go for launch.

There will be one more test and we'll be listening very closely for that test. We're now in the final hold, which is about a 40-minute hold. Now about 30 minutes left in it before the so-called terminal count, the last nine minutes of the countdown, where computers take over because events move so quickly and decisions have to be made so quickly as to whether to launch or not.

Joining me now and with us throughout the entire hour is Shuttle Astronaut Jim Reilly, who's had a lot of experience on this.

Just briefly, before we get into some more detail, this countdown has gone pretty much without a hitch.

JAMES REILLY, NASA ASTRONAUT: Absolutely. Everything's doing very well. In fact, they're doing the polls and going through everything in Launch Control right now and everything sounds great.

O'BRIEN: Let's talk about that technical issue if you would. Let me borrow that sensor. This is the focus of a lot of attention right here. This is one part of this fuel sensor system that was the focus of that attention, that caused that scrub on July 13th. The question that engineers have had ever since then is, is it the sensor itself, is it the wires that are attached, is it the black boxes that were connected to it?

They came up with a scheme of identifying you see where the sensor is located at the base of that external fuel tank, there to determine when liquid hydrogen is there or not, to ensure that the engines are not cut off prematurely or, worse yet, drained dry, which could cause a catastrophic problem. Well, so far these sensors, the wires, the black boxes, the system, have worked without a hitch.

NASA has no further insights into the problem that caused all this delay. But, nevertheless, they are go for launch.

Let's bring in my colleague, CNN's Lou Dobbs, who is the founder and CEO of, author of the book "Space."

Yesterday, Lou, you were talking to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and you asked some of the same questions we've all been asking -- why would you eliminate a layer of redundancy potentially on the ground before liftoff?

LOU DOBBS: Yes, Michael Griffin, Miles, as you said, he's straightforward about this. The national press made much of the fact that they have decided to launch even if there is a problem with the eco sensor, the fuel sensor, one of four.

But what many people did not understand -- and NASA has explained with, I think, considerable openness and elaboration -- is these four sensors at one time were wired as dual sensors., so that you had to have a backup. But now the team has taken the management, the mission management team, has taken note of the fact all four sensors are individually wired. So you have, even with the failure of one, a further redundancy. And they have not been able, as you have reported, to emulate the problem, or replicate it, and feel very comfortable that at least in this area of the fuel sensors which delayed the launch originally of Discovery, it is not an issue for this launch at all. In fact, they have double redundancy.

O'BRIEN: And that is the good news, Lou Dobbs. We'll get back to you in a little bit.

The interesting irony is here, the engineers, as they say, would actually have preferred in a sense to see the problem crop up so they can focus on it. But nevertheless, they'll take what they've got here.

Let's talk a little bit about the weather. While it isn't a factor right now, just to give you a sense of some of the issues involved here, I want to walk through some of the rules. It is a big, thick book, really, of weather rules that NASA has to live by. For example, heat. Over 99 degrees for more than 30 minutes, no flight. Thirty-five degrees or colder, no flight. You know, that hearkening back to the days of Challenger on that very cold morning in January of 1986.

Other issues that you have to contend with. Wind. A 17 knot crosswind at the shuttle landing facility is the limit. We have no problem with that today. It's breezy and fine. That's in the event that they had an abort scenario which forces them to return to the shuttle landing facility -- the 15,000 foot runway not far from where I stand -- in about 20 minutes' time after launch.

Now precipitation. Here's the interesting thing. This is a vehicle that could travel many times faster than a speeding bullet, Mach 25, and yet it can't fly through simple raindrops for fear of causing damage to that thermal heat shield which we've all become familiar with in the wake of the loss of Columbia.

Lightning. No issue with lightning today that we can tell you about. But if there were, this has very strict rules. If it's detected within 10 nautical miles of the pad or in that planned flight pad within 30 minutes prior to launch, there would be no launch.

Finally, clouds. Going back to that issue of precipitation. Any cloud that is 4,500 thick, some temperature parameters there, cumulus clouds, the shuttle doesn't fly through it. That's just a little sample of some of the rules that they abide by.

We're joined now by CNN's Chad Myers who's in the Weather Center. He's been watching the weather for us all day. And quite frankly, Chad, not much to watch.

CHAD MYERS, METEOROLOGIST: It's been really good, Miles. The clouds that you were pointing out about 15 minutes ago, that is the sea breeze. Sea breeze kind of reacts a little bit different than the land breeze. They blow in opposite directions and at opposite times of the day.

When the sun heats up the land, it heats it up quicker than the water. This may get to be 95. The water still stays about 80, 85. This air wants it rise and then the air rushes back in from the ocean. And that line of clouds that you see, especially in the early morning and early afternoon, all part of what we call the sea breeze.

We're going to zoom right in to Melbourne for you right here. There is not a cloud in the sky. There is not a raindrop on the map. And there hasn't been any lightning at all in Florida. Quite the scenario for you. Really very, very good weather. And, in fact, no clouds even within 10 miles. The likelihood, 80 to 90 percent. The temperature right now is 84.

And the shuttle is on its way up, I think. We're not going to cancel it because of weather today. And this launch window, Miles, of a 10:00 to 11:00, 10:39 officially, right? That's a much better time than the one we had a couple of weeks ago in the late afternoon when it was really getting hot out there and we were really starting to see those cumulus clouds puff up.

O'BRIEN: Yes, each day they delayed, they picked up about 20 minutes earlier in the day because of the way that rendezvous goes with the space station. And truthfully, 13 days was probably good because it puts them right in the middle of this mid-morning, Chad, as you point out, which is a lot more favorable in Florida in the summertime.

Let's talk about the crew. Who's onboard this shuttle? Who are the people who are willing to take this flight and take these risks two-and-a-half years after the loss of Columbia? They do it willingly. They do it with bravery. They do it because they believe very strongly in the mission of human beings in space.

Eileen Collins, the commander, her fourth flight, from Elmira, New York. She was the first woman to command a space shuttle, July of 1999. First woman pilot in '97. In the Air Force, she scored several firsts as well because wherever she's gone, she's been first. So she's very comfortable being the first after the Columbia disaster.

James Vegas Kelly is the pilot sitting in the right seat beside her. It's his second flight. He hails from Burlington, Iowa. He's also an Air Force guy. Four children at home. Once again, heartily endorses the risks and is willing to take those risks, in spite of the fact that certainly he leaves a jittery family behind him this morning.

Next on the mission, Steve Robinson, mission specialist. It's his third flight. He flew with John Glenn back in 1998, in October of 1998 on this very same space shuttle orbiter, the Discovery. Hails from California. He's in the astronaut rock band called Max Q. This morning as we saw him, he was playing guitar for his fellow crew members. Presumably they enjoyed the strumming.

Next on the crew for us is Charlie Camarda. He's the only astronaut I know from the Queens, that's for sure. He is on his first flight. An interesting guy. An engineer with seven patents, who spent many years working at NASA's Aims Research Laboratory. Comes to the astronaut car with a little different career pedigree and a little different attitude and certainly has brought a lot to this crew.

Next member on the crew, also strapped in and ready today, Wendy Lawrence. She's on her fourth flight. She would have flown to the space station Mir but she's too small to fit in the space walking suit, the Russian Orlan suit. That's why they call her "Too Small" Lawrence. She hails from Alexandria, Virginia. She's a Navy captain. And she is the daughter of a very famous Naval aviator and ultimately a commandant of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Actually, her father was a contemporary of John Glenn in the Mercury 7 and might very well have been an astronaut himself. So she has a big legend to follow there.

Next on our flight is Soichi Noguchi. He's a mission specialist from Japan. It is his first flight. He will do three space walks, along with Steve Robinson. We'll tell you about those space walks in just a little while and what they're all about. But basically what they're doing, among other things, is testing ways it repair the heat shield in space. New ideas. Perhaps sort of a high-tech bondo kind of setup.

Andy Thomas is the most experienced of the crew. It's his fourth flight. He hails from South Australia. Spent 141 days aboard the Mir space station back in the days when U.S. astronauts were aboard Mir and when Mir still existed. While everybody else on this crew counts their time in hours, he counts it in days.

And let's take you to the firing room and just show you what's going on there. I'm going to bring in Jim Reilly, our astronaut who's been listening very intently to the calls there.

It almost looks routine. It almost looks matter of fact in there. And I know they drill these things over and over again but there's got to be a little different feeling in the launch control center right now, Jim.

REILLY: You know everybody's looking really tightly at their screens, just making sure that everything is perfect for this first flight in two-and-a-half years. So I'm sure they're very carefully looking at what they've got.

O'BRIEN: Looking tightly. Focused entirely. Clearly that sensor issue is on everybody's mind. We're in the timeframe soon where there will be another test. When is that coming up? And do we know how critical that particular test will be?

REILLY: (INAUDIBLE). Before we come out of this hold, they're going to do one final test of this last set of eco sensors. So they're going to be looking at it and sending it to the dry state, which has passed perfectly all morning long, ever since about 3:00 this morning, and they'll try it one more time before they get a final go for launch from the MCD.

O'BRIEN: So, conceivably, if there's a problem that crops up at this late juncture, there could be a problem, it might necessitate a scrub? But there's no reason to believe at this point that those sensors are not operating properly?

REILLY: So far this morning, everything has worked perfectly. No issues at all.

O'BRIEN: Tell us a little bit about this crew. This crew has had -- some of the crew have been together for more than four years. They were brought together. There was a bit of a reshuffle after Columbia but some of them have been training four years. What's it like to train for four years for a moment like this?

REILLY: I've never done it, but I can imagine that they are very tired of training and ready to go to space.

O'BRIEN: Now, here we are in the photo opportunity, which happened earlier this morning, in the wee hours. We're not sure about the sartorial selection of Hawaiian shirts. Maybe you have some insights as to why they went that way?

REILLY: Well, your crew breakfast is your time where you wear a crew shirt and everybody's dressed alike. And, obviously, they were in a celebratory mood and ready to go today.

O'BRIEN: All right. And below that banner, you can barely see it, is a cake. And there's Steve Robinson strumming that guitar for them. I'm not sure what he was singing or playing. But I've never seen anybody actually eat that cake. Have you eaten it?

REILLY: Actually, when we come back after flight, they'll save it for us and they'll freeze it and we eat it when we get back.

O'BRIEN: Now the walk-out, of course, that's, you know, part of the whole ritual here. As you walk out and go off into the astro van. Is there much conversation among the crew members in the astro van or is that just kind of quiet time?

REILLY: It depends on the crew, but both of the crews that I've flown with, we were pretty talkative on both situations when we were going out. That's the one time when you've got a little time to just kind of be yourselves and talk to your friends.

O'BRIEN: Well, it gets down to a point where you have, I guess in a sense, less to do at any given moment, right? You have fewer distractions, I guess . . .

REILLY: Exactly.

O'BRIEN: Would be the way to describe it. So you ultimately, you make your way up to the 195-foot level. They call this the white room, because it's painted white. The closeout crew gets you in there and that whole process of strapping in. Something you do time and again in simulations and so forth. Still got to be different on launch day. It's like going into the big game, isn't it?

REILLY: It really is. And no matter how many times you've simmed this kind of an event, there's nothing like the day you're going to go do it for real. And so these guys will be focused in very tightly on their job that's coming up with, you know, leading into the launch. And, of course, then the launch sequence itself. But the guys, particularly on the mid-deck, are thinking about what happens as soon as you get to orbit because they're going to be very busy for the next two hours after that.

O'BRIEN: All right. Jim Reilly will stay with us. We're going to take a break. So far we haven't heard anybody say no go for launch. The poll has been successful thus far as they go through all those various positions. People focused on those screens.

When we return, we'll talk a little bit about what happened two- and-a-half years ago, Columbia, and what has happened since -- how this shuttle is in so many respects very different than the one that took off here in January two years ago. Stay with us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) EILEEN COLLINS, COMMANDER, DISCOVERY: I have never had any pressure from my family to not fly this mission. My parents, my husband, my children, my friends. You know, I would think that I would have, but I haven't. Having said that, I have asked myself, do I really want to fly this mission, many times. And the answer always came back, yes.



O'BRIEN: The last time I was here, it was January of 2003 and the space shuttle on the launch pad, same one, as a matter of fact, was the Space Shuttle Columbia. Sixteen days later, of course, we lost Columbia and her crew of seven. During that launch, we didn't know right away what happened. There was the crew as they came out. That familiar scene you just saw here a few moments ago with the crew that is currently onboard the space shuttle Discovery.

But a little more than a minute after liftoff here, a piece of foam, about two pounds in weight, about the size of a briefcase, fell off, striking the leading edge of the wing. And 16 days later, this was the scene that we saw over the skies of Texas as it re-entered. It created a lethal hole in that heat shield on the leading edge of the wing and the shuttle broke up, was destroyed in the 3,000-degree heat of re-entry.

It's left an amazing emotional trail behind it for the family members, for the NASA family, for people who feel strongly about space exploration.

Not long ago I spoke with Dr. John Clark, who is a NASA flight surgeon and who lost his wife, Laurel, aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Listen to what he had to say.


JON CLARK, NASA FLIGHT SURGEON: I would have traded for my wife in a heartbeat, even at the last second, when the vehicle finally broke up. I mean I would have much rather had me lose my life than have her lose it. But sometimes we have to face our worst fears. Her worst fear in life would be to lose her you know, to not be there for her son. My worst fear would be to be a single parent. And both of those fears were materialized.


O'BRIEN: Jon Clark, talking about his worst fears. Laurel Clark's worst fears. And there was the crew that we lost on that day.

The crew today will be carrying a patch to remember the Columbia seven and they will spend a couple of moments in space taking time to remember them. And their commemorative patch, as a matter of fact, if you look at it there, is symbolic of Columbia and her crew, of the seven stars symbolic of the lost souls on that mission, February 1, 2003. NASA has had to recover emotionally and also has had to do a lot of good, hard, technological and engineering work in order to get to this point today. We can talk a little bit in just a moment about how they've changed the way they make decisions which were, in fact, kind of the root cause of the Columbia disaster.

But there are some key things to point out just in how they have changed the orbiter and the space shuttle system in general. First of all, let's take a look at a sort of a God's eye view of where we sit right now if we could. Just give you a sense of where we are. We're right in this area right over here. About three-and-a-half miles away is Launch Pad 39-B.

Let's zoom in and we'll show you what's changed on the Space Shuttle Discovery, and for that matter, on all space shuttles to follow over the next few years. Inside the leading edge of the wing there's a series of sensors that have been put in here, which would detect a strike, would actually feel the motion of a strike if something were to hit that fragile area there, and in addition, would be able to tell them if there was a breach which could cause a problem with the heat shield upon re-entry.

Let's go to the next improvement. There are a total of 50 major, technological engineering improvements. This is where the foam came off -- the spot where the foam came off of Columbia. It's called the bipod area. You can see why they call it the bipod. That's what attaches the orbiter to the fuel tank. They removed the offending piece of foam, which was right in here, and instead made it safe from ice buildup by putting in heaters. So a big place, a big source of the foam has been removed.

Let's go to another improvement which has been made. All kinds of improvements on the photo documentation, including a camera put in this so-called drip shield. There's more than 100 cameras trained on the orbiter -- some of them on board, many of them on-the-ground tracking capability in order to get a good sense if there's any sort of damage during launch.

The next location on the orbiter where there was an improvement made, we take you back to the payload bay. What you're seeing here is the orbital boom. That's not new, but there is an extension to it, a 50-foot extension. It allows that boom to go out and actually look beneath the belly of the space shuttle while in orbit so they can do a comprehensive photographic survey, the leading edge of the wing and those thermal tiles to make sure there are no problems there. That will be in the first couple days of the mission, as well as while they're on the space station.

Up here, exploding bolts have been given a collector so they won't fall off and cause a debris problem.

Next location there is the crew itself. They've been trained. They will be testing ways to actually repair tiles and those leading edge panels in space.

Finally, if worse comes to worse, they have a docking capability at the International Space Station. They can wait literally for a rescue mission, which was not an option during the Space Shuttle Columbia.

But as we said, aside from those technical issues, there are many fundamental issues that need to be addressed. I'm joined now once again by Lou Dobbs. Also joining us is Lori Garver, a former associate administrator with NASA.

Lou, let's begin with you. And talk about NASA's culture. That's the term that has been used so much. How do you -- do you have a sense of how well the agency is making decisions and if they're communicating in a way that would not allow problems like that foam striking orbiter to be papered over?

DOBBS: The Columbia accident investigation board, as you know, they basically demanded that that kind of ossified response that was repetitive of the bureaucracy, frankly, of NASA. I don't know if Lori's going to appreciate this, but it was what was happening at the time. Engineers afraid to push through the chain of command. There were too many layers. That was identified as well by the Columbia board. The fact is that, as an old friend of mine, Walter . . .

O'BRIEN: Hey, Lou . . .


O'BRIEN: Could I interrupt you? We got the poll going here. Just for a moment.

DOBBS: You bet.

O'BRIEN: Let's listen to the poll as they go through and see who's go for launch. Let's listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have range clear to launch.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Copy that. And launch director, launch team is ready to proceed.

MIKE LEINBACH, LAUNCH DIRECTOR: Cover that, MCD (ph). Thank you very much.

Chief engineer, verify, no constraints for launch?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My engineering team's ready to go.

LEINBACH: Thank you, Charlie.

(INAUDIBLE) mission assurance?


LEINBACH: Thank you, Steve.

(INAUDIBLE) launch manager?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mike, the (INAUDIBLE) team is ready to go.

LEINBACH: Thank you, Bill.

Range (ph) weather?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Weather has no constraints for launch.

LEINBACH: Thank you very much, Kathy (ph).

Ops manager?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The mission management team is working, no problems. We are go for launch.

LEINBACH: Thank you, sir.

Discovery, launch director?

COLLINS: Discovery II. Go ahead.

LEINBACH: OK, (INAUDIBLE), our long wait may be over. And so on behalf the many millions of people who believe so deeply in what we do, good luck, Godspeed, and have a little fun up there.

COLLINS: My thanks to you, and to the launch team and to everybody in the shuttle program. The crew is go for launch.

LEINBACH: Copy that. Thanks. MCD (ph) you are cleared. Proceed with launch.


O'BRIEN: There you heard it. Shuttle Launch Director Mike Leinbach going through the pole. Everybody go for launch. You heard the mission management team. Those are the senior managers, Wayne Hale saying go for launch. And then the CDR, the commander, Eileen Collins, speaking on behalf of the crew. Their long way over, as he put it.

Lori Garver, every time I hear that, I get a few butterflies. How about you?

LORI GARVER: That's right. Absolutely. This crew has been waiting such a long time, but other crews, every time we launch the space shuttle, recognize 2.5 million parts on the space shuttle, it is a risky vehicle and they're putting a lot at stake for our nation's space program.

O'BRIEN: All right. We'll talk more about that. We'll talk more about how NASA has changed its way of doing business with Lou Dobbs and Lori Garver. And we'll bring in Jim Reilly and get an update on where this countdown is.

As best we can tell, not a single problem. As a matter of fact, we were told in the break just a moment ago that final fuel sensor test passed with flying color. It appears we are headed toward a launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery, a return to flight for the space shuttle program in just about 15 minutes' time. Back with more in a moment.


ANDREW THOMAS, MISSION SPECIALIST, DISCOVERY: There is nothing like at the end of the day on orbit, getting perhaps a drink of coffee or tea or something or juice, and floating over to a window and just having a quiet time, looking out the window as the Earth slowly rotates under you, seeing familiar sights, wondering what those people way, way, way down there are actually doing while you're flying over and just enjoying the serenity of that moment. It is truly unique and I'm looking forward to that.




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