May 4, 2005

Columbia Crew on Shuttle Astronauts’ Minds

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- The Discovery astronauts strapped into their space shuttle Wednesday for a countdown dress rehearsal more than two months before the scheduled launch, and the victims of the last mission were on their minds.

"Strapping in today, the thought did go through my mind that the last crew that had strapped in on the pad was the 107 crew," commander Eileen Collins said, referring to the Columbia crew's numerical designation. "Those thoughts occasionally go through my mind as I try to connect with the 107 crew as we've gone through training and carrying on their dream and their mission."

The real launch won't take place before mid-July, two months later than what NASA had planned for the first shuttle mission since the Columbia disaster. But the astronauts and shuttle managers wanted to get the rehearsal out of the way before Discovery is moved off the launch pad back and back into its hangar for potentially lifesaving repairs to the fuel tank.

The seven astronauts climbed aboard Discovery just as they will for the real launch, wearing their bright orange flight suits. It felt like the real thing, Collins said, even though the fuel tank was empty and the engines idle. The mock countdown cut off at the four-second mark, which would have been an emergency launch abort, ending the crew's three-day rehearsal.

"It was motivational for us to strap in today because we're thinking about what we're going to be doing when we eventually fly," Collins said.

The seven Columbia astronauts boarded their spacecraft on Jan. 16, 2003, for a liftoff that was marred by a chunk of shattering fuel-tank foam insulation. The resulting hole in the left wing led to the shuttle's breakup during re-entry two weeks later. All seven astronauts were killed.

Last week, NASA learned that ice on the external fuel tank could prove just as deadly and ordered a heater be installed at the most vulnerable spot. Ice buildup is common once the tank is filled with super-cold fuel, right before liftoff.

Collins said the delay - from late May to July - is disappointing. Her family in New York state had to make new reservations when the postponement was announced Friday, she said, and people across the country had been waiting, excitedly, for Discovery to fly.

"Yes, we have had delays. We are going to fly," she said. "The space shuttle is very close to being ready to go, but we want to make sure that we understand everything that we're studying and we don't want to rush into anything."

Discovery will fly to the international space station, to deliver much-needed supplies and replacement parts to the two men on board.


On the Net:

NASA: http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/