REPORT FROM SATURDAY, JULY 1, 2006:
4:32 PM EDT: Just spoke with Tom Jones, who had a moment to chat in between Fox News segments. I asked him about todays scrub. "It is a fairly common thing," Jones tells me. "Unfortunately, it's part of the life of an astronaut. I've had two scrubs over my four missions, so I've had to strap in six times. Overall, there's probably about a success rate of 60% for scheduled launches."
For astronauts, says Jones, the reaction to a scrub is human. "It's a feeling of powerlessness," he says. "You've prepared yourself as much as you can, and it's increadibly frustrating to have to stop and do it over again. You have to get out of your suit and get ready for tomorrow. And everytime you strap in, your have to prepare for another technical issue that could postpone the launch. That's when the frustration kicks. But, on the other hand, these guys have some relief, at least."
As for tomorrow, the feeling on the Cape isn't terribly optimistic: "We just heard the fox weather guy say that there are going to be more thunderstorms tomorrow, and it doesn't look any better," Jones relays. "This is toughest time to get a launch off, in Florida in the afternoon during the summer. The conditions are perfect for thunderstorms. Every day we scrub moves the launch window up by 22 minutes, so it'll be aweek's worth of delays before we get out of the afternoon. We'll just have to hope for better weather."
3:59 PM EDT:Tomorrow's forecast is virtually identical today, when controllers scrubbed within 6 minutes of the scheduled launch window. If tomorrow is a scrub as well, the launch will continue on Tuesday, after chemical reactants are switched out on the shuttle. T—00:09:00 and holding: The shuttle launch systems are now powering down and the crew is preparing to leave Discovery for a 24-hour hold.
T—00:09:00 and holding: The shuttle is a scrub, launch aborted until tomorrow because of weather.
T—00:09:00 and holding: Launch director says the strategy is to extend the hold and see if there's a clearing in the weather. "Hopefully, luck will be with us at the end of the hold. If not, we'll try again tomorrow." The launch window is at 3:52:02 pm EDT. Launch Director Mike Leinbach says "it's going to be close but we're going to give it a shot." According to NASA, part of the concern is overcast conditions over the KSC landing strip, this would be used in case of an abort. Looks like we're scrubbing...standby...
T—00:09:00 and holding: Launch control poll at KSC is all 'go,' save for the weather officer, still no-go.
T—00:09:00 and holding: Launch control says we're still no go because of clouds. There is a possibility of extending the hold for an extra five minutes, or to extend the scheduled hold at five minutes.
T—00:09:00 and holding: Right now the status is no-go because of weather (the anvil shaped clouds, there's an explanation of the mechanics of these clouds here). NASA's weather officers will make the 'go', 'no-go' decision within the next ten minutes. So, this might be a bit anti-climactic if the weather does not clear. This, however, is not unusual: Some shuttle launches have experienced more than 10 scrubs before the eventual launch. However, Discovery's launch window is finite (both today, where the launch window is about 10 minutes long) and over the next 19 days, after which, the ISS's orbit will make a launch impossible.
T—00:09:00 and holding: Thruster problems that worried mission control have been resolved, and the weather, although flukey right now, is not, at the time, precluding a launch. The Space Shuttle is the most complex machine every built by humans with over 2.5 million individual parts. Many of those parts, however, are based on some very antiquated technology. When Discovery was being prepared for her return to flight last year, NASA engineers actually searched to find suppliers of some of the more archaic computer components that are used in the shuttle systems.
T—00:09:00 and holding: PM contributor Tom Jones is providing live commentary on Fox News. Read his assessment of the 'go' call here. We are in the scheduled hold at nine minutes.
T—00:25:00 and counting: According to NASA: "The Ground Launch Sequencer (GLS) mainline activation has been completed. The GLS is a master computer program which controls the final nine minutes of the countdown. The GLS will monitor approximately one thousand different measurements to ensure the system operates within predetermined limits." In five minutes, the countdown will enter a scheduled hold--an approx. ten minute pause in the countdown while certain systems are checked and re-checked. It is one of many built-in holds in the countdown. The actual launch is still over an hour away.
T—00:37:00 and counting: Cabin leak check is complete whoops! not complete, and technicians in the white room are awaiting the call to pull back the arm from Discovery. Discovery is now pressurizing the cabin.
T—00:44:10 and counting: Right now there are anvil clouds over the launch pad, returning the weather status to 'no-go' because of the risk of electrical interference in upper-level cumulonimbus clouds. However, the weather seems to be sawhorsing back and forth, so it's impossible to call now whether the weather will scrub this launch.
T—00:50:00 and counting: Technicians are now sanitizing the hatch area as they prepare to close the hatch to Discovery and retract the arm on the pad.
1:53 PM EDT: Yesterday, PM contributor and four-time shuttle astronaut Tom Jones commented that the current shuttle mission will likely be the safest in the history of NASA. Why? Because we know so much more about possible failure modes than we ever have before. Tom also commented that the shuttle's age should not be a factor today, as NASA has fully overhauled Discovery during the two-year long return to flight program.
T—1:25:00 and counting: Space Shuttle Discovery is ready to launch as of 1:15 EDT as the last crew members board from the white room. If you haven't it already, has picked up NASA's HD feed, providing live, commercial free coverage of the launch. It sure beats Windows Media Player.
Right now the $64,000 question is the weather; NASA is saying this will be a "real-time call" meaning the 'go' call could run right up to the launch. Lightning is the big worry right now, with a heavy cover of cumes covering the launch pad. Specifically, NASA's worried that the upper-level tops of a line of T-storms could blow over the launch site—the last thing NASA wants is a lightning bolt hitting the Shuttle.
Launching the shuttle is an excercise in miraculous coincidence when it comes to the weather: Not only must the weather be 'green' for launch at Cape Canaveral, but landing conditions must be nominal in case the shuttle has to 'abort to launch site,' as well as requirements that landing conditions at NASA's alternate shuttle landing sites in Europe be nominal, in case the a main engine failure during ascent forces an 'abort to landing.'
Read more about shuttle contingency plans here, including NASA's plan to fly the shuttle home by remote control if the orbiter is not safe for a manned re-entry (the crew, at this point, would be on the ISS awaiting rescue from either Atlantis or Soyuz). —Benjamin ChertoffEarlier: Backup Plans: Houston to Take Remote Control if Shuttle is Damaged, NASA Says Shuttle Risk Overstated; Yet Some Risk Unavoidable, Images from Discovery's Launch to Aid Future Redesigns, The Clock is Running: Discovery Set for Saturday Launch, NASA's "Go" for Launch, But Is the Space Shuttle?, The Great Space Shuttle Debate: Is it Safe? A Special Report.
Scrubbed: Space Shuttle Discovery sits on launch pad 39B after today's weather-induced postponement. NASA
Buckled Up: Commander Lindsey straps into the left seat on Discovery's flight deck. NASA
Ready for Launch: Discovery is ready to go, the weather might not be. NASA
Ready to Go: Discovery on the pad last night during the final preps for launch day.