Next Shuttle Crew Rehearses Launch, Escape Drills
Poor weather hindered one rocket launch Thursday, but posed little challenge to seven astronauts working inside NASA's Discovery space shuttle for a mock countdown and escape drill.
Clad in bright orange launch suits, NASA shuttle commander Mark Polansky and his STS-116 mission crewmates headed out to their shuttle Discovery under gray skies and a slight drizzle here at the Kennedy Space Center during a countdown dress rehearsal for their planned Dec. 7 launch.
But just four seconds before "liftoff," a simulated launch abort stopped the clock and the astronauts clambered two-by-two out of Discovery's crew cabin and hurried across a 36-story gantry to escape baskets high above NASA's Pad 39B launch site.
"Everything went according to plan," NASA spokesperson Bruce Buckingham told reporters after the successful test. "We've got several rookies on this mission, so it's a thrill for them to get inside the vehicle."
No less than five of the seven STS-116 astronauts are making their first spaceflight during the upcoming mission, which will ferry a new crewmember to the International Space Station, deliver a new piece of the orbital laboratory's main truss and rewire its electrical grid.
"It's a wonderful feeling," NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham, an STS-116 mission specialists and first-time spaceflyer, told reporters at Pad 39B Wednesday. "It gives us joy to know that in just a few short weeks we'll be doing the countdown for real, and that many of us--five of us to be exact--will be experiencing our first launch."
Despite the short-lived rain, the astronauts' umbrellas went unused today though the poor weather prompted launch officials at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to scrub today's planned liftoff of a Delta 2 rocket and its Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite cargo.
Discovery, too, would likely have remained on Earth due to weather had today been an actual launch attempt, Buckingham said.
Today's shuttle escape drill capped several days of training for NASA's STS-116 crew in a traditional preflight Terminal Countdown Demonstration Test (TCDT). The sessions allow shuttle astronauts to take a look at their spacecraft, its cargo and emergency equipment before launch day.
"We're really looking forward to getting off on a good start on the mission," Polansky told reporters Wednesday.
Polansky and his crew are expected to spend 12 days in orbit to continue assembly of the International Space Station. The astronauts are expected to perform three spacewalks to install a new portside truss segment, realign the ISS to its primary power system and switch on the station's main cooling system.
Discovery's STS-116 spaceflight is slated to launch at about 9:36 p.m. EST (0236 Dec. 8 GMT) and will mark NASA's third shuttle flight this year and the first night liftoff since 2002.
NASA's last three shuttle flights launched during daylight to give clear views of the orbiters' external fuel tank foam insulation, a debris concern following the 2003 Columbia accident. But officials are confident that illumination from Discovery's twin booster rockets and powerful radar tools will allow them to track any debris during launch.
Later tonight, NASA engineers are scheduled to fire a shuttle solid rocket booster engine in darkness during a two-minute performance test at a Utah facility. The test will be recorded by cameras to better gauge the lighting produced during night launches, NASA officials said.
"For us we don't really view it as a really large change," Polansky said of night launches. "We feel we'll be able to assess the health of the vehicle before we deorbit and come home."
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