Morale High Despite Shuttle Flight Delay

KENNEDYSPACE CENTER, Florida -- Despite the recent decision to delay the shuttle'sreturn to flight by another two months, morale here remains strong with workersdetermined to get shuttle crews back into Earth orbit soon, but as safely aspossible.

"It'sa speed bump. But everybody feels that it was a good upper management call.We're going to keep on pressing forward like we have been," said Jody Tobin,Site Test Conductor in Orbiter Processing Facility Bay 1 for United SpaceAlliance, the prime shuttle contractor.

"Weall want to see launch...and we will see a launch...but it will be safer," Tobinadded.

Inaddition to the preparations for Discovery's launch NASA also must contend withpreparing the space shuttle Atlantis for its projected liftoff in themid-September timeframe, Tobin said. Within the vast innards of the Vehicle Assembly Building,dual solid rocket motors and a huge external tank are now ready to be attachedto Atlantis.

Launch on need

Tobinsaid Atlantis has to be prepped and ready for flight within 35 to 40 days afterDiscovery's takeoff.

This"Launch on Need" approach give NASA a rescue capability in the event thatDiscovery is found incapable of safe reentry to Earth. In that case it wouldremain with its seven-person crew sheltered on the International Space Stationuntil help arrives.

"Ifsomething does happen, then that means we have the capability to go up andreturn with the crew onboard the International Space Station," Tobin said. Discoveryhas gone through a full-blown Orbiter Maintenance Modification to ready it forreturn-to-flight duties, he said.

NASAannounced in late April that July 13 to 31 is the new launch planning windowfor the shuttle Discovery's return-to-flight mission. It will be the firstshuttle flight since Columbiatragically broke apart during reentry killing its seven-person crew in February2003.

Thedelay in Discovery's launch was prompted by the need for more work to validateengineering analyses of debris and ice hazards during a shuttle's liftoff, aswell as propulsion system troubleshooting. The extra time also will be used to make additional modifications toDiscovery's large external fuel tank -- changes meant to reduce the risk ofinsulating foam hitting the space plane during ascent.

Thephysical cause of the loss of Columbia and its astronauts was a breach on theleading edge of the space plane's left wing when it was struck by a piece ofinsulating foam coming from the external tank during takeoff.

NASAstill has to decide whether repairs right on the launch pad are possible toavoid rolling the shuttle transportation system back into the Vehicle AssemblyBuilding (VAB).

Putting on thespeed brakes

DuringDiscovery's flight, safety improvements such as the new Remote ManipulatorSystem/Orbiter Booster Sensor System - designed to survey the orbiter's wingleading edge for damage - will be appraised by engineers.

Theresults of those assessments, Tobin advised, will be carried over into readyingAtlantis and Endeavour for future flights.

Meanwhile,shuttle Atlantis is now surrounded by an elaborate skeleton of work platformsand scaffolding holding work personnel. The space plane is already outfitted withits thermal protection system of tiles, as well as a set of ready-for-flightwheels.

Rudderspeed brake hardware in Atlantis' tail section is slated for checkout and theircontrol rates will be set, Tobin said. Rudder speed brake mechanisms were discoveredlast year to have been improperly installed and also, found to be suspect onall three remaining orbiters, he said.

Safety first

Outon launch pad 39B, Discovery patiently sits mostly cloaked within fixed androtating service structure. That launch pad equipment has undergone a blastingof crushed coal slag -- stripping it of old pealing paint and rust flakes -- andis now freshly recoated, said Tracy Yates, a United Space Alliance spokeswoman.

Therefurbishment was on the need-to-do list. It also met one of the requirementsof the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which stressed the need to reduceforeign object debris, Yates said. As the prime shuttle contractor, some 6,500employees of United Space Alliance are at the Kennedy Space Center supporting theeffort, she said.

Regardingthe Discovery launch slip, Yates said that employees remain upbeat andcommitted to achieving a return-to-flight of the shuttle system. The attitudeis safety first, she emphasized.

"Thesaying around here is no orbiter will fly before its time," Yates said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.