MERRITT ISLAND - "Nice shot!" Stephanie Stilson shouted as one of her teammates nailed the softballand sent it flying. "Aw, come on," she said when the umpire calledthe runner out.
Themanager for Discovery was taking a break from intense preparations to get theshuttle flying again. It was the division softball challenge for Kennedy Space Center,and the people who put together the shuttle were putting bat to ball and gloveto hand.
"You'vegot a bunch of engineers playing in a softball tournament. Nothing'seasy," said Armando Oliu, the imaging expert whowill lead the examination of photos of Discovery's launch.
Ashe waited for his team's turn to play, he watched with amusement as the playerschecked out a cracked aluminum bat on the sideline.
"We'vegot the mechanical guys analyzing the crack in the bat. The ops guys say, 'Useas is,' " Oliu joked.
Thejoke epitomized the tensions they were trying to work off on this beautiful, sunnyafternoon at KARSpark in early December 2004. The softball playerssipped beer, water and Gatorade, shouting friendly jeers and encouragement.
Launchdirector Mike Leinbach showed up carrying a case ofBudweiser and handed out beer to Stilson and theothers as the game ended.
Hepetted Stilson's Boston terrier, Scrappy Lou, as Stilson held the leash.
"Don'tbite him, Scrappy," she said.
"Don'tbite the hand that feeds you," Leinbach agreed.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER:Long hours help workers catch up
Thehurricanes were over. Finally, the shuttle was coming together.
InNovember 2004, the first piece of Discovery's twin solid rocket boosters rolledslowly into the Vehicle Assembly Building.
Meanwhile,shuttle workers labored through the holidays. "I hate to even say it, butit seems like things are going really well," Stilsonsaid in December.
Thatmonth, workers installed the three main engines. The only goof occurred whenthe hoisting machine tilted one engine during installation and dinged a heat-protectiontile on the ship.
InJanuary, as planned, the redesigned external tank chugged in from the ocean onits barge, pushed by tugboats up the BananaRiver and into the turn basin near theVehicle Assembly Building.The next day, VIPs greeted the orange fuel tank's arrival with excitement.
"Youcan feel the change in the air," said shuttle program manager BillParsons, who lives on Merritt Island and splitshis time between here and his main office in Houston. For him, the tank was a great 48thbirthday present.
Thenew tank was redesigned without the piece of insulating foam that fell off andstruck Columbia'swing during launch, leading to a fatal breach when the orbiter tried tore-enter the atmosphere.
Anew heater system and other small changes were aimed at eliminating ice andreducing the shedding of foam at crucial areas of the new tank's surface.
Laterthat month, workers installed a new extension to the shuttle's robot arm inDiscovery's payload bay. Its sensors would inspect the shuttle's heat shieldfor damage in orbit. The sensors would require more work and testing, but theinstallation of the 50-foot extension marked a major milestone.
Withso many modifications for this mission, every step toward flight was amilestone.
LAUNCH COMPLEX39: Rollover an emotional point on two-year trek
Aftera wait of two years and two months, two more hours didn't seem that long.
Delayedby several days, Discovery crept out of its hangar into the chilly earlymorning of March 29. It was still night, really, and journalists stood by asworkers gave each other high-fives, handshakes and thumbs-up, taking snapshotsof one another in front of the shuttle.
Itcame out slowly, tail and engines first, with bright white lights guiding it inthe darkness. The old orbiter looked almost new. Stilson,the NASA manager who guided it this far, shed tears asshe walked out with her ship.
"Arewe really here? Are we really getting to the point where we're rollingout?" she thought.
Itwas like a strangely short parade, with members of the team of workers givingup sleep so they could carry a banner ahead of the shuttle as it was turnedaround and began rolling, nose first, toward the Vehicle Assembly Building."We're behind you, Discovery!" said the signature-covered banner.
Stilson barelyremembered the last two times her orbiter left its bay. This one, she knew, shewould never forget.
Morethan a week later, the shuttle was ready to make an even longer trip -- to itslaunch pad, at just under a mile an hour. Hoisted upright and mated with itstank and boosters, Discovery sat in the VAB on the mobile launcher platform,which rode the back of its huge Crawler-Transporter.
Atiny crack spotted at the last minute in the external tank's insulating foamwas deemed insignificant. Finally, Discovery slipped into the hide-and-seeksun, a spectacular sight, creeping toward pad 39B.
Thetrip lasted a few hours longer than planned when workers had to replace a bad logiccard in the crawler. The shuttle docked at the pad at 12:30 a.m. April 7.
Stilson, about to gether master's degree, about to see the culmination of more than two years oftearing the orbiter apart and putting it back together, was exuberant.
"Youthought I was excited at rollover," she said. "I'm much more excitednow!"
SPACE STATIONPROCESSING FACILITY, KENNEDY SPACE CENTER:Station hardware sees multitude of 'mini-crises'
Raffaello is not goingeasily into space.
Thecylindrical cargo carrier sports a new hatch -- a substitute for a suspect unitthat possibly wouldn't have opened when Discovery arrives at the space stationon a badly needed supply run. The 50-inch hatch is outfitted with a pressurevalve borrowed from a sister module. It will allow final leak checks before itis transported to the launch pad.
Newfasteners anchor cabinets inside, after an 11th-hour cross-country scramble toreplace broken hardware. An internal panel is flying as-is after last-minuteanalyses proved it would stay in place even though California factory workershad failed to install one of about 16 bolts ringing its perimeter.
"Partof making sure everything is right is having facts and data to go behinddecisions that you make," said NASA mission manager Scott Higginbotham,the man responsible for preparing Discovery's cargo.
Oneof three identical cargo carriers built by the Italian Space Agency, Raffaello was named after the Renaissance painter Raphael,whose given name was Raffaello Sanzio.
Thesize of a short school bus, the pressurized carrier will haul 2,600 pounds ofsupplies to the station and bring home twice as much trash, outdated gear andequipment to be refurbished for future use.
Alsoin the shuttle's cargo bay is a dome-shaped gyroscope designed to keep thestation positioned properly in orbit so limited fuel reserves don't have to beexhausted to do the same job.
The660-pound flywheel is destined to replace a gyro that failed in August 2002.
Andamong other things, there's an external stowage platform to be mounted outsidethe station's U.S.airlock, where it will serve as a warehouse of sorts. Spare parts for thestation's electrical power and radiator systems are attached to the platform,along with video camera mounts.
Preparingshuttle cargo for flight is never easy. Attention to details long has beenstandard. That sensitivity has been heightened even more during return toflight. So problems that might not have been flagged in the past are beingbrought to light. While none that have cropped up are potentially catastrophic,some could have threatened the mission's success.
"They'regood catches," said Higginbotham, a married father whose wife, Bridgit, also works at KSC. "And that's what they payus for."
Mostsurfaced late and, as a result, had to be solved in a hurry. That's notunusual.
"Icome in every day, and it's like, 'What new calamityhas befallen me today, and on what piece of hardware?' "Higginbotham joked. "And it's been equal opportunity. Every littlepiece we've had on the mission has had at least one or two of these mini-crisescome up in the course of getting where we are today."
Now,everything is ready to go. But if not, NASA is ready to respond.
"Younever know what new, interesting wrinkle tomorrow will bring," he said.
Published under license from FLORIDA TODAY. Copyright ? 2005 FLORIDA TODAY.No portion of this material may be reproduced in any way without the writtenconsent of FLORIDA TODAY.
FloridaToday Special Report: NASA's Return to Shuttle Flight
Fixing NASA: CompleteCoverage of Space Shuttle Return to Flight