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NASA Preps Shuttle for California Landing


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is on vacation. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Just minutes ago, NASA officials decided against trying to land the shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Here's how ground control alerted the shuttle commander, Eileen Collins.

Unidentified Man: All right, Eileen, how do you feel about a beautiful, clear night with a breeze down the runway in the high desert of California.

Commander EILEEN COLLINS (Discovery): We are ready for whatever we need to do.

INSKEEP: Bad weather in Florida means the shuttle will now try to land at Edwards Air Force Base in California or possibly, we're told, at White Sands, New Mexico. NPR's David Kestenbaum is at the Kennedy Space Center where he's been waiting for the last couple of days for Discovery to arrive.

And well, David, always a bridesmaid.


I'm in the wrong place again.

INSKEEP: So it's been a difficult morning. What's been going on?

KESTENBAUM: Well, you know, the--earlier this morning there was lightning. You could see it. It was actually quite spectacular because the ground is so flat here. You know, the NASA buildings--the vehicle assembly building is gigantic, and it looks teeny when you see big lightning bolts sort of off in the distance behind it.

NASA looks in sort of a 30-mile circle around the runway and they had storms and--off the shore they were watching. And they waved off the first landing opportunity pretty early. And they would--just waved off the second one because there are storms with--about 15 miles off shore.

You know, part of the problem is that even if it clears up, they have to predict what the weather's going to be like in an hour, you know, when the shuttle comes down. So it's not just what the weather's like now. It's can you feel with certainty what it's going to be like? So the plan is now to go for California.

INSKEEP: Well, so what are the options here? Let's just talk through the rest of the morning as we know it now.

KESTENBAUM: The first option for a landing in California is about 8--is at 8:12 Eastern time, and the second opportunity is at 9:47 Eastern time. And the weather there has been described as excellent, so that's their plan now. There is a possibility that they could land at White Sands in New Mexico, but I think that's just something they want to have in their back pocket. It's not really something they're planning they're going to have to use.

INSKEEP: So now there on the ground where you are, what's the feeling? What's the mood?

KESTENBAUM: It's sort of like a big party where the guests have gone to the wrong address. You know what I mean? The right street address, but, oh, oh, in that state? Sorry. You wanted us in Florida? But frankly, the weather's probably a lot nicer in Florida. It's incredibly humid down here. So, yes, a lot of preparation--I mean, eventually, the shuttle will make it's way back here. But it's not landing here.

INSKEEP: So now just to be clear. We're pretty definite to see a landing today. Right? Because the shuttle does have supplies to last lan--last another day if it had to.

KESTENBAUM: It does, but they want to bring it down today. The problem is the electricity runs out, among other things. There are no solar panels on the space shuttle, so it's basically got these fuel cells which run off hydrogen and oxygen and that makes the electricity. But at some point those run out, and the hydrogen and oxygen that come out of the fuel cell is--comes out in the form of water, which is drinking water. But they start to run out of all those things. They--it's true they could postpone it to tomorrow, but they really want to bring it down today unless there's some real unsuspected problems.

INSKEEP: OK. And speaking of problems, of course, we know all about these--we know all about this fabric that was removed to avoid any possible problem. There was also some concern about foam in the course of this shuttle flight. Can you remind us what that problem was and what it means for future shuttle flights?

KESTENBAUM: Well, before this mission NASA had said, `OK, here's our goal. We're going to have nothing larger than 3/100ths of a pound--weighing--nothing weighing larger than 3/100ths of a pound will come off the shuttle during launch. No pieces of foam, nothing. And yet, they had this big chunk that came off and they saw it very clearly on the cameras that day. And so, NASA said--they don't like the word `grounded,' but they said they're not sending up another shuttle until they figure this out. And there are a bunch of other things they want to sort out also.

But the question is: How you going to find out exactly what, you know, caused that piece to come off? They did what they call non-destructive evaluation where they checked to see how well bonded it was, the piece that, you know--that area that came off. But it looked OK. So it's going to be hard in retrospect to say, `Oh, we know why that came off and here's how we can fix it.' They could redesign that part of the shuttle where the foam--that part of the tank where the foam came off, but then you have to ask yourself whether you've really solved the problem in a big sense and whether foam isn't going to come off elsewhere.

I mean, the--probably what's going to happen for the next--the replacement vehicle for the shuttle is that you're going to have--the place where the crew is is going to be above the rocket, so that anything that comes off the rocket just goes flying off into the air and has no chance of hitting anything important.

INSKEEP: OK. All right, thanks very much. That's NPR's David Kestenbaum who's been waiting patiently at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida where the shuttle will not be landing. They will attempt a landing most likely at Edwards Air Force Base in California later in the morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.