Critical Mission

Discovery: Return to Flight
Don't miss FNC's special LIVE coverage, beginning Wednesday at 3pm ET. Look for Rick Leventhal's reports throughout the day.

July 12, 2005

I don't want to dwell on the heat, but it's been an issue for everyone involved in the setup of our coverage of the shuttle launch. The "feels like" temperature is close to 100 degrees, and all of our technicians and engineers have been bathed in sweat trying to get everything connected. Fortunately we have air conditioning in our trailers and on the set, so everyone can keep cool, including the guests and "talent."

I was mopping my face with a paper towel every few seconds leading up to my Studio B live shot at 3:04 this afternoon...

Shep was so hot he just grabbed one of the huge AC tubes and held it next to his face during breaks.

At this point the heat is NOT expected to affect the launch of Discovery Wednesday afternoon, but if it rains (and there's a 40 percent chance it will), the shuttle will stay on the ground.

* * * * *

The cover of NASA's press kit for the return to flight includes three words at the bottom of the page: "Explore. Discover. Understand." NASA's vision has been summed up this way: "To improve life here, to extend life to there, and to find life beyond."

If the Discovery mission hits major snags, or ends in failure like the Columbia did before it, the shuttle program is most likely doomed.

I had a fascinating conversation in our FOX workspace at the press center with former astronaut Thomas Jones, who's working with us as a consultant. Jones flew on four shuttle missions, and is as plugged in as anyone to the space agency.

He says everyone knew full well that pieces of foam insulation regularly fell off the huge external tank during launch, striking the shuttle's wings. This is what caused Columbia to disintegrate on re-entry. Jones says they'd see tile damage on the orbiters after every flight, 100 of them or more on the underside of the craft, describing them as "finger scratches," some the size of a dime, some bigger. They were in the process of improving the foam, but says there was "no sense of urgency." He says it’s very easy to understand why the magnitude of the problem wasn't realized, and says there's no anger among the astronauts ... just "disappointment that the consequences of foam impact weren't realized."

"We were lulled into a false sense of security," he says. "Astronauts were as blind to it as everyone else."

As part of the fix, during this new Discovery mission astronauts will attempt to inspect the wings during space walks, and will practice making repairs to sample tiles inside the craft. Jones says there's no sense of excitement over this. Instead, the hope is the fuel tank problems have already been fixed. However, he says if the "goop" they've developed to squeeze into cracks if necessary "isn't working out" as well as engineers had hoped, and "if there's a need for a life or death repair, do you trust it? Do you try and fly back?"

He didn't sound sure. Jones believes if a problem is discovered, the Discovery crew will take refuge in the International Space Station and wait for the shuttle Atlantis to meet them on a rescue mission. In this scenario, the $2 billion Discovery craft would be abandoned and let to drift off into space, and (Jones believes) the program would be grounded forever, while NASA scrambles to speed development of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle already in the works to replace the shuttle fleet sometime after 2010.

The new CEV's will be simpler, smaller, and more reliable, according to Jones, who describes them as a "delivery van instead of a truck." The focus will be on what's needed to get the crew up and back alive, "as bulletproof as possible."

Of course, with space travel, there are no guarantees.

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