Waiting for Liftoff

We were sitting around an outdoor table at a local barbeque restaurant in Cocoa Beach last night, debating whether the shuttle would launch as scheduled today.

Everyone said they thought Atlantis would fly, despite forecasts of bad weather through the end of the week, partly because NASA's "will to launch" is seen as very high right now. I was the only one who predicted a delay, but for the wrong reason. It wasn't cloud cover or thunderstorms, but a faulty fuel cell that kept the shuttle on the pad.

Delays are relatively common in shuttle launches, and NASA engineers and astronauts usually tell us they don't get frustrated or annoyed by them. It's just part of the process of getting the 20-plus-year-old orbiters off the ground.

I was definitely excited to come down to Cape Canaveral for this story. The shuttle launch is one of the coolest things I've ever seen — and I'm really hoping to see it again — but as I write this, Atlantis is sitting on launch pad 39B off in the distance, and the countdown clock is right in front of me, frozen at -11:00:00. The skies are blue, and there aren't a lot of clouds, so if the launch were still on for today, it probably would've been a go.

Still, with the shuttle, you never know. According to NASA (courtesy of the FOX research department, which we call the "Brainroom"), it's the most complex machine ever built, with more than 2.5 million parts, including almost 370 kilometers (230 miles) of wire, more than 1,060 plumbing valves and connections, over 1,440 circuit breakers, and more than 27,000 insulating tiles and thermal blankets.

We're standing by to see if all those pieces come together in time to light the candle before the end of the week. If not, it'll be the end of September or October before Atlantis takes to the stars.

E-mail Rick