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Mat KaplanNovember 4, 2010

Days of Downs and Ups

We learned shortly after I wrote my last blog entry that Discovery has suffered a transient electrical problem related to one of the main engines. Down went the Wednesday launch attempt, replaced by yet another set for 3:29 on Thursday afternoon. This presented a problem. My plane from Orlando was to leave at 7pm. Would I be able to make it to the airport in time, on roads out of the Cape jammed with post-launch space fans? Or would this concern prove irrelevant, since the weather was not expected to cooperate on Thursday?

Most important was dealing with that pesky electrical fault. The Mission Management Team finally made its decision at 3:29pm on Wednesday. The count would continue, and our trek from Orlando back to KSC wasn't wasted. At nearly 6:30, after having the equipment belonging to 150 media reps sniffed and drooled on by an Army K9, we boarded stuffy NASA blue and white buses for a ride to Pad 39.

Part of the complex launch ritual is this four-mile trip to view the removal of the Rotating Support Structure or RSS. This had been unexpected till we were tipped off by Ken Kremer the day before. We rolled along a two-lane road running parallel to two wide strips of smooth, loose rock. These were separated by a wider strip of grass. Holy cow. This was the track followed by the Crawler-Transporter, that humongous tracked vehicle that carried Apollo 11 and all the shuttle missions to the pad. A Roman history scholar could not have been more excited about his first stroll along the Appian Way.

The buses halted about a quarter-mile from the pad, and there we sat. NASA had declared a "Phase 1 Lightning" event. Our handlers finally decided we could pile out, at least until Phase 2 was reached. Many of us ran to the line beyond which we could not pass. The sun was just beginning to set behind the approaching storm as we stared up at the magnificent assemblage of spaceship and supporting paraphernalia. It was utterly like being in a science fiction movie--a good one.

Not that everyone there was a newbie. I talked with Bobby D. Parker, a grizzled vet who has photographed ten launches, relying, in part, on three automatic cameras fired by the sound of liftoff. Bobby told me they were set up over yonder, no further from the pad than we were at that moment, and definitely within the radius of total human evacuation. You can see his work here. I asked Bobby if he ever got tired of it all. I already knew his answer. I had seen his cap that was crowded with mission pins.

Things slid downhill again at about 6am Thursday morning. As expected, the MMT stuck a wet finger in the wind and scrubbed till Friday at 3:04pm. We were already awake and getting ready to head for KSC. With encouragement from my wife, and faith that my day job boss wouldn't fire me, I made the decision to stay. Easier thought than done. United had no seats on any flights back to LA till Monday! I bit the bullet and tried an untested website that promised nearly reasonable last-minute airfares. It appears to have worked, so, like Discovery, I am go for launch. I'm entirely out of luck if they scrub again, but I won't regret a moment of my trip. Please, wish me luck, but wish much more to Discovery and its crew.

Read more: mission status, events and announcements, human spaceflight, Space Shuttle program

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Mat Kaplan

Planetary Radio Host and Producer
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