Discovery’s slow crawl fast approaching

by Chris Bergin

Shuttle Discovery is closing in on a Tuesday morning stroll to Launch Pad B, where it’s hoped she will remain – trouble free for the six weeks ahead – only to move again one late afternoon in May, in an upwards direction on an occasion that will signal the Orbiter’s Return to Flight.

Tasked with implementing a whole array of new safety modifications and requirements – insisted on by conclusions drawn in the wake of the mountainous Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report – the United Space Alliance (USA) quiet literally dedicated a 24/7 shift scheduling upon their pool of talented and committed engineers and specialists to get to this point – once again edging out of the carnivorous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) for a four mile crawl to the launch pad.
With major milestones yet to be concluded before spectators can start to firmly pencil May 15 to June 3 into their diaries – not least the critical April 14 Tank Testing and the readiness and availability of Discovery’s STS-300 safety net, Shuttle Atlantis – it won’t be until Commander Eileen Collins and her pilot Lt. Col James Kelly can confirm wheel stop on the Discovery once back on terra firma that there will be a sense of conclusion to the work that has – and still is – going in to make STS-114 a successful Return to Flight.
This weekend marks more work – again including elements that have been borne out of the CAIB report – with Friday starting a test process that verifies the interfacing between the three major elements that make up the STS stack (Orbiter, Twin Solid Rocket Boosters and External Tank) – all three components have been bolted together on top of the Mobile Launch Platform.
Providing the tests pass for permission to be granted for the stack to leave the VAB – permission which will wait until an extra digital camera is tactically placed on the underside of Discovery – Tuesday morning could see one of the VAB doors sliding upwards to reveal the route down “The Causeway” which all Shuttles have taken ahead of a launch since 1981.
One of the NASA crawler transporters will then ease the billions of dollars worth of hardware to the waiting launch pad on the coastline, an event in itself that is bound to cause hearts racing inside the employees of the Kennedy Space Center – if they aren’t already.
Still, while passions may rise high, everyone still has their game faces on to ensure Discovery and her crew of seven have a safe and successful Return to Flight mission – safety being the buzz word.
“In terms of everything we’ve done, I think it’s the safest vehicle we’ve ever flown,” said Steve Poulos, Manager of the Orbiter Project Office, to reporters inside the VAB upon Discovery’s long-awaited arrival. “If you look at all the inspections we have done across the entire vehicle…it’s an order of magnitude that we have a safe vehicle.”

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