Shuttle roll-out delayed again – May launch in the balance

by Chris Bergin

Shuttle Discovery’s roll-out to Launch Pad B has been hit by a further delay – as hopes of a Return to Flight (RTF) launch of STS-114 in May continue to fade with each additional set-back.

Roll-out of Discovery will not take place before the early hours of Wednesday (7am UK time), with the latest problem being the humidity in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), which is hampering tile bonding work on the Shuttle’s Thermal Protection System (TPS).

Although each delay in itself is not a critical element in the ambitions of the current schedule, NASA is more than aware of the noose that is tightening around STS-114’s launch in the second half of May. The very notion of the schedule being tight is likely – although only by an educated assumption – to see a decision to launch in July – given the significance of this mission.
Shuttle Supremo Bill Parsons will undertake a review of when best to target the launch of Discovery in just a few weeks time, although comments in recent days from NASA managers appear to be pre-empting a move away from a May launch date.
“… we’re not going to cut short any of these milestones just to make an arbitrary date,” said Michael Kostelnik, deputy associate administrator for the shuttle and station programs.
Over the past few months, comments from Shuttle managers – when questioned on the viability of a May launch – had an air of optimism and hope. More recently the same managers have begun to edge more and more to the side of caution, as the delays in the flow began to eat away of the few remaining chunks of contingency time scheduled for a smooth passage to a May 15 launch.
Adding fuel to the fire of a delay to July, an Associated Press report – that appeared on Fox News at the weekend – went a stage further.
Claiming to have a top Shuttle official as their source, the report claimed a high probability that STS-114 will be delayed. However, the main angle of the report was based around The Stafford-Covey Return to Flight Task Group cancellation of their scheduled March 31st public meeting and press conference – due to a lack of paperwork and information required by the panel from Shuttle managers. NASA has said they need almost another two weeks to be in a position to hand over the paperwork demanded by the Task Group..
With External Tank testing due on the pad around April 14 – a milestone in itself – a smooth flow from Wednesday’s Roll-Out onwards could be deemed as absolutely necessary now.
Even if that is achieved, Discovery still can’t launch – as her sister, Atlantis, also needs to go through the motions to be in a position of becoming STS-300, a mission as the rescue ship for crew of Discovery – should there serious damage sustained by the Orbiter on launch. Tragically – and without detection – this was the case with Columbia on STS-107, leading to the new plan of action becoming an absolute requirement in the fallout of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report.
One thing is certain, NASA won’t be rushing Discovery into a launch.

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