NASA Hit By More Shuttle Trouble; Discovery’s Countdown Continues
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ NASA got the go-ahead today for Saturday’s launch of Discovery when environmentalists lost in their effort to halt the shuttle’s takeoff with a nuclear-powered sun probe.
In Washington, U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch rejected the request to delay the mission for at least a year while NASA sorts out its shuttle problems.
Opponents said NASA is so eager to send up Discovery that it is ignoring the danger that would result from an accident involving the radioactive plutonium.
Last year, Gasch refused a similar request and Atlantis lifted off with a plutonium-powered probe bound for Jupiter.
Earlier today, two women protesting the launch were arrested when they crossed into a restricted area of Kennedy Space Center. Twenty anti-nuclear activists gathered for a morning demonstration along a busy highway leading to the center’s main offices.
Meantime, the space agency, embarrassed by more shuttle trouble, still was trying to figure out how a 9-foot-long, bright yellow beam was left to bang around inside Atlantis.
The 70-pound metal beam crashed around Atlantis’ engine compartment as the orbiter was being hoisted into an upright position in the assembly building. Some insulation covering interior components and plumbing was dented, said Forrest McCartney, director of Kennedy Space Center.
The beam was left by an experienced crew and paperwork indicated that everything had been removed, he said.
″It should have been caught and wasn’t. There’s not much more you can add to it,″ McCartney said. ″It doesn’t enhance our image any, that’s for sure.″
After the beam was found Thursday, officials reviewed Discovery’s paperwork and equipment inventory to make sure nothing was overlooked in that shuttle. An investigative team also was formed to look into the Atlantis error.
NASA test director Al Sofge today said Discovery’s paperwork was in order and all work equipment was accounted for.
″We feel confident that there’s nothing left in there,″ Sofge said.
Discovery is scheduled to lift off at 7:35 a.m. EDT Saturday with five astronauts who will send the Ulysses sun probe on a five-year journey covering 1.86 billion miles. The countdown proceeded smoothly today, and Air Force meteorologists predicted a 60 percent chance of favorable weather at launch time.
The Ulysses satellite contains nearly 23.7 pounds of plutonium-238 - half as much as the Jupiter probe. NASA officials insist a plutonium generator is the only way Ulysses can reach an unprecedented orbit over the sun’s poles.
Justice Department attorney Rebecca Donnellan told the judge that delaying the Ulysses mission 13 months - the earliest the planets will be back in the proper alignment - would cost the government more than $350 million.
Andrew Kimbrell, an attorney representing the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice, countered that an estimated $15 billion was spent to clean up after the 1986 Challenger accident.
The environmentalists based their appeal on NASA’s inability to send up a shuttle in nearly six months. Columbia has been grounded by hydrogen leaks since May, Atlantis since June.
NASA stopped trying to launch Columbia two weeks ago after leaking hydrogen halted the mission’s fourth countdown. The shuttle is grounded until all leaks can be found and fixed.
NASA finished repairing Atlantis’ leaks on Friday. The shuttle was to have been moved to the launch pad early next week to await an early November liftoff with secret military cargo.
Launch director Bob Sieck today said he doubted Atlantis’ damage would delay the shuttle’s flight by more than a day or so. All of the repairs can be performed inside the shuttle while preparations proceed for liftoff, he said.
About 25 spots inside Atlantis’ engine compartment were damaged by the beam, Sieck said.
The forgotten beam was the latest in a series of mishaps to hit the shuttle fleet in recent months.
One of Discovery’s thrusters was dented when it fell off a work stand in July. In August, a coolant line on Discovery was dented by a work platform that inadvertently pressed against it in the hangar.
Workers also damaged a seal in Columbia’s engine compartment while hunting for contamination earlier this year. The crushed seal, discovered three weeks ago, contributed to Columbia’s leakage.
McCartney said he does not see any connection among the accidents or view them as a downhill trend.
″I don’t think we can say procedures were a problem″ with Atlantis, McCartney said. ″I don’t think we can say training was a problem. I think what we can say is that we did not do the job in the way we intended to do it.″