Discovery sits on launch pad
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
Discovery sits on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center on Monday.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 7/11/2005 9:43:52 PM ET 2005-07-12T01:43:52

The weather brightened Monday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and the outlook for Wednesday's launch of the space shuttle Discovery is about as good as could be expected for hurricane season: 70 percent chance of liftoff. But if delays do arise, a hurricane in the making could put a significant dent in the schedule for return to flight, NASA said.

Tropical Depression No. 5, currently forming in the mid-Atlantic, could turn into Hurricane Emily by the end of the week, forecasters say. The new storm wouldn't be a factor for Wednesday, or even for the backup launch opportunities on Thursday or Saturday, launch weather officer Kathy Winters told reporters here.

"It would only be an issue for us if we scrub all three days," she said Monday.

Based on the storm's projected track, NASA would then have to assess whether it would become strong enough and close enough to merit moving Discovery back into the Vehicle Assembly Building, its 52-story-high hangar at the space center. Such a "rollback" would be ordered if forecasters thought winds at Cape Canaveral would reach 40 knots (46 mph) in two days.

Last week, NASA briefly considered rolling back Discovery because of Hurricane Dennis, but correctly judged that the storm would pose no threat to the Cape. Based on the calculations worked out for Dennis, a rollback would set back the schedule by at least two weeks, almost certainly pushing Discovery's return to flight out of this month's launch window and into September.

Even if the weather doesn't necessitate a rollback, the fresh storm could keep the shuttle stuck on the pad. The tropical depression is so new that it's hard to predict exactly what its track through the Caribbean will be, but NASA test director Pete Nickolenko said launch managers were prepared for a wide range of scenarios.

"We're going to be getting together and talking as we enter into that scenario," he said. "I would like to keep the flavor more positive and optimistic, in hopes that we'll get off the ground on Wednesday, before we talk about some what-if scenarios."

Discovery's mission, scheduled to start with launch at 3:51 p.m. ET Wednesday, is mainly an experimental flight aimed at testing hardware upgrades and new procedures developed in the wake of the shuttle Columbia's catastrophic breakup in February 2003. That tragedy caused the deaths of all seven astronauts aboard the shuttle, and led NASA to ground the rest of the shuttle fleet.

Discovery is also a resupply flight for the international space station, and spacewalkers are due to install a new gyroscope and storage platform on the station's exterior. But Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's program manager for the space station, said the orbital outpost and its crew could continue operations in its current stable mode even if Discovery's flight was postponed until September or later.

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