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Gralnick's Shuttle diary

NBC News Special Consultant Jeff Gralnick blogs, “WOW!  And add several more exclamation points if you like."

August 9, 2005 | 4:40 p.m. ET

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary: Return to earth

2:12 p.m. Landing + 6  Hours

Aloft and above the clouds well west of the continental divide and looking down from a bare fraction of the height Discovery’s crew experienced and enjoyed.

If this is some sensation and it always is that must be SOME sensation.

For Discovery safe landing.  For the shuttle program a bumpy ride to that landing. 

So let the argument begin. Did NASA revalidate itself and its program with this mission or did it just avoid a fatal bullet with much proving left to do?

For this old space program watcher/reporter/fanatic, I have to come down on the side of both. Had this mission ended, as they say, badly, it is more than just safe to conclude the shuttle program would have disappeared into contentious oblivion. That it ended well just means that for every mission still to come before the program sunsets in 2010, the Space Agency will have to collectively hold its breath as we have with it for the past 14 days.

And while this goes on so does planning for what comes next—a return to the moon and a push to go farther and that’s a good thing.  Exploration has always been in the gene pool of this nation and that gene should be allowed to take us where it will.

It is L + 6 Hours and this blog has come to “full stop” along with Discovery and her crew of seven.

Time to kiss the horses.

Touchdown. Wheels stop. So damned sweet

Discovery's delayed landing is complete. My delayed plane is boarding.

Final thoughts to close this blog out, if you care, when I touch down 300 or so miles from where Discovery has just rolled to a stop.

They can kiss the horses now and the ground if they choose in not too many minutes more. 

August 9, 2005 | 8:06 a.m. ET

L - 5 minutes

There she is. A single white dot in the shaky distance. Not the rain of fiery parts we saw two-and-half years ago.

It is Touchdown - 6 minutes and breathing can resume.

August 9, 2005 | 7:58 a.m. ET

L - 13 minutes.

Past peak heating. Past when crisis and disaster happen for Columbia. All is well we think but still no word from Mission Control that we hear at this viewing point.

Wait. There it is.  Loud and clear -- "Discovery copies..." Commander Eileen Collins. Cool and calm. Sounding like she is coming back from a drive in the country.

Now all they need to get to is "wheels stop" and they get to kiss the horse.

It is L - 9 minutes now and most of the hard part is over. 

August 9, 2005 | 7:53 a.m. ET

L - 18 minutes

If it is going to go bad for Discovery it is going to happen now. Peak heating is starting and so far Mission Control is silent. 

It is L - 17 minutes and this is as tough to take as every re-entry I can remember going back to John Glenn's first in 1962.

August 9, 2005 |

L - 29 minutes

She's beginning to settle into the upper wisps of atmosphere now. This is the point when Columbia began to get into trouble.

What IS going on up there?

It is L - 29 minutes and painfully only time WILL tell.

August 9, 2005 |

L - 45 minutes

On the way in and so far so good. I guess.

I guess because a competing network -- the one that will remain nameless but has TV in all the airports -- is doing business as usual.

No tracking map. No ears-to-the-speakers attempt to hear air-to-ground transmission to get the sense that all really is well.

Not to pick on the other guys, but is this the way to cover what might be life-and-death derring-do?

It is L- 43 minutes and I wonder.

L - 71 Minutes (If all Goes Well)
How perverse.  Sitting in the Admiral’s Club at JFK waiting for a delayed flight cross country and keeping track of the delayed landing of Discovery. Also across country.

It’s fitting. There has been a Peril’s of Pauline aura to this mission from what NASA calls the get go.  Just like the movie theater serials we watched every Saturday afternoon. 

There was the hero at the end of the half hour.  Tied to the tracks. The smoke belching locomotive bearing down.  Surely he would die.  And lo the following Saturday, miracles happened and he lived for another 30 minutes until the next cliff hanger.  It went on week after week until the end when the hero lived, won the girl and kissed the horse.  Or in some cases the other way around.

And that has been Discovery from delayed launch to delayed landing. Was this tile the fatal flaw?  Was that handing filler the fatal flaw?  What WOULD happen next?  And it all turned out just fine, so far.

In 70 minutes or so we learn whether these heroes get to kiss the horse and come back to fight another day.  Fingers crossed.

It is L -65 minutes now.  And counting.  And worrying.

August 8, 2005 |

L- 1 Earthbound thoughts.

Through all of this there was this to deal with.  The word that a friend and colleague of more that three decades is dead.  The cancer he was diagnosed with four months ago had taken his life just before midnight last night. Peter Jennings.  Gone. It does not compute.

We covered the Challenger disaster together when America learned for the first time that space flight and "risky business' were one in the same.  He sat in the chair for six long hours that awful January day being what an anchorman had to be.  Steady.  Calming. The presence a nation needed at a time of great national pain.  He was that day what I remember Walter Cronkite being through that awful day so many years before when Jack Kennedy was shot.  He was a voice of calm and reason when all around was unreasonable and unthinkable.

He was, quite simply, one of those consummate broadcasters whose ear you could whisper while he was on the air and have a conversation about the story he was broadcasting; to whom you could give directions the same way; and with whom you could reach broadcaster-producer consensus on where to go and what to do next and all the time the viewer never knew.   Steady?  He epitomized it as do and did all the great ones.

Peter would have hated this overnight coverage of Discovery, a story turning into non-story for yet another day.  "Come on chap," he would have said, "can't we get this over?"

For Peter, it is now over.  And we are the poorer for it.

It is L-1 and it is not a very good day.  At all.

L-One hour 43 Minutes.
  
Not so fast. Again.  That "unstable situation" at the Kennedy Space Center landing strip just won't go away and so the Discovery Seven have just been given not one more hour but one more whole day up there.  Back to L-1 and we and they get to do it all over again.  What will they do up there for the unscheduled 24 hours? Take pictures.  Look down a lot and with Mission Control pretend that they are busy and the delay is a "useful one." 

Useful?

The mother of one of the astronauts was just on the radio.  What does she want?  She wants them home and she wants this over?  You think it's been nervous in Mission Control?  Ask a mother and you will find out about nervous.

It is--once again--L for Landing - 1.  Re-set your alarm clocks again.  For tomorrow.

L-One Hour
  
Not so fast.  Bad weather delayed the launch and now delays the landing.  What the folks at Mission Control are calling "an unstable situation" and so Discovery will go around one more time.  That quote form Deputy Mission Director Wayne Hale about rocket science at its finest just won't go away.

All that build up. All those pre-landing nerves they won't tell us about. All that and now they get to add 90 minutes for one more orbit.  Ever set in a plane coming in for landing and the pilot comes on to tell you "Sorry folks, we're going to have to go around one more time?" 

It has to be like that. And then some. Re-set your alarm clocks now for 6:41 a.m. Eastern

It was L-one hour and now it isn't any more.

L-1 Again But Different

More than a dozen days ago it was L-1 for launch and now it is L-1 for landing and it is a day every bit as tense as that day at the launch site press site so many days ago.

Somewhere up there the Discovery Seven are cleaning up the last minute details for re-entry.  Stow what might fly around.  Make sure the computers are fed with the final ones and zeroes for the time and length of the rocket burn that will slow them down from orbit. Take last, long looks at the blue of earth below them.

They've had their final say for the public.  Confident? Yes. Concerned? No.  Sure it will be all right?  Absolutely, at least in public.  But what must they be thinking?  At this writing they are under 12 hours away from heading down the same fiery path Columbia took to disaster two-and-a-half years ago.   The quiet thoughts--the private ones--have to be the tough ones.

Same has to be the case in Mission Control.  Same public confidence voiced. But what about the private doubts?  Have they really found ALL the problems?  Is it as fixed as they are convinced it is?

Think anybody is going to sleep this night?  I don't.

It is L-1 and what everybody involved in this mission want to know and know now is what will the morning bring?  What exactly?

July 26, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary: Launch day

T + 2 hours 18 minutes 56 seconds -- 1:24 p.m.

Discovery is well on her way.
 
Concerns will linger about what was or wasn't seen in those pictures during launch.  Debris?  Damage to the spacecraft?  How worried to be or not to be?

To all those questions, a very cool and collected team of mission managers told a post-launch news conference "give us time."  They want to go over a lot of film and videotape "frame by frame" and they want the crew aboard the International Space Station to "eyeball" Discovery.  Then they'll know more but for now, they express zero concern.

As to that little sensor that wouldn't on last launch day and has driven 14 teams of troubleshooters berserk ever since, it behaved perfectly today.  So perfectly that no matter what the launch team did to make it misbehave, it refused.  So the "unexplained anomaly" remains just that and the mission managers are left to conclude that they "guess" it's fixed.  Rocket science at its finest to quote Deputy Mission Director Wayne Hale one more time.

Final question that was dealt with today was, was today a "success" and to a man the launch team made it clear that no mission gets classified that way until it is over.  "When it rolls to a stop on the skid strip," one of them said, "and the crew gets off, then we will call it a success."  How committed to that position are they?  NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has delayed the traditional post-launch party until post-landing.  Home safe first and party later is the plan.

So 12 days ahead for the crew. Space walks. Repair work at the ISS and then home to a landing pre-dawn on Sunday August 7.  Blog the rest of the mission? I think not.  You have to be "there" to experience and blog an event or a story and since orbit is not where I am going, this effort is winding to a close.

Alan Boyle who is covering the mission exclusively for MSNBC.com will keep you current.

The air is going out of this press site as many make the run for Houston, which now has control of the mission. This then is "the final post."  History buffs will know that's the last bugle call of the day; the last hurrah at day's or mission's end and that is what this post is.  It is the final for Return to Space/Flashes and Flashbacks.

It is T + 2 hours 37 minutes now and this is fini.

T + 4 minutes and flying -- 10:43 a.m.

WOW!  And add several more exclamation points if you like.

All descriptions after that -- and I used all of them during lift off -- run the risk of calling down the wrath of the FCC.

Compare this launch to the Saturn Vs that took the nation's astronauts to the moon?  Damned hard.

Saturns were huge and they were stately in departure and it took them what seemed forever to clear the launch tower.  Because they got away so slowly, the noise and vibration hit you sooner in the flight and stayed with you longer.

This one, in the words of one astronaut who has flown on both Saturn and Shuttle, gets away fast, very fast. "They get off the ground like a scalded cat," he told me, "and they make orbit in eight minutes instead ten."  But the sound from this as with Saturn when it hits is something you feel down to the bottom of your toes.

But that is technotalk.  The emotion, this one as opposed to Saturn as opposed to the Titan IIs of Gemini or the Atlases of Mercury is exactly the same.  You are watching people risk it all on top of something that can and will blow up and you are stunned.  Blown away is a phrase that comes to mind, but is not the right one for this. Anybody who does not stand awestruck and feel it too, is missing something in the normal area.  Something for sure.

So Discovery is off and arrowing toward the International Space Station. 

But there are questions to answer.  Tile damage?  Tile loss? Anything that sounds like or feels like what happened to Columbia two-and-a-half years ago?  First indication at a news conference coming in about an hour. 

Will there be damage?  "Expect some but do not panic" is the guidance from NBC News aerospace consultant Jim Oberg. Wait for all the pictures that were taken to be analyzed and wait until Discovery reaches the space station when the crew onboard it will take a good and close up look.

So one more post from us here after the news conference before the last post

It is T + 19 minutes now and it has been one hell of a show.

T-8 minutes 50 seconds and counting -- 10:30 a.m.

"Cleared to go" is the last from the launch director following the final "good to go" poll.  The crew, the spacecraft and all its system and the range are now cleared for launch.

Now it gets serious.  Margin of error is now nil.  Any hold now unless momentary delays Discovery past its launch window.  Any delay after T-35 seconds and the count recycles to T - 20 minutes and it is GAME OVER.

So if you are not watching television now you should be, and if you can't, streaming coverage is just a click away.

Back at you post whatever happens next at or before 10:39 a.m.

It is T-8 Minutes 50 Seconds and counting and I am finally crossing my fingers.


T-9 minutes and holding -- 10:05 a.m.

Right on time and right to the second the count has hit another critical point. This is the final pre-launch hold or should be. Forty-five minutes or so in length it is everyone’s last chance to make sure "all systems are go."

Only change is in the weather.  It is now 90/10 favorable which is as good as it gets.  One-hundred percent is a place NASA just doesn't go.  It is also good in the abort-after-launch areas if it comes to that. And if it does, Zaragosa in Spain is the chosen landing site.

Now for the balance of this hold we wait and listen some more. Silence is a good thing. 

It's at this time in every launch I have covered when I wondered about my pulse rate verses the onboard crew’s. Bet is mine is higher.

It is T-9 and Holding but not for too much longer.

T-19 minutes 45 seconds and counting –- 9:35 a.m.

What did we do while the count was in hold?  We got as close to the speaker boxes out of which we hear what's called "NASA select."  On it we hear chatter between Mission Control and the crew as post-launch timings are refined and the NASA information officer.

What were we listening for?  What didn't we want to hear -- first sign of some problem; some sense of glitch that might delay the countdown or extend the hold.

So far, nothing and in this area especially, no word is good word. 

So they count. Down to T-9 and hold again.  After that unplanned holds will mean game over for this day.  Nerves?  You bet.

It is T- 19 Minutes 45 Seconds and Counting

T-20 minutes and holding -- 9:24 a.m.

Right on time.  Right on schedule.  It IS like clockwork. It is such precise clockwork that the launch team has refined liftoff for Discovery to 10:39 "and no seconds."

The count holds now for about 10 minutes or so as they go "around the horn" in Mission Control to make sure all areas are good to go and looking at green on their computer read outs.  The Launch Director will poll every station and he has to hear "go" from each and every one. No further word on the sensor testing but since they have been so open so far, the sense is that no news continues to be good news.

After this hold, they will count down to T-9 minutes and hold again for approximately 40 minutes give or take some number of seconds to hit that launch time inside a launch window that is now just under ten minutes long. Margin for error? Not here.

Meantime, gremlin watch and gremlin patrol continues.

Beyond that, the next news here is of what the NASA press office calls the arrival of the VVIPS.  Mrs. Bush and Governor Bush and members of Florida's congressional delegation. They will be here for the final phases of the countdown and what everyone hopes will be liftoff for Return to Space.

It is T-20 minutes and Mission Control holds and the rest of us wait.


T-1 hour 43 minutes -- 8:00 a.m.

An hour and three minutes until the first of the two planned holds in this countdown.  Weather remains perfect. Crew is loading aboard and settling in and the waiting starts.

Nothing is wrong. So far.

Talking with Winston Scott, who flew as mission specialist on two shuttle flights and now is part of the NBC coverage team has been insightful.  "The wait that starts now is the worst," he says, "you're buttoned in and everything is ready and you just want to go before something goes wrong." 

So we wait and every time the voice from mission control doing commentary speaks, every one of us twitches until we hear that nothing has gone wrong.  It's a feeling I remember from past launches and that never changes either.

It is T-1 hour 43 minutes and we creep closer.

T- 2 Hours 58 minutes and counting -- 6:46 a.m.

Dawn sneaking up.  All pastels.  Stars were clearly visible and not a cloud in sight which is why the weather forecast has gone to 80/20 positive. 

Count resumed right on time.  Crew is dressed and getting ready for the ride to Launch Pad 39B.  Arrival time:  7:19 a.m., ET, and by 8:34 they will be buttoned in. For commander Eileen Collins this is her fifth trip to the launch pad as she tries for her second flight aboard Discovery.

And so far not a sniff of a problem with any of the sensors or anything else.  It's what they like to see and call a "textbook countdown." But you can't escape these two words -- so far.

Ahead, steady counting down until 9:44 a.m., ET; a 20-minute hold; then a 40-minute planned hold for a final check that everything is still green for go; and finally, terminal count starting at T-9 minutes which should come at 10:30 a.m., ET, unless they adjust liftoff slightly inside the 10-minute window they have this morning.

"No issues and on schedule" is what the voice from Mission Control is telling us.

It is T-2 hours 58 minutes and counting and you can really begin to feel this one in your gut.  The only worries now are, is this going too smoothly; is there a gremlin lurking?

T-3 hours and holding 4:10 a.m.

Spooky moment.  Just saw on ABC's overnight news shuttle launch number one -- Columbia on its maiden trip in 1981.  First one I produced. 

Anchored by the late Frank Reynolds with commentary from the late Jules Bergman who I met first twenty years before when Mercury began America's adventure in space.

The launch still gives a shiver, especially with the knowledge that out there for Columbia was the disaster that set the stage for this event.

T-3 hours for Discovery and Columbia's ghost still haunts.

T-3 hours and holding -- 3:45 a.m.

So Far, So Good.  That is the word from Mission Control more than three hours into tanking and testing for Discovery.

The little sensor that wouldn't and scrubbed the first mission is behaving properly--so far. Constant testing and so far no problems.  None.

And more good news as we move toward dawn.  The weather outlook has gone from 60/40 good to 80/20.  Less and less chance of thunderstorms or an anvil cloud build up scrubbing this one.

So from now until 10:39 a.m., ET, we are all on "gremlin watch."  It's  under six hours to go but they will be long ones.

It is T-3 hours and holding and so far it doesn't get any better than this despite the hour.

July 25, 2005|

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  The count is on

L-1 T- 10 Hours 55 Minutes and Counting -- 5:45 p.m.

That tower is back and they have finally started to wind the clock down again. All appears underline appears to be going smoothly.

Ahead are a lot critical moments and they all happen during the dead of night, ET.

Liquid hydrogen loading and chill down will start some time after 12:15 a.m. Key tests on those sensors will be done through the night with special focus on ones that happen at about 2:30 a.m. and around 4 a.m. If those sensors haven't misbehaved by then or have -- but in ways the launch team understands -- the light stays green.

How do you know if it is going well when you wake up? T-3 hours and holding until 7:44 a.m., ET, on the current schedule is fine. After that they should be counting. And look for the crew to be moving toward the pad shortly after 7 a.m. 

Those are the signposts when you tune in or log in on launch day. After not enough sleep, this blog will be back with you starting at around 7 a.m., ET

It is L-1 and they are counting again and that is a very good thing. 

L-11 Hours and Holding -- 4:08 p.m.

NASA always finds a way to make the watchers nervous. The issue now is the mobile service structure.  It was supposed to roll away from Discovery at 1:30 p.m., ET; then 2:30; then 3:30; and now we are told to "expect first movement at 5 p.m." 

Why?  No answer other than "we are running behind."  Is it to worry?  Seems not, but the watchers find themselves pacing again. If it is, indeed, a "to worry" situation, we'll have a  better sense of that around 5:44 p.m. Eastern when the countdown should resume.

Meantime, some talk about what's ahead for Discovery commander Eileen Collins.  Tomorrow is to be her fifth trip to the launch pad for a shuttle mission.  The fourth was earlier this month when she got on board and they scrubbed some two hours and twenty minutes before schedule liftoff. 

The other three were on her first mission as commander of Discovery in 1999.  That year Discovery finally got off the ground on July 23.  Two scrubs for Collins on that attempt. The second was because of afternoon thunderstorms and was not a heartstopper.  The first was the day before that and it was a heartstopper for sure.  Discovery scrubbed at T-7 seconds, just four-tenths of a second before they would have lit the shuttle's main engine. Why?  The launch window was going to be missed by a single second.  One.

Talk about launchus interruptus.  No record released of the conversation between Mission Control and mission commander post-scrub but the bet is on not pretty.

It is T-11 hours and we wait.  Wait for the tower to move and wait for the clock to move as well. As was said yesterday, "It's rocket science -- at its finest."

L-1  T-11 Hours and Holding -- 12:24 p.m.

Silence from NASA so far this morning and that is a good thing in terms of work going on leading up to launch.  But if NASA speaks there are far fewer ears here in the press corps to listen.

It's like a scythe was taken to the media group that was here for launch attempt one.  Over a thousand then and perhaps half that by observation this time. Empty camera platforms.  Fewer uplink trucks. Fewer reporters and broadcasters. Seats available -- lots of them -- at the press briefings. And for those of us still here or back here one benefit -- we could drive in by ourselves.

Clearly while the space agency was budgeted for more than one launch attempt this month, the media may not have been which makes you wonder this:  If it was so important to be here for the first attempt why not the second?  It is still, after all, the same attempted Return To Space.

And the answer is: "Got me."  As a once-upon-a-time broadcast executive and manager I know the imperatives.  The first on the first attempt was to "do all possible" and on the second to say "hey wait a minute, let's think about this."  And that is exactly what has happened.

For us at least, Chris Jansing is back for MSNBC and Tom Costello for NBC and Jay Barbree our resident correspondent is still here. Full strength on the front line at least and that is what counts.

It is L-1 and all goes well for the shuttle but a lot of people are discovering that the price of poker is pretty steep.

L-1 T-11 Hours and Holding -- 10:12 a.m

"Ready to Fly"

"Watching the Weather."

Those are the headlines from the final countdown status briefing we will get before launch and they are stunningly similar to the ones we got at the very same briefing on July 12.

No problems they tell us so far with spacecraft or booster as they close things out and get ready for the roll back of the tower surrounding Discovery. That's now scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Eastern.  If they are going to have a repeat sensor problem, that will not reveal itself until they start loading liquid hydrogen aboard shortly before 1 a.m. tomorrow.

So this will be a day of watching the clouds -- again.  For last launch the question was would sea breezes be strong enough to push developing thunderstorms inland and past Kennnedy Space Center.  This time around it is weak sea breezes they want so any showers or thunderheads that develop off shore, stay off shore.

So where we are is into what the engineers call a series of "situationally dependent" areas. 

Can weather be bad enough to scrub?  It all depends.

If the sensor acts up again once tanking begins, will that produce a scrub? It all depends.

It is L-1 and we are getting a lesson in situational dependency.

L-1  T-11 Hours and Holding -- 7:33 a.m.

Relax.  It is a planned hold which is where we will spend much of this day before the day. Not until late this afternoon do they start winding down again toward tomorrow morning's T-0 at 10:39 a.m., ET.

And where are we after all these days of hold and testing and investigating after the scrub on July 13th?  About where we were on that very day.   Only now NASA says it feels smarter and better about that troublesome sensor even though they still do not know why they had the problem they had.

They've been through "every test we can possibly think of" and all they know is that no matter what they do, they cannot make the sensor do what it did on launch day when the shuttle's tank was full of liquid hydrogen and chilled to several hundred degrees below zero. Asked in testing if it was "wet" the sensor said it was "dry."  Asked if the tank was full, it answered "empty."  That produced enough confusion and concern on the 13th to scrub the launch then and there.  Try as they might with the tank and sensor "dry" and at normal temperature, they have not been able to make it happen again.

So what to do now?  Start the countdown. Chill the tank down. See what happens. Doesn't sound very scientific but with all the testing they have done now and the full knowledge and certainty--they say--that with only one of the four sensors out it will be safe to fly, they will count to launch. 

Now it comes down to a numbers game because they have, in a wonderful turn of engineering speak "two-failure tolerance." And that means?

It was sensor two that tested badly on last launch day. It is tied in the wiring plan to sensor four in the liquid hydrogen tank. If either of them goes haywire Tuesday, the Mission Management Team says they know they will be looking at a problem they have seen and can go ahead.  But if sensors one or three shows a problem or any of the sensors monitoring the shuttle's liquid oxygen tank kicks up it will, quite simply be GAME OVER. 

And if that happens? Deputy Mission Director Wayne Hale says, "We'll be hard pressed to make a July launch," and then it will be see you in September.

So even number failure is okay but odd number failure is bad and the time to start looking for this is at T-3 Hours and holding when it cropped up on launch attempt No. 1. That comes at 5:39 a.m., ET, on launch day and if they get past that point and get the crew into the shuttle. they will, Hale says, start to feel better about things. 

Asked about the science of this all, Hale said with a smile, "Hey, it's rocket science."

It is L-1 and if you feel as though you have been there and done that once already, you are right.

July 22, 2005|

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary: 'A very good day'

L-4  A good day -- 4:28 p.m.

As this day closes, could it be any more upbeat for Discovery at Kennedy Space Center?  Not hardly.

From Mike Rein, the Director of Information, there is this:  "Don't want to jinx anything but today was a very good day."

For sure.

NBC's Jay Barbree reports that the problem that caused the sensor problem has been identified.  It was indeed that faulty ground wire they found and now they are replacing and tightening them all.  Solved is the way they see this as they head into the final hours before the countdown begins at noon, ET, tomorrow.

Then there was Franklin, a little tropical storm that bubbled up in the Atlantic off Florida.  By all computer models it is heading away and north and east toward the Bahamas.  Bad weather coming for the islanders, tourists and the cruise ship crowd, but good news for the launch team and the Discovery crew who made it back to KSC today "safe and sound" as Rein put it.

Back to those ground wires and that sensor and this question:  What if it is not solved after all and acts up again on launch day?  An answer from Jim Oberg (www.jamesoberg.com), NBC's aerospace analyst and consultant.  According to documents he has seen, the Mission Management team has concluded it will be safe to fly with only three of the four sensors. 

And that is where things stand with under 90 hours to go.  Flashes and Flashbacks will be starting up Monday from KSC right here at the Peacock Blog on msnbc.com.  Be there.

It is L-4 and so far, everything is green for go.  As Kermit reminds, it is not easy being green.

L-4  One more time -- 7:30 a.m.

Busy, busy but the order of business and battle for Discovery and its crew and launch team is becoming clear.

On the agenda today is the continuation of all that troubleshooting (read that solving) of the sensor problem that grounded the shuttle.  While they won't say as much, NASA engineers appear to have their arms around the problem caused by a nettlesome loose wire and faulty ground somewhere in the system they still will not say that is IT, and so they are going to take care of IT and see if that does IT and then they will tell us.  

While this goes on, the seven-member Discovery crew heads back to Kennedy Space Center landing at 11:30 a.m., ET, this morning.  Expect commander Eileen Collins to have a few words of hope for launch on landing and then the shuttlenauts will disappear until we see them Tuesday heading for the pad.

For those who are A.) Seriously into this or B.) Are seriously into it and want to show off or C.) Just want to know, here are key times ahead that will are check points and sign posts to the Tuesday launch. (All times Eastern)

Saturday L-3

10 a.m. -- Launch countdown status briefing.  NASA TV (yes, because your tax dollars are at work, there is a NASA TV) will carry it live.  It streams at www.nasa.gov/returntoflight

Noon -- Countdown to launch officially begins.

Sunday L-2

10 a.m. -- Launch countdown status briefing.  If there are problems they begin to be revealed here.  Once again it streams at www.nasa.gov.

5 p.m. (more or less) -- Pre-launch press conference by Mission Management Team.

Monday L-1

10 a.m. -- Final pre-launch countdown status briefing.  Watch for questions about the status of tanking and the status of the little sensor that wouldn't.  Once again, it streams at www.nasa.gov/returntoflight.

1 p.m. -- Mobile service structure rolls away from the shuttle.  When this happens you know it is getting serious.

Tuesday Launch Day

12:44 a.m. -- Launch commentary for shuttle tanking begins.  If the sensor is going to misbehave again, it will happen sometime after this as the fuel tanks chill to several hundred degree below zero.

5 a.m. -- Crew breakfast.  NASA will cover so look for pictures on MSNBC and on the NASA web site.

7a.m. -- Crew heads for pad 39B and Discovery.

10:39 a.m. -- Liftoff for STS-114

So there it is smart people, your guide through the early going.  Look here Monday for more detailed time line information of critical pre-launch events for the spacecraft and the crew so you can really be smarter than the other guy or gal over morning coffee.  Remember, for this one it is everybody up early and much of this happens before you reach the office water cooler.

It is L-4 and it is just about time for the press that left after the scrub to start heading back.

July 21, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Back on track

L-5  One more time -- 3:59 p.m.

As this day draws to a close, the way for Discovery off the pad and back into space is becoming clear.

Or clearer at least.

Troubleshooting and testing on the hinky sensor continues with some rewiring and some part replacement part of the process. That will continue through tomorrow.

At 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, countdown to launch is to start. Key in the process will be loading Discovery's liquid hydrogen tank on Monday. That's the point on last launch day when the sensor began misbehaving.  If that doesn't happen Monday, a giant hurdle to launch has been cleared.

If it does, it is hard decision time for the launch team. Do they call it off again or go for door number two --The Hell With it option -- and agree they have "failed into" a three-sensor launch and just go for it. They've already admitted then CAN do that.  They wouldn't like it, but they CAN do it. 

Pressure for that option will be intense because the month is almost up. If they miss on Tuesday, they will try again Wednesday and then rest on Thursday and try once more Friday. Miss then, they will regroup Saturday and take one more crack at it Sunday the 31st.

At that point, is it over until September?  It is a NASA kind of answer -- maybe yes; maybe no. The Mission Management team indicates it is considering extending "several days" into August when daylight on the launch would be less than satisfactory. Considering but not deciding is where they are today.

Hard choices ahead and a lot of work being done with fingers crossed.

It is L-5 and things are getting exciting. Again.

L-5 Again -- 7:27 a.m.

No longer just another day after the scrub a week ago Wednesday, but a day when a re-energized Discovery launch team gets set to resume the countdown this Saturday for a launch next Tuesday at 10:39 a.m., ET.  After some seven hours of meetings yesterday, that was the word from the Discovery team.  Much work to do, but they are ready and they can make it.

Is the sensor problem found and fixed?  Not exactly has to be the answer.  It's complicated but all those engineers mucking about in the wiring have found what's described as a "faulty ground" associated with the Engine Cutoff Sensor that read wrong on last launch day.  While not 100 percent convinced that that IS the problem, since that kind of condition was on the list of "likely causes," the Mission Management team is comfortable enough to go ahead.

Still ahead?  More testing and some rewiring and then as the pre-launch countdown continues, a critical test next Monday.  That is when they will load liquid hydrogen into the shuttle's fuel tank and chill it down. That was the point on launch day when the sensor readings went haywire and the decision to bag it was made.  If, as they say, all goes well with that test Monday or they convince themselves that it has, Tuesday is the day. 

Oh yes -- weather permitting.

Meantime, the Discovery crew will be heading back to the launch site from Houston and the weather officers are once again becoming the most sought after people on the press site.

It is L-5 again and everyone is packing.  Again. And all eyes will be on the sky and the clock.  Again.


July 20, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Waiting on tomorrow

Scrub day +7 -- 5:30 p.m.

By tomorrow, the headline on this may be L- with a new launch date for Discovery finally set. That, at least, is what is expected from the Mission Management team later this evening when they conclude this afternoon's review of progress so far.

What we do know comes from NBC News aerospace consultant Jim Oberg (www.jamesoberg.com) who has been right on the money since the scrub.  His sources are telling him three things:

1.)  That tanking test to fill and chill the shuttle's hydrogen fuel tank will likely be moved from next Tuesday to next Monday.  That removes a conflict with a potential Tuesday launch.

2.) Tuesday the 26th is now viewed as "the best possible launch date."  Liftoff inside the ten-minute window that day would be 10:31 a.m. Eastern, well before the buildup of thunderstorms that was a worry in the late afternoon last week.

3.) Engineers believe they've found a problem with grounding circuit for the sensor that was misbehaving.  While they don't tell Oberg that's THE problem that caused the launch scrub, they say something like that was "on the list" of things they were looking for.

So we're nearing green for go is the indication as this blog closes out this day.  For late word, check MSNBC.com and MSNBC on television.

It is scrub day + 7 for Discovery but tomorrow may be L-5 for a Tuesday launch.  Stay tuned.

Scrub day +7 -- 11:04 a.m.

This Day In History.

On this day 36 years ago I know exactly where I was.  In Japan, struggling to hear commentary from Mission Control on Japanese television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin settled to the moon.  I'd been at KSC for launch; heard the cool and controlled Walter Cronkite say on air "Go, baby, go" as the Saturn V pushed Apollo 11 toward orbit and then the moon; waved goodbye to my wife who went north with Cronkite with whom she was working; and I headed west.  Orlando to Los Angeles to Honolulu to Tokyo to produce the far eastern element of CBS News global coverage of the lunar landing.

As a television experience in Tokyo for a non-Japanese speaker, it was mind-bending.  Excited commentary.  Dynamic graphics running up and down the screen instead of across and so much talk.  Way down under all that talk was Mission Control in English.   So sitting in the middle of the night in the middle of an empty cafeteria at NHK I was able to hear "The Eagle Has Landed" and I toasted it in stale, black coffee.

You experience history where and when you can, and this one was another of those days impossible to forget.

For Discovery it is scrub day +7 and we wait for word.

For Apollo 11 it is landing day + 36 years and we celebrate.  Or should.

Scrub day + 7 -- 7:07 a.m.

Another day of waiting.  Waiting to find out if NASA will confirm that next Tuesday is really the launch day or just the day they "wet test" the shuttle's hydrogen tank as a last step in trouble shooting the sensor problem that has them tied in knots.  If that is the case, will they then be able to launch on Wednesday the 27th as is currently rumored? 

Big questions and both the astronauts and the press heading back to the launch site need the answer so we know when to pack and when to fly.  The question after that is will the press know where to fly to? That is asked not idly on this steamy morning in the Northeast because based on a fair amount of what is in print and on the air, it seems a big piece of the press corps is either lost or severely disadvantaged when it comes to basic geography. 

How do I know? 

Driving toward an airport to abandon Florida after last week's scrub, the radio station I could get gave me CNN Radio News and on the hour the anchor led to a report "on the latest on Discovery, live from Cape Canaveral."  Interesting.  To be true, that would mean the reporter left the launch site which is at the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island and drove about 22 miles across two large bridges to reach the old launch sites for Projects Mercury and Gemini which is, indeed, at Cape Canaveral.  But he didn't I would bet.

Cape Canaveral, somehow, has entered the press' shorthand as THE place where America launches for space.  My fine network news organization did it too, promoting the presence of one of its anchors "at Cape Canaveral" until a purist like me said "hey wait a minute." The AP continues to do it despite years ago having told other purists at another network that they, the AP, were dead wrong on the dateline. Cape Canaveral for launches somehow has become a generic.  Everything we blow our nose into is a "Kleenex."  Every copy we make is a "Xerox."  And every launch is from "Cape Canaveral."  Not so fast.

Why the big deal?  Accuracy seems a pretty good answer.  Not misleading a generation of school kids seems a pretty good answer too.  Keeping some poor fool from losing on Jeopardy is not as good an answer but interesting to think about anyway.

So here it is.  A vote for geographic accuracy.  It ain't catchy, but I am packing at week's end to return to the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island.  I hope those of you heading for Cape Canaveral don't miss the launch.

It is scrub day +7 and there are all kinds of questions that need answering.

July 19, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Maybe the word

Scrub Day + 6 -- 5:30 p.m.

And now the word from NASA.  It is next Tuesday for Discovery at the earliest.  Maybe.  Yes.  Maybe.

Looking at all the testing that remains to be done to chase down a solution to that troublesome sensor, the Mission Management Team has set next Tuesday, July 26, as the first possible launch date.  But behind the scenes, the word seems to be "not likely" because yet to be done is testing on the sensor with the liquid hydrogen tank fully loaded and chilled to the point where the sensor failed in the last countdown.  By most guesses -- and we are dealing now in educated guesses from all over the lot -- the first day that test can happen is Tuesday the 26th, the provisional launch date.  Got it?

And here comes the real hooker, if that testing when the tank is "wet" and cold goes well or leads them to the "forget about it point," they would keep that tank full and continue a countdown leading to a launch on Wednesday morning between 9 and 10 a.m.

So Tuesday or Wednesday.  For sure.  Maybe.  And time is ticking away.  The window of this launch period closes after the 31st unless a last-minute decision to keep it open for several days in August is taken.

It is scrub day + 6 and all manner of wheels are turning for Discovery.

To read Jeff's blog from earlier on scrub day + 6, click here.

July 19, 2005 |

Covering a hurricane (Steve Shapiro, Producer)

Covering a hurricane is an eye-opening experience.  During Hurricane Dennis I was teamed up with MSNBC Anchor/Reporter Lisa Daniels, Photo Journalist Chris Borghesani and Audio Technician Paul Leeman.  We arrived the day before the storm and reported from Pensacola Beach where Hurricane Ivan had struck less than a year ago.  The damage was still visible and it was clear the last thing Pensacola Beach needed was another violent storm to pound its shoreline.  We took notice of the beachfront hotels and condominiums that were demolished by Ivan and wondered what would happen this time around.   The following day we set up shop at the Ramada Inn waiting for Dennis to come roaring through.  We knew we were in for a long day that would in all likelihood include the loss of power, phone service, hot water and perhaps worse, hot food.

By mid-day we had, in fact, lost power in the hotel and the staff had no way to prepare meals.  Fortunately we had stocked up on bottled water, granola bars and peanut butter crackers.  Hurricane coverage 101.

In the afternoon the wind and rain began to pick-up and at approximately 4:00 p.m., Dennis was barreling through Pensacola.  Our team ventured out into the storm several times while it was passing through.  At one point Lisa was live on the air with MSNBC anchor Natalie Allen for more than 10 minutes providing viewers with a first hand account of the storm.  We took particular notice of the roof shingles that were breaking apart above our heads and turning into projectiles.

The hurricane destroyed my cell phone, which proved to be a real challenge since our landlines had been knocked out as well.  Communicating with my fellow producers back in the studio became extremely difficult.  Fortunately Chris had brought a satellite phone with him, which basically saved the day and kept us in communication throughout the rest of the evening.

Once the storm passed, it was time to survey the damage and continue our live reports for MSNBC.  It was clear from the damage around the hotel that Dennis packed a punch.  It uprooted trees, knocked down power lines, and scattered debris everywhere.

Lisa continued to provide her live reports until midnight, and after an exhausting day it was finally time to call it a night. The only problem was that we had to retire to our rooms that had no electricity, which meant no air conditioning and of course no light.  After brushing my teeth while holding a flashlight and sleeping for a restless few hours it was time to get up and head to Navarre Beach where the most damage occurred.  At Navarre Beach Lisa interviewed FEMA Director Michael Brown who choppered in to assess the damage.  It was clear the clean-up was once again going to be costly.

In the end, Dennis left residents of the Florida Panhandle to pick up the pieces of yet another storm.  Everyone in Pensacola was extremely gracious to us while we were there, but I can assure you they don't want to see any of us again anytime soon!
 

Questions/Comments: Newsforce@MSNBC.COM

July 19, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  "They are stuck"

Scrub Day + 6 -- 8:41 a.m.

Forget Friday for Discovery and start thinking next Tuesday or Wednesday morning for this mission.

Through a weekend of testing, Discovery’s engineers and Mission Managers had been hoping for “the eureka moment” and a quick fix to the sensor problem that has bedeviled them for days now. What they got was no joy.   Cannot find a loose wire or bad connector.  Cannot replicate the problem.  In a phrase, they are stuck.

So far they have tested the little sensor that won’t in “dry tank/ambient temperature” conditions.  For those not speaking NASA, that means Discovery’s liquid hydrogen tank was empty and not chilled to several hundred degrees below zero.  Next the tests are “wet tank,” with full load and those sub-zero temperatures which replicate conditions on launch day when the Engine Cutoff sensor went hinky on them.

If all of that produces no solution, the choices left for NASA are down to two:  Keep testing, blow the July window and wait until September; or opt for “Oh What The Hell let’s go as is,” which opens them to questions about what happened to “safety at all cost.”

In part, mission managers have already dealt with that question.  Pressed at a briefing after the scrub about flying with only three of the four sensors, Deputy Mission Director Wayne Hale said they can do that but would rather “fail into it than choose it” as an option.  Across the next several days, if no answer is found, the Discovery team will have to decide if they have, indeed, failed into that less than satisfactory position.

Time presses on them.  The July launch window is ticking away and there is already some rumoring of extending the window several days into August.  NBC News aerospace consultant Jim Oberg reports that from Houston, noting there will still be enough post-sunrise morning light to photograph the launch and look for tiles that might have shed during liftoff. 

Good news?  Some.  The closer to the end of this launch window they get, the better the weather situation becomes.  Those July thunderstorms that would have scrubbed Discovery’s attempt last week generally are mid-day and afternoon events and the launch attempt days left all put planned liftoff well before noon.

It is scrub day +6 and the Discovery crew is back in Houston waiting for the phone to ring.  As are we all. 

Stay tuned.


July 18, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Silence is deafening

Scrub Day + 5 -- 6:00 p.m.

From the Mission Managment Team, silence, which is as they say, deafening.

The meeting which began at noon has netted no news. Rumors are that the Discovery astronauts are going back to Houston and if that's the case, forget a Friday launch.

But no news and no indication if that is good news or bad.

It is scrub day + 5 and we wait. What else is new.

Scrub Day + 5 -- 11:10 a.m.

So the question on this Monday is where are we, and the answer seems to be that Discovery's Mission Management Team just doesn't know.

After a weekend of work by the dozen action teams formed to chase down this sensor problem, NBC's Jay Barbree reports this morning, that they found "nothing."  With that non-answer in hand they start their "now what" meeting at noon, ET.  Essentially, they've got one of two choices.

Behind door number one is a potentially cosmic solution which could involve rolling the shuttle back into the garage in order to keep looking at all those miles of wire. Pick that, and NASA could lose its shot at a July launch and then have to wait until September.

Behind door number two is a new acronym -- OWTH which could stand, in NASA speak, for "Oh What The Hell," let's just go "as is."  Viable?  Absolutely.  At one of the post-scrub briefings, Deputy Mission Manager Wayne Hale was pressed on whether they could launch with only three of the four Engine Cut Off sensors and his answer was "yes, but that is a posture we would rather fail into than choose." 

So we are back, once again, to stay tuned and keep checking back.

As for NASA morale, there was this quote this morning from Mike Rein, NASA's information chief at Kennedy Space Center:  "I wish I had some breaking news as of 9:30, but I don't," and the he added "I’m still very optimistic about a July launch. We have the best gosh darn space team in the world working this issue."

"Best gosh darn."  Does it get any better than that?

It is scrub day +5 and we are waiting to see what we will see.

July 15, 2005 |

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  "Anything is possible"

Scrub Day + 2 -- 11:27 a.m.

Yesterday, it was forget Saturday, and now it is forget the hope for Sunday and pray, if you are NASA, to be ready by the last week of the month.

NBC's Jay Barbree is being told that technicians on Pad 39B have started to drain propellants from Discovery's onboard systems. That is step one in backing at out of current countdown status and makes a Sunday launch impossible according to Barbree's sources.

Mission Management is still meeting and is expected to have final word late this afternoon.  Can it turn around by then? With all that has gone on with this launch attempt, bet on no, but guess on "anything is possible."

It is scrub day +2 and NASA's hope is not to be singing "See You In September" any time this month.

Whether end July or in September, Flashes and Flashbacks will be back.

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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  "Theoretically" the word

Scrub Day + 1 -- 3:47  p.m.

The driving word in the NASA mission management meeting news briefing that just concluded was "theoretically." 

It was used in one way or another in almost every answer about the likelihood of getting Discovery off the pad this Sunday, next week or even any time this month, because to meet the "theoretically possible" Sunday launch date everything must work perfectly.  In simplest form, Deputy Mission Manager Wayne Hale said someone would have to "go out there to the pad, wiggle some wires, find the loose one and fix it but that is just not credible." 

"Not credible" are words he used any number of times through the briefing.

So here is what they have done and are doing. 

First they tested the troublesome sensor last night and today and it gave them the worst thing it could -- intermittent behavior. When the tank was full on he launch pad it read empty which produced the scrub.  Once the tank was empty and dry, it continued to read "wet" for several hours before reading out correctly.  Continued testing produced intermittent readings until now when the sensor reads as it should.  And that is bad because as Hale said "that is worst case scenario for the troubleshooter."  All that done, a nationwide network of 12 troubleshooting teams has been formed.   It's first task?  Determine how long it is going to take to troubleshoot this problem and produce a solution.

That answer will be forthcoming sometime tomorrow afternoon and it is critical. With that answer in hand mission managers will determine if the "theoretically possible" Sunday date is "credible" and can be met.  More than once, Hale said he considered that "unlikely" but they had to work toward it.  If the troubleshooters' guidance is to forget Sunday, then NASA would "begin to back out of current countdown status" which is being held at what amounts to T-48 hours.

But there is a ‘but’ in this scenario. If the troubleshooters can convince the team that Monday or Tuesday might still "theoretically" be possible they might wait before backing out of the countdown and starting crew rest.  "Theoretically" possible, but again, not "credible." 

Next question, if making the fix requires rolling Discovery back into the "garage," might they still make the July launch window?  Depending on what has to be done, Hale says, it is (and here is that word again)  "theoretically" possible.

But to play the game, some answers to "if:"

Launch time if Sunday -- 2:14 p.m.

Launch time if Monday -- 1:51 p.m.

Launch time if Tuesday -- 1:26 p.m.

Launch weather if launch is any of those days -- 40 percent chance of weather at launch time prohibiting a launch.

And one last answer.  What's wrong with August?  All the August launch times are nighttime and while shuttles have launched in the dark, they want this one to go in full daylight so they can photograph it from every possible angle.  If a tile falls off at launch they want to know which and from where and they want to know fast.

So while not over over, this launch attempt would appear to be most definitely over and if you want a guide to how the press is betting -- plane reservations out are being made for tomorrow morning and the "smart money" bet is on September.

It is scrub day +1 and you thought this was easy.  And that will wrap it from here.  When Discovery again gets back to L-3, we'll be here with more.

Scrub Day + 1 -- 2:46  p.m.

Forget Saturday!

This problem is BIG.  The delay will not be a short one.  While theoretically possible, if all went perfectly, a launch could happen Sunday but even NASA manager Wayne Hale finds that "not credible."

That from NASA mission managers who are conducting a news conference that is still going on.  It follows a long night and morning of work and meetings and then a Mission Management team meeting that lasted over 2 hours.  If the "garaging option" to roll Discovery back off the pad is the one that has to be taken, this launch could well miss the July window entirely and be off until September. 

And if it is September?  This from MSNBC weather expert Sean McLaughlin:  September is right in the middle of the most active part of the hurricane season and September is the also wettest month for this part of Florida.  Swell, isn't that?

More here about the what and the when for Discovery as the NASA managers continue to spell it out.

It is scrub day +1 but emphatically no longer L-2 for a Saturday launch.

Scrub Day + 1 -- 12:45  p.m.

Idle press site thought while we and while we sit and wait.   It's about once upon a time.

The army of shuttlenauts NASA has fielded to feed sound bites and quotes into the press maw that always needs more is all over the press site.

You cannot miss them in their blue flight suits.  They are bright and shiny and well-scrubbed. You also can't miss knowing if they are "veteran" shuttlenauts because if they have flown, they wear their mission patches.  And you also cannot miss them because they each have their minders close at hand and ready to steer them away from unplanned, unwanted or unscheduled contact. Once upon a time it wasn't like this at all.

By the time we got to the Gemini program and their were more than "the original seven," the astronauts just wandered, roving the press site at Cape Canaveral.  Available if you wanted them for quick comment or chat.  Minded?  Not really because they wouldn't stand for it?  Dressed in uniform and uniformly?  Don't be silly.  That's not what the right stuff was all about.  Bright and shiny and well-scrubbed? Nope.  Some mornings you could pick out the ones who'd had a rough night.  THAT's what the right stuff was all about. 

How did they look?  Take a look at me and Wally Schirra way back when.  I am not sure either of us had had an easy "night before."

Why were they around?  They needed things. One morning Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan who were about to fly a Gemini mission and would go on to the moon, needed to look at a launch.  Could we find the tape they needed to see and could we show it them?  For sure and the two of them watched and pointed and had us stop it and start it a half-dozen  times.  What precisely were they looking to learn about a Titan II as it left the pad?  That, they wouldn't tell us.

No blue suits. No minders.  And it was better.  Too bad it's not that way any longer.

And that tornado warning? We've stopped looking for Dorothy and Toto.

It's scrub day +1 and the sun is out again.

Scrub Day + 1 -- 12:30  p.m.

Now some excitement and not the kind we want or need.  Sirens sounding and the press being told to clear their platforms and "seek shelter."  It's a stage two thunderstorm warning and there has been a tornado sighting.  A lot of scurrying and a lot of people just ignoring it.  All eyes to the sky now looking for Dorothy and Toto.

It is scrub day +1 and we're having some kind of fun now.

Scrub Day + 1 -- 11 a.m.

The news is dribbling out and it is not good if your bet is for a Saturday launch.  After "detanking," that is another one of those NASA words that means emptying," Discovery's fuel tank, they tested the little sensor that won't and it still wouldn't.  Yesterday afternoon when the tank was full, the sensor read "empty" which is why they scrubbed and last night when the tank was finally empty it was reading "full."  That, for the launch team we are being told, was total validation for the scrub call.

So what they are trying to find, in simplest terms, is a short in a monstrously complicated wiring scheme.  Think of that sensor light in your car or on your oven that won't go off and they just cannot figure out why.  That's NASA's problem precisely and that is whey the engineering management meeting that starts at noon Eastern may be contentious.

And there's a further complication.  Former shuttle commander Rick Hauck, the NBC News resident astronaut, tells me there are only five of these black boxes in the world and the one being used for Discovery was supposed to be "the good one."  If it is bad and they have to take another "good one" for this mission, it could complicate the launch of a rescue mission if one were needed for the Discovery crew.

So stay tuned.

It is the day after a scrub and for NASA it ain't easy.

Scrub Day + 1 -- 10 a.m.

So now we sit and we wait.  We wait to find out if this is really L-2 for a Saturday launch attempt at 2:45 p.m. and if it is not when we find out that it is not.

Right now the NASA engineering meetings are underway after a long night of work here at Kennedy Space Center and in Houston at Johnson Space Center.  What they are going to do is "assess" what they learned and what they think they know.  Then at noon the BIG meeting at which they will duke it out -- no doubt in the kind of "collegial/confrontational" way they did earlier this week deciding if yesterday was indeed the day to "go fly."  And then some time late this afternoon they should tell us what is what.

There has been one advance in what we know.  Yesterday's two scenarios of best case/worst case is now three scenarios best case/kind of best case/worst case.

Best Case is they've figured it out; agree at all these meetings going on through this day that it IS solved; and try for Saturday.

Kind of Best Case is that it is serious but not too serious; will take somewhat longer to fix; but can be fixed in time to try a launch in this July window period.

Worst Case is they've got to "garage it" for some kind of major fix and we are off until the next window opens on September 9.

Smart money bets are against Saturday and split evenly between Kind of Best Case and Worst Case. Major task today is not to find the news but not leap to the rumored news of which there will be a lot.  Yesterday the rumored news of "it's bad and we are off to September" which was replaced by "no earlier than Monday" became broadcast "truths" before they were facts and that is what has to be avoided today.

Meantime, the weather were they launching today is frustratingly and annoyingly perfect.

It is the day after scrub and it can get cranky out here.


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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch day SCRUBBED!

Scrub day

When we get to the end of this day and know some more about “what exactly” and “when next,” what this will turn out to be is the first post-Columbia instance of better very, very safe than even the tiniest bit sorry.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin made that course clear, not as just a possibility but as a certainty when he briefed the press yesterday.  In eloquent fashion he left no doubt that they believed they had made this, the safest shuttle ever and were satisfied that they were, as of 4:30 p.m. yesterday, good to go fly. 

But he also made crystal clear that should they run into anything they did not understand or could not fix once the countdown began, Discovery and its crew of seven were going to go no place today.

And that is precisely what happened. 

What stopped them was not a big deal at all. It was a problem of faulty readings from one of four engine cut-off sensors, ECO sensors in NASA-speak, in the shuttle’s booster fuel tank. They have four for protection but the flight rules say all must work or you may not go.  That they did not have, and so it was no go after five minutes of discussion because the situation made them “uncomfortable” and they did what Griffin said they would.  They stopped. 

They were smart.  They were safe.  And they never had to worry about sorry.

So what do we now about “next?”  “No earlier than Monday” is what Administrator Griffin told a gaggle of Senators and Representatives down for the launch
.
Apparently things have changed since Griffin briefed the Pols because now it is “no earlier than Saturday.” That, though, depends on what the real nature of the problem is and what it may take to fix it.  A lot of engineers are going to be staying up late tonight here and at Johnson Space Center in Houston working this problem.

Best case?  They find and understand what exactly produced the faulty readings; satisfy themselves that they are right and have it fixed this time; and then try on Saturday.  Weather outlook? Less bad than we had feared because Emily is heading deep into the Gulf of Mexico with the Yucatan the apparent landfall.  All NASA has to worry is normal July weather.

Worst case? The problem is more complex; cannot be solved on Launch Pad 39B; and they are forced to roll the shuttle back into the “garage” for more major maintenance in the Vehicle Assembly Building adjacent to the press site.  If that happens they will be fighting to fit the flight into the July launch window.  If they miss, we are back here for a possible September 9 attempt when the window opens again.

Some fun.

But it is not new. For a lot of us who’ve covered this story, all the clichés work.  Déjà vu all over again for sure.  Been there, done that also for sure.  We waited at old Cape Canaveral a full month through six launch attempts before John Glenn finally rode MA6 and Freedom Seven into orbit in February of 1963.  And all of that delay was caused by cloudy weather out in the Atlantic over one of the emergency splash down sites. 

Those were the days when NASA always picked very, very safe rather than having to be even the tiniest bit sorry.  So even in that, it is déjà vu all over again and that is a good thing.

It was launch day and it will be again this Saturday perhaps when the new window opens at 2:35 p.m. with launch most likely set in the middle, at 2:40 p.m..  And this blog will be with you all the way.

L-0 and  SCRUBBED

The weather was clearing. Reds were turning to greens and that problem was going away but then something worse.

A sensor that could be critical to readings on the shuttle's main engine -- one of four -- was reading out wrong and while not critical on every launch in every circumstance, it just could be.  So "in the spirit of the kind of caution that has been shown" the launch director has decided to scrub this launch to assess this problem.

How long a delay?  Stay tuned.  A day?  Two days?  Many days?  NASA doesn't know and so we don't know.

So stay tuned.

It WAS launch day and this is what happens.

L-0  T-2 hours 59 minutes

They have resumed the count but the weather gods have weighed in and loudly.

Thunder just to the west of where we are and it is impressive.  And scary.

The good thing is the weather briefers said this could happen and then the sea breezes would push all this badness to the west.

The bad thing is we don't know if that is going to happen.

But the other good thing is there are still four hours to go.

Launch day can be no fun at all.

L-0  T-3 hours and holding

So it was going too well after all. The crew is being told chances of launch have been downgraded to 40 percent.

High pressure isn't building. Clouds to the west are building up and all that adds up to CODE RED for weather and that equals NO GO. 

Beyond that, NASA tells us all go well. Very well.

Count will pick up at 11:55 a.m. and the crew will load into Discovery and be buttoned up and we and NASA will watch the sky.

It is launch day and the phrase ‘been there, done that’ rings true.  We waited a month down here for John Glenn to go in 1963. A month.

L-0  T-3 hours and holding

Two hours of this hold gone now and not a hint of anything that sounds like something too worry about. So far. That in itself can make you worry.

Is this going too smoothly?

In an hour as the count picks up, we'll see the seven-member crew make its move to the launch pad to board and be buttoned up.

So for now we watch the clouds, which for the moment are puffy and scattered.

It is launch day and if you're a normal person down here your pulse rate is already running higher than normal.

L-0  T-3 hours and holding

An hour into the three-hour planned hold and time for idle launch site thoughts and questions.

* How many more times will someone look up at the cloud formations and ask, "what do YOU think?"

* Are those buzzards and hawks circling the press site trying to tell us something?

* How many of those birds are going to be genetically altered by all those feeds from all those uplink trucks feeding this story to the world?

* How many people will ignore the NASA warning NOT to turn on their car alarms?  Even in the press site parking lot 3.1 miles from the pad, noise and vibration from the rocket will set them off.

* Does it get to be ordinary and business as usual for the old pros?  No way.  Even for Rick Hauck, the NBC News consultant who flew three shuttles today is "all nerves." 

* And do the stars lie?  Not today. My horoscope says patience Is In short supply.

For sure, and that's what launch days have always been like.

L-0  T-3 hours and holding

And now we wait.  Three hours of planned hold has started and right on time. It's the pad NASA builds in to make sure it is all getting down and getting done. On Time.

They work.

We pace.

L-0  T-4 hours 44 minutes 51 seconds

Problem solved.  That's the word from the voice of mission control which is the world's link to how this thing is really going.  Lots of words like change out and purge line but the bottom line is "fixed and counting."  And that is a good thing.

It is launch morning and there will be lots of ups and downs.

L-0  T-5 hours 7 minutes 10 seconds
Launch morning and it is electric.  And the news is mixed to good.

They are counting but they have a small problem.  Fueling of the shuttle is delayed but not critically yet by a primary heater that is being balky.  Voice of Mission Control just said this "should not impact the launch" because of all the hold time  built in between now at launch time.  Operative words are "should not."  Be much more relaxed around here and in Mission Control if those words were "will not" but NASA never deals in absolutes.

Sunrise was a stunner, coming up out of the ocean and right over the launch pad.  If you are into Italian art, it was one of Titian's best efforts.

So they count and so we wait.  It's all in the hands of the technical gremlins and the weather gods.

It is launch morning and you can feel it in the pit of your stomach.

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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch minus one day

L-1  T-11 Hours and Holding (Until 11pm Eastern time)

Okay, want to follow this one like a pro?  Want to know the inside skinny so you can dazzle them at the office water cooler while you are watching ?  Want to talk the talk?  Here's your guide to tomorrow so you can be smarter than anyone else.  All of this happens Wednesday and all of is in Eastern Daylight time.

3:55 a.m. ET--  Countdown is stopped at T-6 hours for a planned two-hour catch up hold.

5:55 a.m. ET --  Countdown resumes at T-6 hours with fueling of the shuttle's main tank.  Liquid Oxygen and Liquid Hydrogen -- a half million  gallons of it-- starts being pumped in at 6:05am. 

8:55 a.m. ET --  Countdown is stopped at T-3 hours for a planned three-hour catch up hold.  This gives the launch pad crew time to recover if they are running behind in any areas.

11:55 a.m. ET -- Countdown resumes  at T-3 hours.  Watch at noon for the 7-member crew led by the commander Air Force Lt. Col. Eileen Collins to head for Discovery.

2:35 p.m. ET  -- Planned 10-minute hold at T-20 minutes.  In these 20 minutes final launch team briefings take place.

2:45 p.m. ET  -- Count resumes for 11 minutes.

2:56 p.m. ET  -- Enter planned hold of approximately 40 minutes.  During this period Mission Management and the Launch director conduct a final go/no go poll of all stations.  Those in charge of health of the booster, the spacecraft, the astronauts all systems and the weather get to cast a vote.  All it takes is one no go that cannot be cleared to delay or scrub the launch. 

3:36 p.m. ET  -- Resume the count  with the final automatic sequence of 17 key events ending at T-6.6 seconds when the shuttle main engine is started.

3:50:53 p.m. ET -- Liftoff

There you have it.  Easy, right and just like clockwork? Not really because the launch window closes at 3:56 precisely.  Launch later than that and rendezvous with the space station becomes impossible.  So there is no wiggle room and any stop after T-9 minutes means "come back tomorrow and try again.

So what tomorrow has in it for NASA and all of us who have been through this before is called "high pucker factor." If you don't know what that means, wait 'til the final phase of the countdown and, I guarantee, you WILL.

L-1   T-11 Hours and Holding

We are GO, but is it "go fever?"

Smooth and eloquent, new NASA administrator Michael Griffin briefed the press this afternoon following final Mission Management meetings and his initial message was short and to the point:  "We are go for launch pending weather.  We are driving no significant issues and are hoping the weather gods will be kind."

Then the press went after him.  How safe? How ready?  How completely answered are all of those questions from yesterday?  How sure are we this is really ready to go?

And Griffin, an engineer by background, took it all on without missing a step first dismissing the idea of "go fever" and a rush to beat the weather.

"We are asking all the questions and if we can't answer them we will stop."  In effect, he was saying, the process has left no room for "fever" but he is a realist and throughout the briefing there was the thread of a huge "but."

Listen to Griffin:

"Can there be something out there we don't know about that can bite us?  Sure there is because this is a very tough business." And he added, "it is a dangerous business and it always will be.  All we can do is make each flight less dangerous than the one before but remember after 113 shuttle missions this is still a test flight ... but if I didn't believe it was safe to fly, I would withhold launch approval."

But he does and so he didn't and Discovery is good to go tomorrow but not at 3:51 p.m. as announced.

Discovery will go instead at 3:50:53.  It is a business of seconds and each one counts.

L-1  T-11 hours and holding

Now the security gets even tighter.

New rules for tomorrow's launch day.  Mandatory stop and search for ALL.  Be prepared for it to be your worst airport security nightmare is what it sounds like.  It also sounds like we should plan on leaving even earlier than planned.

And the why of it?  NASA made that very clear in a surprisingly candid and apologetic note to the press:

ALL MEDIA MUST DO SECURITY CHECK: All media, whether they have been here for the previous three days or not, must go through the KARS 1 security check before coming out here on launch day. It is for many reasons I won't go into here. Last week's London event should make it obvious as well. This includes permanently badge media to KSC. Many are saying I've been a good boy/girl for the past three days carpooling so can't I come directly in. The answer is NO. You must do the KARS 1 security check or you won't get in. It won't take long, if they already have the carpool, they just drive the circle, get checked out and go, don't even have to get out of the car. But realize, security is going to be tight so just bear with it, don't fight it and it'll all go well. THANKS!

Welcome to Launch Week. It can be very difficult.

L-1  T- 11 Hours and Holding

Getting closer and the eagles are starting to gather including former astronaut Rick Hauck who is now an NBC News consultant.

Hauck flew three shuttles.  His first was aboard Challenger in '83; his second on Discovery in '84; and his third and last also in command of Discovery was NASA's first return to flight, October 3rd, 1988.

What was it like making that first flight post-Challenger?  Was there a any sense of having to "win one for the Gipper.?"

"For sure, but there were so many emotions.   And the nice thing ... the great thing was that everybody was pulling for you.  There were no nasty questions from the press and no pressure from the politicians.  You want to get them all right but that one even more so."

And what about this mission? Is the feeling the same?  "Even more so."

And it seems to be.  NASA released a statement from the Columbia families today, wishing the best for this crew and urging the space agency to even greater vigilance in order to prevent any future disasters.  It ended with the wish that is beginning to pop up on motel and restaurant sign boards and is, at some level on everyone's mind:  "Godspeed Discovery."

"No atheists in foxholes?"  Very few I would venture around here as well come about 3:51 p.m. tomorrow.

L-1   T-11 hours and holding

Very artful performance by the NASA briefing team at this morning's 10 a.m. ET Countdown Status Briefing.

On the one side you have us in the press pushing for the headline phrase and the story that screams “LEAD.”  Doesn't the weather for tomorrow make it look like a "close call?"  What about those open issues for yesterday, are they resolved and are any of them "show stoppers?"

The briefers did their dance and did it well.  They neither admitted nor denied and they never used the hot button phrases in their answers.  Rise to the bait?  Not these folks.

The weather answer: "We in our squadron (the Air Force 45th Weather Squadron) expect to be working very hard tomorrow and watching very closely.  There may be times when we have to go to red but as the day wears on we expect we can get back to being more green."  Clearly Kermit continues to be right -- it's not easy being green.

The "show stopper" question:  "We have no results back from the various meetings that are still going on so we won't have anything for you until we meet this afternoon as a program."  Sound like stay tuned and wait for the next briefing?  Indeed.

No real news but a lot of good clarification if you want or have to follow this closely.  Launch day weather should "be typical for July.  Clouds and possible rain and possible thunderstorm activity around noon but a sea breeze expected" which would push the bad stuff inland.  That push is key because that bad stuff has to be 30 miles away.  No closer.  They say that over and over.

And Discovery?  All the work is going forward and they will be ready for as many as three launch attempts in four days after which they will have to break for three days.  For this team as with the one that briefed at 5:30 p.m. yesterday, they are ready to "go fly."  Vehicle, team, range and astronauts are ready and now all eyes go back to the sky. 

Do I ever remember this.  The day before launch and it is all nerves, all the time while we look for a nuance in all the words we are getting from NASA.

L-1   T-11 hours and holding

Right on time and right on schedule the count stops. Twelve hours of hold now while we all stare at the sky and ask each other, "so what do you think?"

But there is good news. The big press site countdown clock has indeed come to life and now all the TV guys and gals looking for that "signature shot" have it back.

So they could land a man on the moon and they CAN fix a clock.

L-1   T-11 hours 58 minutes 28 seconds

Now the weather, and maybe it's not so encouraging after all.

Yesterday's 30 percent chance of no go weather has been bumped up to 40 percent.  That ridge of high pressure that was going to make for strong sea breezes and push the afternoon storms inland is not as strong as they had hoped.  That's important because thunderstorms within 30 miles of the launch pad -- and the runway here at KSC where the shuttle might abort to in case of troubled launch -- is a no-no and a no-go.

Add to that Emily, now a named tropical depression and starting out on a track looking a lot Dennis'.

So a pair of new worries this morning and it is beginning to feel a lot like all those days before launches I remember so well from the early days.

L-1  T-16 hours and counting

And now we get serious. 

Good looking dawn just broke and the local TV weather folks are saying "looking good."

They count Discovery down until 10 a.m. Eastern and then quit at T-11 hours for 11 hours while they do what NASA does -- make sure all those little ducks are in all their proper rows.

Ahead for the day are all the briefings when we found out if those "open items" have been, in NASA-speak, "closed out" and they really are ready to "go fly."  It is the day before THE day and I am remembering the feeling -- kind of electric nervousness that will become truly electric at this time tomorrow morning.

And a note about T-11 hours.  That's the point at which that huge countdown clock on the press site should finally come to life.  As my wife Beth, who has covered almost as many of these things as I have, said when I told her the story last night, "You'd think if they can put a man on the moon, the least they could do is make a clock work."

You'd think that.

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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch minus two days

L-2  T-22 Hours 39 minutes 30 seconds

"We are ready to go fly" or are we?

What a strange briefing NASA senior management just concluded. An hour late in starting, the first thing the press heard was an across-the-dais endorsement by everybody of this shuttle being ready to "go fly."

But then an answer to just why the meeting was an hour late in starting.  Seems the normal Flight Readiness Review lasted three-and-a-half hours as the total team duked it out in a "collegial-confrontational" way over a series of open issues about which there was some serious disagreement about just how ready to fly they might really be.  A lot of people are working late tonight out here to get the answers to some nagging questions.

In the end it came down this way for Wayne Hale, the deputy program manager.

"I think we are ready to go fly but we've got three or four things to close out and if we can't close 'em out that we should not go fly but I really do think we will close them out."

Perfect double speak so this day closes out with a stay tuned for more tomorrow.

But the weather? That is still looking good.

Welcome to Launch Week.  It can be confusing.

L-2   T-25 hours 06 minutes

Is THIS an omen. 

Hit the mark at 3:51 p.m. Eastern and the weather could not have been better if only this were the day.  Hardly any wind.  Hardly any clouds. Just about perfect in every way.  And precisely 48 hours too soon.

So the question is -- will we be standing around the press site at 3:51 p.m. on Wednesday  sounding the surfer's lament about the waves: "You should have been here Monday."

It reminds in a way of the John Glenn launch in 1963 when we waited for the launch of MA-6 and Glenn and Freedom 7 at the old Cape Canaveral launch site through a full month of virtually perfect launch site weather. Somewhere out THERE, there was a cloud over one of the emergency landing areas and while it was go here it was emphatically no go there. 

Great tans and great frustration and it can happen.  And it does. So be ready.

L-2  T-27 Hours and counting again

Right on time and right on schedule at 2 p.m. Eastern, the NASA clocks resumed their backward march to T-0.

Almost 3,000 media people are credentialed for this little event and unless they are technicians working their butts off today building platforms and running cable in all this  heat, there is precious little to do.   For the print folks and TV correspondents all they really can do is play the game of  “what do you hear …what do you think ...what do you know (that I don't know)?” When you come right down there really is no story here until something off the schedule or off the mark actually happens.

So we all watch the clock waiting to see if starts and stops on the schedule NASA has published and to look for any ever-so-slight differences from briefing to briefing out of which to concoct a story.  Next one of those is at 4:30 p.m. when we’ll all look for some refinement of the weather “story” which for the moment is the only story around.

Welcome to Launch Week.  It can be boring.

L-2 Noon

The 10 a.m. briefing.  “No constraints” is the key phrase coming out of the briefing as the countdown and launch preparations perk right along.  The weather what ifs were laid out and it all comes down to whether a high pressure ridge stays far enough north to minimized the potential of showers or thunderstorms within 30 miles of the launch site.

And what that looks like-only a 30 percent chance of weather causing a delay on Wednesday and 40 percent on Thursday, which are considered reasonable odds for this particular crapshoot.  If the ridge stays a little farther north the odds improve but if it slides a little bit more to the south, the odds get worse.

Welcome to Launch Week.

Then, there is this question:  Will her name be Emily? 

Much talk about that tropical depression out in the Atlantic, which can become a problem if they don’t get Discovery out of here Wednesday or Thursday.  Saturday is the next chance after that and Saturday is also when they may have to start worrying about how windy it might get here and whether they have take Discovery back to its “garage.”

And if that happens this rag-tag media collection of trailers and media vehicles might have to leave as well.

L-2 Mid-Morning

Missed yesterday in the blur of coming on site, the heavy security that is all new. 

First sign you see is Homeland Security status--ELEVATED. 

Then you meet the guys with the guns at the gate.  It’s the KSC police force looking for all the world like a SWAT team minus body armor.  Huge sidearms and a couple of rapid fire long guns very much in evidence.  ID badges which were checked to get on the bus are checked again along with “your photo ID, please.”  There is an “or else” in the tone of voice to go along with the smile. 

Once past a sandbagged guardhouse you are in, but it is one more crystal clear reminder that the world, all of it, isn’t what it once was post 9/11.  Even here.

L-2 Morning

Bright and early and they are continuing the count and the preliminary work out on launch pad 39 with the first planned hold scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Eastern time.

Perfect Florida morning if you discount the heat and the humidity -- 80 degrees already at 6:45am and I do not want to know how wet the air is.  High wispy clouds and lots of blue.  All auger well for Wednesday as Dennis clears out.  Weather called “favorable” with only the normal July Florida bugaboo as a concern -- “chance of late afternoon thunderstorms.”

And it is that “chance of...” that will make this a gut render to the end because the launch “window” for Discovery is a slim five minutes.   Narrow, because NASA wants the shuttle to link up with the International Space Station in full sunlight so it can be photographed completely to check for tile loss and possible problems.

Welcome to launch week.

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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch minus 3 days

L-3 Evening

L-3 but on the NASA clock it is now officially L - 1 day 18 hours 59 minutes 47 seconds and counting.  {Note:  The time is less than the amount of time until the scheduled liftoff, because of a series of built-in pauses that halt the countdown}

But is this an omen?

Minor media scrum in the area of the big press site countdown clock waiting for 6 p.m. to see it start the long run down to Wednesday’s T-0 but the press and the rest of us saw nothing.  A problem -- still unexplained -- getting the clock set and started as high as needed that mysteriously was supposed to be fixed but wasn't.  So the count is on but invisible to everybody on the press site.

Still overcast, here, but the clouds are much thinner and higher now and the sun is starting to peek through encouraging patches of blue as Dennis heads farther north.

The words from NASA about Wednesday as this day closes out are still “looking good.”

L-3 Morning

Gray and windy under the far eastern edge of Dennis’ cloud shield.  Spitting a little rain and it is humid.  But the good news is that as Dennis moves north it will leave behind what the pros here are calling great Wednesday and Thursday launch weather. 

Now to here.  If Houston has changed and Cocoa Beach has changed, there is one constant and it the press site at Kennedy Space Center. Not much different at all in since I was last here 17 years ago getting ready for the last “return to space” following the Challenger disaster.

A tatty collection of trailers looking more like a lost circus than a major media hub.  Anchor booths. Anchor platforms, cameras and port-a-johns.  Off to the left the monster 50-story Vehicle Assembly Building that is so close and so big it defies understanding; and 3.1 miles straight away wrapped in its launch tower-Discovery, waiting for Wednesday.

In the immediate foreground the huge and mesmerizing clock.  It’s telling time of day now-- 12:07:07 -- but at 6 p.m. it will become a media event as it is switched to countdown. T-43 hours and counting.  43 hours of count and 27 or so hours of planned hold which will take us to 3:51 p.m. Wednesday and the little launch window they are going to try and shoot this crew through in order to make rendezvous with the International Space Station.

It is getting serious now and you feel it in your stomach.

Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch minus 4 days

L-4 Evening

There is one survivor, though, and it is Bernard’s Surf, the steak house that was top of the line dining through Mercury and Gemini and beyond and still is.  Site for lots of meals and lots of expense account lies and lots of laughs.  And that’s where three old dragons of the space program and space coverage joined by Chris Jansing got together for an evening of “do you remember when?”

Sitting at the corner table that was “Walter’s,” there we were.  Jay Barbree who has covered space since 1958 for NBC; Jack King who started in ’58 for the Associated Press and then went on to NASA as PIO (Public Information Officer) from the beginning of Project Mercury and ultimately voice of mission control during Apollo; me, the relative newbie who had only covered space from Alan Shepard’s 1961 sub-orbital flight; and Chris the true newbie for whom this would be the first launch.

Great meal. Great conversation. Great memories.  Scariest moments for King and Barbree?  Those first launches, the first time “we put a guy on top of a candle to see what would happen.”  The moment King would like to forget most as PIO?  The Apollo 203 fire that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  “I heard things I will never forget,” King said, “never.”

It was beauty and the beasts at dinner and it was good.  Outside The Surf, rain and wind from Hurricane Dennis but the outlook is for good launch weather sucked in the wake of the storm.

And tomorrow, they start the clock.  This is getting real.

L-4 Afternoon

If arriving back at Johnson Space Center a couple of days ago was jarring as hell after too many years of time lapse, arriving back in Cocoa Beach today was just stunning.  The years just haven’t been at all kind to this little stretch of A1A. 

Everything that was rough around the edges back in the day and helped add up to the Right Stuff Space Frontier feel of those early days has been swept away.  The old Starlight Motel where the astronauts hung out along with Walter Cronkite and Arthur Godfrey as we all waited for John Glenn to go up is gone. So is just about everything else that made Cocoa Beach Cocoa Beach.  Where are all those motel signs that once said “God Speed John Glenn” and meant it?

It’s become strip mall city—miles and miles of it—and the only constant seems to be the pelicans still flying sentry and in small ungainly formations along the beach.  At least they’re still aloft here.

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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch minus 5 days

L-5

And now it is really five days to launch.  Weather gods smiled on the Kennedy Space Center and the hurricane goes west.  Good for the launch but bad for the Gulf Coast.

Reviewing notes and there's a little more from that astronaut group. Would they fly on this shuttle?  Unanimous vote was yes.  "No shuttle mission will ever be as safe as this one" is the view of Walt Cunningham whose Apollo 7 mission was in part a "return to space."  It was the first flight after the launch pad disaster that took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in 1967.  "Things happen," Cunningham said, "and then you move on."

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Gralnick’s Shuttle Diary:  Launch minus 6 days

L-6  [Six Days to Launch/Hurricane Dennis Willing]

Houston flashbacks.

Back at Johnson Space Center for the first time in forever. It used to be the one bright light in a sea of south Texas darkness between Houston and Galveston and now is just one more bright light lost in a sea of the signs that mark the expansion that has happened here since the space program came to Clear Lake outside Houston. 

Sushi?  Unthinkable then is right there on offer next to the Tacos and up NASA Rt. 1 from the pizza and the Brau Haus.

The 21st century has certainly come to this part of Texas and the right stuff has to include heartburn and the fitness centers and fitness gear-for-sale centers that have sprung up like so much swamp weed have clearly found the right place.

But socio-geography and cultural change over time was not the purpose of the trip.  It was to watch a pre-shuttle roundtable of old guys discussing the old days and the right stuff and the future and to be available if the memories of another old guy might come in handy. 

It was in old Mission Control in Building 30-MOCR 2 it was designated -- that much of current America remembers from “Apollo 13” on HBO when “failure is not an option,” became part of our daily language but us old timers remember from so much more. There, Chris Jansing sat down with a wonderful collection of the old, semi-old and newbie astronauts to talk about what it was like way back THEN.

In the group two old Apollo buddies, Walt Cunningham and Don Peterson; two who flew Skylab missions and then moved on to the shuttle program, Jack Loisma and Owen Garriott; a newbie, Mike Fincke who had ridden a Russian rocket and spacecraft to the International Space Station; and a recently retired newbie, Mae Jemison, the first African-American shuttle astronaut who flew an early shuttle mission and then retired to take this technology and use it to make the third world a better place. 

Led by Chris the interview captured the wonder of the past and the group’s collective burning desire to see the country get it right an go on further into space “for our children and for the future of us all” although it would take lots of money.  Fincke put it best: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”  But this is not the place to report on the entire interview.  See it in prime time on MSNBC when it airs and with luck the transcript will be posted and linked to here in not too very long.

That was Houston then and today.  But there was one constant and it was July weather in this part of the world.  101 and humid.  You have to love it. 

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Generation Next: The New Billy Graham 
(Dionne Slaughter, Associate Producer)

I remember working at a Billy Graham Crusade as a volunteer counselor about 15 years ago.  Aside from counseling a few people after they had just accepted Christ into their lives, and the mass amount of people, I don't remember much.  I was glad to be there and glad to potentially help impact someone's life.  But at the same time, let's be real.  At 13, all I really wanted to do was talk on the phone with my girl friends, listen to music and watch TV. 

As a young teen, it just wasn't my speed.  The Crusade consisted of choirs, hymns, preaching, prayer and bibles. Your basic recipe for a church service. I've always loved going to church from the time I was little.  I've always loved God for who He is, and for the miracles I've seen him work right before my eyes, including in my own family.  I've always respected the church and it's purpose, but if I may speak for me and a lot of my peers -- hymns, and traditional sermons don't always cut it.
 
Reverend Graham made his way back to New York for what he called potentially his last crusade and I jumped at the chance to work again, but this time from a different perspective.  With Graham possibly stepping down as the world's greatest and most influential evangelist, who would take over?  Who's going to be the next Billy Graham?

Graham has an idea.  It's not just one person it's many young people.

Several weeks ago "USA Today" featured an article in which they had a sit down interview with Reverend Graham at his log cabin home in Montreat, N.C.   They talked about the future and what's to come.  "Indeed, his life is lit by joy when he looks to the future. Graham sees that future carried by young people 'trying to make a better world and serve the Lord.'"

I found that interesting considering there are less than 3 percent of this current population under the age of 21 willing to go into any type of ministry or mission field compared to the 21 percent committed to Christ on that level in Billy Graham's generation (passageway.org).

I finally made it down to the crusade on the second night. They called it "Youth Night: A Concert of Hope". The recipe was a bit different from my last experience: Prayer, preaching, Bibles, colored hair, do-rags, acoustic guitars, rap, and dancers. I've been to many concerts like this.  I have friends who are Christian rock and rap musicians, in fact my brother is a gospel rap artist (www.slaughtermusic.com), so the scene didn't shock me at all. It was the idea that an 86 year old evangelist was behind it that threw me for a loop.  I've been a witness to many pastors, half grahams age, who refuse to allow hard bass lines and screaming guitars across their thresholds. They declare it's the devils music.

But Billy Graham sees it a bit differently.  He began appealing to the youth in his crusades 10 years ago.  He acknowledged in his 1997 autobiography, "Admittedly, it wasn't really my kind of music, nor was it what we have ordinarily featured in our meetings during most of our ministry. But times change.  As long as the essential message of the Gospel is not obscured or compromised, we must use every legitimate method we can."

Amen to that, and consider it done.

South African rock group Tree63 sang:
"Every blessing you pour out,
I turn back to praise.
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say...
Blessed be the name of the Lord"

That was the overall flavor of the lyrics that rang out that night.  The concert was sick (sick = good). The roster included Nicole C. Mullen, Jars of Clay, Mercy Me, and Tree63 (who, by the way, have been compared to U2, Train, and Coldplay).  The scene didn't look much different than what you'd see at any other rock, R&B or rap concert.  There were lights, live music, dancers and 90,000 screaming fans (most under the age of 21).  But clearly unlike a lot of secular music-- the lyrics are every bit focused on bringing peace, empowerment and hope to people, and Glory to Heaven's throne.

If graham's mission is to crack the code that will draw young people to hear the gospel, I think he's on to something and the collective church should take heed. 

Bart Millard from rock group "Mercy Me" (www.mercyme.org) said it best at a press conference before they hit the stage at the New York Crusade.  "The church has spent generations using the same methods, the same techniques, the same traditions to reach people...there are many churches breaking the mold...and other churches will try to knock them down saying it's unorthodox" but instead, churches should consider "meeting students where they are...and say look, you don't clean up before you get in the shower, we don't want to change you before you come to Christ.  We just want you to meet Christ and the rest will fall in place where you are."

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