NASA Calls Off Discovery Shuttle Launch
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A fuel gauge that mistakenly read empty instead of full forced NASA to call off Wednesday’s launch of Discovery on the first shuttle flight since the Columbia disaster 2 1/2 years ago. The space agency’s chief said the mission is off until at least Monday.
The decision to scrub the launch came with less than 2 1/2 hours to go, while the seven astronauts were boarding the spacecraft for their journey to the international space station. Up until then, a thunderstorm over the launch site appeared to be the only potential obstacle to liftoff.
The problem involved one of the external fuel tank’s four hydrogen fuel sensors, which are responsible for making sure the spacecraft’s main engines shut down at the right moment during the ascent. A launch could end in tragedy if faulty sensors caused the engines to cut out too early or too late.
A similar problem cropped up during a launch pad test back in April, and NASA has been baffled as to the source of the trouble ever since.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said another launch attempt will not be possible before Monday. He said it was unclear whether the shuttle could be fixed at the launch pad or would have to be rolled back to the hangar, which would mean a much longer delay.
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“It’s not a setback at all. We’re fine if we go anytime in the launch window,” Griffin said. “We had one mission for the Defense Department that scrubbed 14 times. This is nothing!”
The space agency has until the end of July to launch Discovery, after which it will have to wait until September – a window dictated by both the position of the space station and NASA’s desire to hold a daylight liftoff in order to photograph the shuttle during its climb to orbit.
NASA said it appeared that the sensor was showing a low fuel level, even though the tank was full with 535,000 gallons of super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen.
The sensors “for some reason did not behave today,” launch director Mike Leinbach told his team. “So appreciate all we’ve been through together, but this one is not going to result in a launch attempt today.”
The sensor problem seen back in April came up repeatedly at meetings of top-level NASA managers this week, and the space agency said it believed it had worked around the problem by replacing cables and other electronics aboard the shuttle. As recently as Monday, NASA deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale described the sensor problem as simply an “unexplained anomaly.”
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, said after being briefed by NASA officials Wednesday: “I’m confident they will solve the problem and there will be successful launch, probably next week.”
“There are thousands and thousands of parts and many things can go wrong. Let me stress, the success was in identifying the problem,” the congressman said in the space agency’s defense. “I think NASA’s taking every problem that develops very seriously.”
NASA officials speculated that the problem could be either with the sensor itself, the cables, or the electronics aboard Discovery.
A scrubbed launch costs NASA $616,000 in fuel and labor.
During a fueling test of Discovery’s original tank in April, one of its sensors gave intermittent readings. NASA could not figure out the exact reason for the failure but replaced the entire tank anyway to install a heater to prevent a dangerous ice buildup.
Shuttle managers considered conducting a fueling test at the launch pad on the replacement tank, but ruled it out to save time, saying that the actual fueling on launch day would be the ultimate test.