Cover Story

Bringing her home

With the Columbia disaster in the back of their minds, thousands of specialists worked round the clock and round the world to bring Discovery home

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

As a boy growing up in Burlington, Iowa, Jim Kelly dreamed of becoming an astronaut. At night, he would often crack open his bedroom window and listen to the roar of jets flying low just beyond the cornfields.

Mr. Kelly does not plan to open a window, but he does plan to listen Aug. 8 for the roar of space shuttle Discovery's twin engines as they hit a powerful de-orbit burn, untethering the ship from orbit speed and sending pilot Kelly and six fellow astronauts hurtling home.

Given the disastrous ending of the previous landing attempt when the shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas in January 2003, killing all aboard, this homecoming was viewed as far from routine. Its success can restore the nation's faith in NASA, an agency hobbled by budget woes and whispers of obsolescence. Its failure, as Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz famously said, is not an option.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

But bringing Discovery home safely is a feat involving much more than NASA, said former shuttle pilot Jeff Ashby, who serves at the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs as a liaison between the Defense Department and the space agency: "It's a huge team effort."

The landing operation alone requires the technical savvy of thousands of military personnel, civilian contractors, and civil servants manning stations around the globe, and the skill and courage of astronauts Jim Kelly, Steve Robinson, Andy Thomas, Wendy Lawrence, Charlie Camarda, Eileen Collins, and Soichi Noguchi-the seven souls who dared to try again. Here's an inside look at how those final moments must fly:

Onboard Discovery:

"You are GO for the de-orbit burn."

That is the command from Mission Control, at Johnson Space Center, Houston, that Discovery's crew wants to hear. The two- to three-minute burn will at first propel Discovery through space tail-first. Then, as the craft streaks toward Earth at 17,000 miles per hour, Mr. Kelly will turn the craft head-first and belly-up, aiming Discovery's heat-deflecting underside toward the inferno of reentry.

The health of the ship's belly is critical: In an unprecedented maneuver on Aug. 3, Mr. Robinson spacewalked underneath Discovery and, using only his gloved hands, plucked two pieces of loose fabric from between its thermal tiles. He put them in a trash bag he'd brought along. NASA thought the ceramic-fiber "gap-fillers" could cause potentially disastrous overheating, or tear loose and become dangerous debris.

Inside Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs, Colo.:

Behind a pair of 25-ton steel blast doors deep inside Cheyenne Mountain, the Air Force's 1st Space Control Squadron wants to keep Discovery clear of the swirling mix of space debris and live satellites that now orbit Earth.

During shuttle missions, the squadron uses a global network of 21 radar and telescope arrays called the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) to track more than 13,400 manmade objects-from defunct satellites and random hunks of metal to bus-sized spent rocket bodies and four-inch bolts. Around the clock, the 1st Space Control Squadron relays "conjunction data"-that's space-talk for "information about things that might hit each other"-to Mission Control in Houston. It's up to Houston, said Space Protection Officer Dave Ward, whether to tell the shuttle to take evasive action.

In January, high over Antartica, a southbound fragment of a Chinese rocket that exploded five years ago collided with the engine from a Thor rocket launched in 1974. Manned-flight collisions with objects of significant size are extremely rare. But in 1999, the shuttle Discovery returned to Earth with evidence that small manmade objects had hit it at least 10 times.

Debris has been of special concern since the 2003 disaster. On launch, Discovery shed a small piece of thermal tile, as well as a large piece of foam from its external tank (ET), the same type of material blamed for the loss of Columbia. About 20 seconds later, a smaller piece of foam separated from Discovery's ET. It apparently struck the orbiter's right wing, though NASA does not believe the impact caused damage.

During the Columbia mission, sparse SSN track-data provided the 1st Space Control Squadron with early, sketchy signs that the shuttle had shed debris. It turned out to be a piece of the leading edge of Columbia's left wing, damage that investigators later determined was a major factor in the crash. But during the flight, "we couldn't confirm it was an actual piece," Mr. Ward said. "Unfortunately, after the mission we were able to go in and find additional data from our [SSN] sensors never reported to us." Now, a software upgrade forces all SSN track-data back to Cheyenne Mountain, ensuring that 1st Space Control can help NASA clear Discovery's way home.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…