The countdown continues in Florida this morning as NASA prepares to send space shuttle Discovery into space, the first shuttle launch since the Columbia tragedy more than two years ago. As an entire nation anticipates the return to flight, the community around the Johnson Space Center is quietly confident.
As kids and families take in the attractions at Space Center Houston, next door to the Johnson Space Center, Jim Askew from Nashville, Tennessee is in a confident mood with just hours until Discovery lifts off. “I think that the proper people have done the proper research and are prepared to take care of everything,” says Askew. “I don’t think that they would take a chance on sending people back into space unless they were ready to do it, so I’m very proud that we’re going ahead with it.”
A few hundred yards away at JSC, real computers and launch controls are humming, counting down the minutes until STS-114 begins, as NASA describes it, “a mission like no other.”
NASA’s Eileen Hawley says the Discovery mission is a pivotal one for the space agency, which has had to brave tragedy, criticism and second guessing since the Columbia mishap two years ago. “Flying this flight and getting it back to earth safety is very important to the agency,” says Hawley. “It’s the first step in the vision for space exploration. It’s going to let us go back up in full strength and continue working on the International Space Station, providing it with supplies and equipment and continuing its assembly, so it’s a very, very important milestone for us.”
The Discovery mission is officially decribed as a test flight that will serve as a foundation for the missions that follow. Astronauts will test new in-flight inspection techniques and try-out a new external fuel tank designed to minimize damage that brought down Columbia. Directly across the street from the front gates of Johnson Space Center, Nassau Bay City Manager John Kennedy says NASA is ready to fly again. “I sense a quiet confidence and professionalism that everything has been done that can possibly be done to ensure the safety of the crew and a successful mission,” says Kennedy.
Down the street at The Space Store, a picture of the Discovery crew greats customers who stop by to pick-up t-shirts and patches. General Manager Eva Decardenas says there’s some nervousness as the launch time gets closer. “I think that’s always going to be there,” says Decardenas. “I don’t think we’ll ever take it for granted again. There’s a little bit of that, but with that comes some excitement also in knowing that the astronauts, they want to be doing what they’re doing and they believe in what they’re doing and I think that makes everybody who supports the program excited for them.”
The 12-day mission is expected to include three spacewalks and a transfer of fresh supplies to the International Space Station, which hasn’t been visited by a shuttle in more than 2 1/2 years.