KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — With a wary eye on the weather, launch crews were working through the night Wednesday to prepare the space shuttle Columbia for its first orbital flight since 1983, when it was taken to Palmdale, Calif., for a major overhaul.
A fast-moving cold front--bringing snow as far south as Alabama--was expected to sweep across central Florida early today, but officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration were going ahead with plans to launch the shuttle and its seven-man crew at 4 a.m. PST.
"We're going to press on right to the end and hope for the best," said Robert Sieckl, director of shuttle operations at Kennedy Space Center, who Wednesday afternoon reported launching preparations to be progressing without a hitch.
To Launch Satellite
The five-day flight, which will include the launching of a high-powered satellite for direct-to-home television broadcasts, was to have begun Wednesday but was delayed 24 hours when launching crews fell behind schedule.
Officials were eager to get the mission under way today so landing could occur Christmas Eve. That would keep hundreds of NASA and industry employees on schedule for a vacation break from Christmas through New Year's Day. Jesse Moore, the space agency's associate administrator for manned space flight, said that, if the liftoff is postponed until Friday, the mission may be extended to six days to avoid a Christmas landing.
Nine-and-a-half hours after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, the astronauts are scheduled to launch a $50-million RCA satellite from the spaceship's cargo bay. It is the second of three Satcom satellites that officials of RCA American Communications say will open a new era of television transmission because their signal can be clearly received by a three-foot-diameter home television antenna. The first of the series was launched last month.
As launching-pad crews prepared for the last hours of the countdown Wednesday, mission commander Robert L. Gibson and shuttle pilot Charles F. Bolden made practice landings in a NASA aircraft modified to perform like the shuttle approaching touchdown.
Along with them was Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who will serve as a payload specialist on the shuttle crew. Nelson, whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center, is the second member of Congress to ride on a shuttle. Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) flew earlier this year.
Other members of Columbia's crew are mission specialists George D. Nelson, Steven A. Hawley and Franklin R. Chang-Diaz and payload specialist Robert J. Cenker, an employee of RCA.
Columbia, one of four shuttles in the NASA fleet, introduced the era of shuttle flight in April, 1981, serving as a research and development vehicle for the others then being built.
300 Major Changes
After six flights, it was returned to the Rockwell plant at Palmdale, where engineers made about 300 major changes, including significant strengthening of its wings and fuselage.
Although RCA is the only paying customer aboard the revamped Columbia's first flight, NASA officials portrayed the cargo of scientific experiments as one of the most diverse launched by the United States.
The astronauts will maneuver the spacecraft into position to study Halley's comet as it streaks toward its closest approach to the sun, hoping to gather new information on its composition, and preparing for another shuttle crew's observations of the comet during its most active phase in late January.
Dog Ticks Get a Ride
Stored in a dozen canisters in the payload bay is a wide range of experimental subjects, including dog ticks, gypsy moth eggs, brine shrimp and sections of oil-painted canvas, all monitored by instruments so scientists can observe the effects of space environment. Another experiment involves containers of human blood plasma, which will be used to study the feasibility of storing blood supplies aboard space stations of the future.
The shuttle itself has been equipped to gather new data its environment as it descends from its orbital altitude of 200 miles to about 60 miles, to provide insight into the problems of hypersonic flight.
The flying Florida congressman, who is a member of the House committee that oversees NASA's budget, will assist in conducting the blood-storage experiment and serve as a guinea pig in continuing studies of space sickness. He will also conduct an experiment on protein-crystal growth for scientists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who believe their work holds significant potential in cancer research.