KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — A balky valve and a chilly engine fuel line forced space agency officials to scrub the scheduled launch of the shuttle Columbia on Monday, again marring the performance of the fleet's flagship and delaying the first out-of-this-world trip by a member of the House.
The flight, carrying Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) as a passenger, was rescheduled for this morning. It was the second time in three weeks that last-second mechanical problems had postponed the start of the five-day mission, during which crew members are scheduled to inspect Halley's comet for the first time from space after boosting a $50-million communications satellite into orbit for RCA.
Only 31 seconds showed on the countdown clock when problems with the craft first triggered a 90-minute "hold." Space agency officials said computer problems late in the countdown had slowed the closing of a fuel valve on the orbiter, which in turn led to overchilling in the line--and increased the possibility that the liquid oxygen inside could freeze up.
24th in Shuttle Series
After the hold, officials then decided to delay the mission, the 24th in the shuttle series.
"We're sorry it happened to us again," launch director Gene Thomas apologized to the anxious seven-man crew after they had been strapped into their seats in the cockpit of the gleaming, 100-ton spaceship for four hours. "We tried."
Shuttle commander Robert L. Gibson took the disappointment in stride. "We understand perfectly and we'll look forward to doing it with you again in the morning," Gibson said from the cockpit radio before emerging from the craft.
Jim Ball, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said workers appeared to have patched up the glitches Monday, but not in time to satisfy edgy RCA technicians who feared that a launch later in the day might threaten proper deployment of their communications satellite. RCA, which paid NASA $14.2 million to carry the satellite, is the major commercial underwriter of the mission.
"It appeared the technical problems were surmountable, and what ultimately cost us a launch today was the customer's desire not to launch after 8:47 (a.m.)," Ball said. "They're a paying customer, and we want them to have a good satellite."
Columbia, the first of NASA's four reusable orbiters, has been out of service for more than two years while engineers refitted it with new equipment at the shuttle factory in Palmdale, Calif. Its return to service originally was set for Dec. 19, but a faulty engine sensor forced a similar postponement only seconds before takeoff.
Although Nelson will be the first member of the House in space, he will not be the first lawmaker in space. Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah), who like Nelson is chairman of a subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, flew on a shuttle mission last April.
The mission also will mark the first venture into space by a Latino-American. Included in the crew is 35-year-old Franklin R. Chang-Diaz, a physicist born in Costa Rica but now a naturalized American citizen.