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Eyes to the sky, awaiting re-entry

To get the best view of Discovery returning to Earth, your best bet is to watch on TV. Even those near the landing site are unlikely to see anything.

Published August 7, 2005

[Stephen J. Coddington]
The space shuttle Discovery roars off launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on June 26, 2005.
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As the space shuttle Discovery streaks unseen across Florida in the predawn darkness Monday, Andrew Walters will be listening for the distinct double thump of the shuttle's sonic boom.

It will tell him that astronaut Steve Robinson's delicate spacewalk along the underside of the shuttle was worth the intense effort.

And that Discovery carried its crew of seven safely through the Earth's atmosphere in the first shuttle re-entry since Columbia disintegrated over Texas in February 2003.

"That sonic boom is a good sound," said Walters, 34, a Brevard County sheriff's sergeant who grew up on Florida's Space Coast. "When it goes, it's going to rock. You'll feel it."

Discovery's planned Kennedy Space Center touchdown at around 4:30 a.m. Monday is one of the most anticipated re-entries in the 44-year history of human spaceflight.

More than 400,000 people turned up at Edwards Air Force Base in California to cheer Discovery's October 1988 landing - the first shuttle flight after Challenger exploded during liftoff in 1986, killing all seven aboard.

Apollo 13, the nation's first public re-entry crisis, kept viewers glued to network news (on all three channels) for days.

NASA plans little fanfare for Discovery's return. Only a handful of VIPs and reporters will be allowed at the landing zone. But Discovery is flying in the age of 24-hour news channels and the Internet. The world will be watching.

"Everyone knows what happened to Columbia," said Roger Launius, chairman of the Space History Division of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. "It's only when you have a crisis or even a near-crisis that people start to think of space flight as anything but routine. The public is going to be paying very close attention when Discovery comes home."

Alex Levine, a University of South Florida philosophy professor, said it's worth a few hours' lost sleep to watch a crucial moment in space exploration unfold in real time.

"I'll be watching the NASA channel," said Levine, a volunteer with NASA's Solar System Ambassador Program. "I would not be surprised if this were the last shuttle mission. The safety margins are so constrictive and the equipment is so flawed. Then again, they flew this time."

"Like a comet'

NASA's first focus is getting Discovery home within its three-day landing window. After three days, the orbiter's power supply falls to critical levels.

The orbiter was cleared for landing on Thursday. Mission managers will decide about 3 a.m. Monday whether to go for the first landing opportunity, which would put Discovery on the ground in Florida at 4:46 a.m. The National Weather Service forecast calls for clear weather at landing time. There is another chance to land at Kennedy Space Center at 6:21 a.m. After that, the landing site moves to Edwards Air Force Base in California. There are eight more landing opportunities over the next two days.

The orbiter's re-entry path brings it in over Central America and Cuba, instead of the familiar track across the United States. Skywatchers in Central America and Cuba may see the bright streak of superheated gas that builds around the shuttle as it plunges through Earth's atmosphere.

"It's like a comet streaking across the sky," NASA spokesman Steve Nesbitt said, adding with a chuckle, "We'll probably scare the hell out of some people in Cuba."

By the time it hurtles over Fort Myers and Lake Okeechobee, Discovery will be a dark shape moving against a dark sky, almost impossible to see. Residents along the flight path will hear the shuttle's back-to-back booms as the nose and tail move through the air at two to three times the speed of sound.

Nesbitt said it is unlikely Tampa Bay area residents will hear the booms.

Brevard County officials are not expecting big crowds, such as the estimated 150,000 who came to see Discovery's daylight launch. The night landing will be the 19th in the shuttle program's 24-year history. Nesbitt said landing crews often don't see the darkened shuttle until it flies into the runway spotlights.

Spectators gathering at popular NASA-watching haunts on Cocoa Beach and the Banana River will likely be disappointed by the view.

"You won't see anything," Nesbitt said. "You'd just be out there in the dark. It's just really hard to see. You're much better off watching on television."

Virtual masses

NASA is expecting huge crowds on the Internet. The Discovery launch shattered earlier agency Web traffic records set by the loss of Columbia, the January 2004 landings of two robotic rovers on Mars and a July Fourth comet impact mission.

The agency estimates its Web site was sending out 50 gigabytes of information per second during the Discovery launch. The site broadcast 433,000 simultaneous Webcast streams of NASA-TV video. Bob Jacobs, NASA's director of news and multimedia, was unable to translate those numbers into actual people.

"It is by far an agency record and could very well be the largest live event in the history of the Internet," Jacobs said.

In Florida, NASA is a local story.

"We're going to carry it live," Bay News 9 news director Mike Gautreau said of Monday's planned shuttle landing. "We're also going to have a crew out live in the bay area just listening for the sonic boom."

WTSP-Ch. 10 also is planning live coverage starting at 4 a.m.

NASA will track Discovery with a variety of cameras, including some with infrared sensors that show heat buildup on the shuttle. NASA-TV will begin coverage about 2 a.m.

Uncertain fury

Once Discovery is safely on the ground, it will stay there. NASA grounded the fleet after images revealed that engineers failed to stop debris from breaking off Discovery's external fuel tank shortly after launch. A piece of foam from Columbia's external tank damaged its left wing in 2003, allowing superhot gases and intense pressure to rip the orbiter apart.

The fuel tank problem could end the shuttle fleet's career.

"It raises questions about how well we did on returning to flight," Launius said. "Those questions will be debated ad nauseam. They already are."

Much of that debate centers on whether to keep tweaking the shuttle fleet until its scheduled retirement in 2010 or just starting over with a a whole new spacecraft.

"I think right now we are at a crossroads in human space flight, very much like what we experienced in the 1970s at the end of the Apollo program," Launius said. "Decisions were made that set us on course for the shuttle effort and directed the path of exploration for 30 years. What we do next is going to set the stage for what we do in human space flight - probably for the next 25 years."

Michael Freeman, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama, said he thinks the shuttle will fly again. But he also thinks it's time to get moving on a new generation of space vehicles.

"We've been spinning around in low Earth orbit for 30-plus years now and it's past time we get on with space exploration," Freeman said.

On Monday, he will eagerly roll out of bed to watch Discovery's landing.

"Jim was my student," he said of Discovery pilot Jim Kelly. "I have to watch."

Launius, too, has friends on Discovery.

"I'll be glued to the television just like everybody else," he said. "We shouldn't take this stuff as routine and normal. It is risky. But I have every confidence these guys are going to come home safely. They are going to bring her home."


THE LANDING: NASA-TV at begins its coverage at 2 a.m. Monday. Television coverage is expected to begin at 4 a.m. Monday.

THE LAUNCH: Watch time-lapse view of Discovery's July 28 launch at

[Last modified August 7, 2005, 04:59:00]

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