Shuttle launch delayed until Monday

By Phil Plait | November 5, 2010 10:31 am

[UPDATE: And no sooner do I write this than I find out the launch has been postponed until November 30. This decision was made due to the gas leak, but while they were draining the fuel out of the orange external tank, they found a crack in the insulating foam around the tank. This is very serious -- as you may recall, it was a piece of foam coming off the tank that doomed Columbia. This means the crack has to be evaluated, and the entire tank re-examined for any more problems. As it happens, the crack is on the side of the tank with the Orbiter on it, so a piece of foam coming off is very dangerous. Ironically the hydrogen leak (described below) may have saved the mission. So the launch is delayed by several weeks, and I'll post again when I have more information.]

sunset_shuttleThe launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery has been delayed once again, to no earlier than 17:53 UT (12:53 Eastern US time; on Sunday clocks in the US turn back an hour) on Monday, November 8.

It was due to launch today (after weather delays) but a hydrogen gas leak was detected, and NASA takes those very seriously: hydrogen has an unfortunate tendency to explode. It takes time to find the leak and close it up, so the launch has to be pushed back a few days. There is little real danger to the Shuttle by a leak like this as long as it sits on the pad, but launching is another matter, so there it will sit for a while.

This is Discovery’s last scheduled flight. It’s bringing supplies and such to the Space Station.

By the way, the image above of the Shuttle flying into the sunset is from NASA. It shows the Orbiter Endeavour from February 2010, and was taken from the ISS. Click that for much larger versions; they’re quite lovely.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA

Comments (34)

  1. It makes me laugh that the shuttle fleet is being retired because it is exceeding it’s design lifetime (i.e. obsolete), yet ISS is going to have to depend on even older technology from Roscosmos in order to remain operational…

    I bet Anatoly Perminov still wakes up laughing…

  2. 24601

    They’re now saying no earlier than November 30. I’d hate to be the crew going through all these delays, I doubt I’d get any sleep at all due to the anticipation.

  3. Stanley

    That’s government service for you!

    Garbage quality at super high prices!

  4. NAW

    Hey, I would personally rather see a delay than have another “issue” with a launch. But think of what can be done when they don’t have to spend the (self censor)-load of cash on a shuttle launch. Both the money and personal will hopefully be going to other areas of research to bring in the next US space launcher.

    I mainly feel sorry for the people who have been sitting around all week for the launch just to be told it “may” be at the end of the month. And of course the robot who is sitting all strapped down in a box wondering why he is not in space yet.

  5. Regarding the loss of Columbia:

    “Today was a very stark reminder that this is a very risky endeavor, pushing back the frontiers in outer space. And after 113 flights, unfortunately, people have a tendency to look at it as something that is more or less routine. Well I can assure you it is not.”

    - Capt. Bill Readdy, former astronaut (STS-42, STS-51, STS-79)

    In spaceflight, you get it right or you get it really really wrong. Margin for error is razor thin during ascent/entry. Being IN space isn’t a whole lot safer but I’m pretty sure those guys on the ground breathe easier when it’s up in orbit and then when it’s “wheel stop” on the runway. After Columbia, they leave nothing to chance.

    Aye, I wanted to catch this one too. So frustrating to make plans to go and this happens. Well, I’d rather miss a launch if it means the safety of the crew and for that matter, everyone who works around the vehicle.

  6. Grand Lunar

    I didn’t hear about the crack in the foam until reading this, Phil. Quite fortunate indeed that we made this find now.

    @1. “…yet ISS is going to have to depend on even older technology from Roscosmos in order to remain operational…”

    Difference is, each Soyuz is a new ship, while the orbiters have kept being reused. And keep in mind the fault was with the ET, not the orbiter itself (at least, not THIS time).

  7. Andrew W

    The shuttle has been a huge disappointment, I’ve got booklet, written by David Baker, with a page giving a “Space Shuttle – A diary of its development and future use” published 1979.

    Some of the expectations:
    “July ’72: First manned orbital flight set for first quarter 1978″ (it actually occurred on 12th April ’81)

    And towards the end of the page: “Annual launches after that date [85/86] will probably average 40-50 per year. With each orbiter capable of making at least 100 flights to space and back, total missions during the decade of the 1980s could total 500. It is confidently expected that more than 1,000 people will make flights into orbit aboard the Shuttles during the same period.”

  8. nick flann

    So now we cannot even get a Shuttle up in LEO. When NASA was going to the moon every single moon mission launched on time (or within 2 hours for 17).

  9. Chris

    Why is it so hard to build a tank that won’t have any problems?

  10. Pete Jackson

    Right to the end, the shuttle never became routine. Although a enormous and inspiring engineering achievement, the shuttle set human space flight back by decades by making it so expensive and dangerous.

    Since the main risk with the shuttle is the launching of the rather ungainly structure, I wonder what could have been achieved by launching the shuttle and its fuel tank separately, then joining up in space and flying to wherever. Could they have gone to lunar orbit with a lunar lander in the cargo bay, so as to make a lunar landing?

  11. Andrew W

    “I wonder what could have been achieved by launching the shuttle and its fuel tank separately”

    On the face of it a bizarre suggestion as the shuttle needs much of the fuel in its external tank to get into space.

    I suppose it would be possible to launch something like the Orbiter using a higher density fuel/oxidiser mix to get above the atmoshere (but well below orbital speed), make a rendezvous with the second stage of a rocket that had launched at about the same time while they were both in sub orbital ballistic trajectories, and using the fuel in that second stage to power the combined second stage/orbiter up to orbital speed.

    A bit complex for no real gain though.

  12. Pete Jackson

    Andrew, I meant just putting the shuttle on top of a big disposable rocket. The boosters could still be there, just no dangerous and un-aerodynamic external fuel tank.

  13. ASFalcon13

    “On the face of it a bizarre suggestion as the shuttle needs much of the fuel in its external tank to get into space.”

    Correction: it needs all of it, and then some. The tank plus the SRBs have enough propellant to get the orbiter up to a high enough apogee to insert into LEO. However, at MECO and ET sep, the orbiter is still on a reentering trajectory; it takes a further OMS burn at apogee using fuel carried aboard the orbiter to actually insert into LEO.*

    So yeah, Pete Jackson’s suggestion is bizarre and nonsensical. The ET exists only to get the orbiter into orbit. You can’t launch the two separately, because the orbiter ain’t getting into space without the ET attached.

    *This is by design, by the way…leaving the ET in a suborbital trajectory means it’ll reenter soon and in a fairly predictable location, while hauling it all the way to LEO would mean that it could pose a collision threat to the orbiter later on, and the tank’s eventual reentry location when its orbit finally decays would be harder to predict and control.

  14. Andrew W

    “Correction: it needs all of it, and then some.”
    Obviously the Shuttle gets “into space” well before it gets into orbit, so it gets into space before it has used all it’s ET fuel.

    All the major problems in space exploration can be attributed to that first 8km/sec, chemical rockets are always going to be expensive in getting over that hurdle because to get there they have to be pushed to the limits of what the physics dictates, the required mass ratios are at the boundary of the possible.

    By creating the complex system that the Shuttle is, risk and costs were increased considerably compared to that of simpler systems.

    To make getting to space routine we need a revolution in how we approach the problem of getting to space, there are several revolutionary concepts that exist, but sadly, so far they have remained only as concepts.

  15. viggen

    I am very tempted to jump a plane and be in Florida for Monday. It was a childhood dream of mine to see a space shuttle launch– the first went up when I was in kindergarten. I never got a chance to see it and after this launch, there will never be another.

  16. DrFlimmer

    There is always a walk up and down the entire structure of the launch pad to check the tank and the orbiter from the outside after the tanking procedure. They would have spotted the crack, anyway.

    However, this is nice of Discovery. Since I am in a very remote and undisclosed location (just like Sheldon Cooper in S04E02 of TBBT :-D ), which happens to be the H.E.S.S.-site in Namibia, I have only very limited internet access. But, with the launch date in a few weeks from now, I’ll be able to watch the launch! Thanks Discovery!

    On the other hand one could think about something like this:

    DISCOVERY ON STRIKE: I DON’T WANT TO BE RETIRED!

    @ #15 viggen

    1) Discovery will not launch on Monday
    2) There are most likely 2 more options: Endeavour in February and Atlantis in June

  17. viggen

    Moved back to november 30th?? Dag-nabit, that’s right before finals week…. grr. Maybe I won’t be jumping a plane anywhere.

  18. Elwood Herring

    Whenever it manages to lift off, let’s hope the last shuttle flight ever goes as smooth as clockwork. There’s already been enough tragedy associated with the Shuttle, the last thing we want is for it to end with another one. (Yes I know it’s not the last last flight, but you get my drift.)

  19. Ken (a different Ken)

    @9 Chris: You try building something that first has to hold a half-million gallons of high-pressure, supercold fluid and then suddenly withstand the stress of almost 7 million pounds of asymmetric stress during launch (remember it’s not just a tank, it’s also the primary structure of the booster).

    It really is rocket science.

  20. Messier Tidy Upper

    @7. Andrew W Says:

    The shuttle has been a huge disappointment, I’ve got booklet, written by David Baker, with a page giving a “Space Shuttle – A diary of its development and future use” published 1979. …

    Well, yes and no.

    The Shuttle has been what I’d describe as a mixed success.

    The Shuttles have done some awesome, wonderful things and have worked superbly in flying hundreds of successful missions and astronauts into space. More human beings have orbited the Earth and in greater comfort aboard the Shuttles than any other spacecraft. :-)

    Without the Shuttle we wouldn’t have the Hubble space observatory and so very much more. It has launched so many spaceprobes and satellites, Galileo to Jupiter, Magellan to Venus, Ulysses to the poles of our Sun to name just three examples that have made major positive scientific contributions. :-)

    The Shuttle is one of if not the most sophisticated, advanced, capable spacecraft and launch vehicles in history. It is an awesome, beautiful, astounding, re-useable spaceplane. :-)

    That noted, you are correct in that it hasn’t lived up to all the expectations or delivered what it initially seemed to promise.

    There are legitimate criticisms that can be made of it, it did have its faults and flaws and, yes, fatal disasters.

    Which, BTW. are as inevitable and to-be-accepted in spaceflight as they are in mountaineering, motor-racing and other dangerous but exhilitarating and life-enhancing pursuits.

    So yes & no.

    I think we’ll probably only appreciate how good the Space Shuttle really was when its gone. :-(

  21. Messier Tidy Upper

    Useful link to the basic info on the Shuttle here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle

    Awesome video footage of how magnificent the Shuttle is :

    http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=1281242597482

    via Michael Interbartolo III & facebook – & helps show why I love the Shuttle program. :-)

    &

    @ Ferris Valyn – Here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/11/02/ten-years-of-the-international-space-station/#comment-329002

    is my reply(ies) to you as requested. :-)

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    Incidentally, I don’t use the word “tragedy” to describe people dying doing something remarkable and impressive that they truly love and have volunteered and dedicated their lives for.

    We all die, not all of us really live.

    There are far worse ways to die than in space shuttle accidents.

    No, I think the Challenger and Columbia disasters were sad and we should grieve for the loss of life but we should also honour their sacrifices and respect their memories and continue to strive for what the lost astronaust gave their lives for – a human American space exploration and development program.

    I think we have become far too cowardly or “risk averse” as its euphemistically called these days. Far too cautious and too unwilling to put lives, willingly offered and devoted to doing the remarkable and going to extraordinary places in order to help us all, on the line.

    Space exploration is incredibly safe and comfortable relative to past human exploration of the world from Magellan who set out with five ships and had under twenty men return alive to the explorers of the last heroic age and zone of exploration before this; those of the Arctic and Antarctic who frequently perished in the freezing wastes, often after enduring years of hardship and risk for the sake of glory and knowledge. We stand on their shoulders, seeing and knowing and having the world we have only because of their sweat, pain and sacrifices.

    For me, the real tragedy of the space shuttle is that it hasn’t led to more and better space shuttle type reusable spaceplanes. For it to become a dead end, a lost technology that we used to do back in the “good old days” when we flew brave astronauts aboard marvellous machinery; *that* would be a tragedy – and a disgraceful waste.

    ***

    “The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.”
    - Virgil “Gus” Grissom, ‘Mercury-7′ astronaut, the second American in space, killed in the ‘Apollo 1’ fire.

  23. Jason

    We had the chance to see a launch in Oct of ’08, but it was delayed and never could get back. The closest I got was this.
    launchpad

  24. Andrew W

    “worked superbly in flying hundreds of successful missions and astronauts into space. ”

    Well maybe hundreds of astronauts, but 130 successful missions is not “hundreds”.

    “Without the Shuttle we wouldn’t have . . .”

    Without the shuttle those missions would still have happened, and more cheaply, using other launch vehicles.

    “It is an awesome, beautiful, astounding, re-useable spaceplane.”

    It’s glamorous, and like most things glamorous it’s expensive and promised (or at least fuelled the expectation of) things it never delivered.

    Hindsights a wonderful thing, so it’s not a question of finding blame, other than to say it was the product of the political and bureaucratic system that created it, and politics is more about appearance than substance.

    “For me, the real tragedy of the space shuttle is that it hasn’t led to more and better space shuttle type reusable spaceplanes. For it to become a dead end, a lost technology that we used to do back in the “good old days” when we flew brave astronauts aboard marvellous machinery; *that* would be a tragedy – and a disgraceful waste.”

    What I said in 14, chemical fueled rockets as launch vehicles to LEO are a dead end.

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Andrew W :

    but 130 successful missions is not “hundreds”.

    Okay, try “well over a hundred successful missions then – is that better? ;-)

    Without the shuttle those missions would still have happened, and more cheaply, using other launch vehicles.

    Would they? Really? I don’t think so – and, unless we can contact alternate realities, we’ll never know.

    Fact is that the Shuttle *did* fly those missions, did enable us to have – and fix Hubble. Is it so hard to show a bit of gratitude for that? To appreciate that yes, the shuttle *did* accomplish some remarkable things even if, admittedly, it didn’t quite live up to our hopes?

    It’s glamorous

    A lot of adjectives came to me when describing the Shuttle,(yeah, I love my adjectives ;-) ) but “glamourous” certainly wasn’t the first of them. ‘Glamour’ I guess is in the eye of the beholder but if anything I would’ve said one of the problem of the Shuttle was that it wasn’t glamourous enough. Had it attracted more glamourous people to its cause, perhaps the program’d still be going?

    .. chemical fueled rockets as launch vehicles to LEO are a dead end.

    Yet we don’t yet have any better alternatives. I’d love to see a space elevator built or nuclear rockets flown but I don’t see those happening anytime soon. More’s the pity.

  26. Andrew W

    “I’d love to see a space elevator built or nuclear rockets flown but I don’t see those happening anytime soon. More’s the pity.”

    Yep, it would be nice to have the advocates of the various alternative systems thrash it out one day on some forum; nuclear rockets, electromagnetic catapults, orbital space port, space elevator, beam propulsion, rotovators, space fountain, launch loop. The physics says all of these systems could work, but some make far more sense than others, (and obviously which would be better would also depends on passenger/freight volume) but none will happen without someone with money to invest anticipating future high volume demand.

  27. HM

    So if something had happened, then the shuttle wouldn’t be able to return to Earth? How easily could you integrate the shuttle into becoming a permanent part of the ISS? Currently it’s designed for ~3 weeks use in space, but how far could it be extended if docked to the ISS? Do you need to draw electrical wiring, plumbing etc to it?

  28. DrFlimmer

    @ HM

    As far as I know there is already some sort of connection between the ISS and the shuttle in order to save fuel on the shuttle site. So, I guess, it wouldn’t be too hard to attach it permanently.
    But we need to ferry down the additional astronauts, 7 by the current number on board the shuttle. This cannot be done with Soyuz spacecraft, because there isn’t enough space available for additional Soyuz (I think, that’s one of the reasons). So you need another shuttle to get those astronauts down. But the shuttle has only one docking port, so the damaged shuttle cannot stay there.
    The story is different when Atlantis eventually goes up next summer. It will only host 4 astronauts, which can be ferried back to earth by Soyuz. So, it could probably stay there. I don’t know if someone has thought about it already….

  29. DubiumGuy

    Phil or anyone else in the know? Do mission delays ever have an impact on subsequent mission launch dates?? I’ll be in Florida at the end of march, and whilst I’m not getting my hopes up I know there’s a very slim chance i may get to see the launch of STS-134 if I’m lucky.

  30. Alex

    @Messier Tidy Upper

    Of course we know that those missions would have been abel to be launched on other platforms. Take Hubble for example. It’s widely believed to be very similar to the KH-11 spy satellite. All except one of the KH-11′s were launched using disposable rockets.

    Ulysses is another example which is easy to prove it. It weighed 366.7 kg at launch, making it significantly less than the 883 kg of Viking, which were launched using the Titan/Centaur combination.

    As for fixing Hubble, that turns out to be the wrong answer to the question. Why didn’t the NRO fix it’s KH-11s when they needed repair? Because it’s cheaper and better to launch new ones! It’s estimated that a KH-12 costs about $1 B, with a launch cost of $400 M, or a total cost of $1.4 B. For the shuttle, it’s a cost of about $1.3 B per launch.

  31. @6 – While the Roscosmos kit is built new every time, and the shuttle kit is recycledrefurbished, the difference is clear.

    * The Russian hardware is like a Porsche 911. The basic design hasn’t changed in years, and uses effectively off-the-shelf parts. Mass production (on a really tiny scale).

    * The Shuttle fleet is more like a custom built F1 car – yeah, we have a few in stock which we can share parts with, but every time it goes out on the track, it has to be rebuilt from scratch.

    This begs the question: is it cheaper to use disposable space vehicles or to use reusable ones? @30 kind of makes the point.

  32. DrFlimmer

    @ 29 DubiumGuy

    Well, not necessarily, but it could. If Discovery is not off the ground in early December, the next launch window opens at the end of February, which is currently reserved for Endeavour. So, if Discovery doesn’t make it this year, it will try to launch in February. Endeavour would slip to one of the next windows, as far as I know, in April or May.

  33. I think the Shuttle fleet has been a huge disappointment only because the American people have such high expectations for NASA. If you compare the accomplishments of the Shuttle to the accomplishments of space craft of other nations, it has beena huge success.

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Eric : Absolutely.

    Both Russia (the old Soviet Union at the time) and the Europeans had planned shuttle-equivalents. neither suceeded. Europe’s Hermes (I think it was called) never got off the drawing board. Russia’s Buran had, I gather one unmanned flight then vanished leaving the Shuttle as the only successful reusuable spacecraft and spaceplane project in history so far.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »