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Sunday, April 22, 2012

It Figures: Enterprise in Holding Pattern

UPDATE 4/24/2012:

NASA has announced the flight of Enterprise on board the NASA 905 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is now scheduled for Friday morning, with the orbiter arriving in the New York area at approximately 10AM. Please refer to the link below for continuing updates.

UPDATE 4/23/2012:

NASA has announced the flight of Enterprise on board the NASA 905 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft is now scheduled for Wednesday morning, with the orbiter arriving in the New York area at approximately 10AM. Please visit the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum web site for confirmation and scheduling announcements:


Going to see a space shuttle in action at Kennedy Space Center could be easier said than done during the program’s decades-long service life. Equipment failures during the countdown could lead to lengthy delays. Bad weather at the KSC Shuttle Landing Facility could lead to a last-minute diversion to a California landing.

Back in the days before everything was available for instant updating via the Internet, the main method of keeping up to date on shuttle launch preparations was to call a special number which allowed one to listen to a recording of George Diller reporting on the latest developments. I called this number so many times it’s permanently ingrained in my memory: 407-867-2525.

But in the years before cell phones were common you couldn’t just call the info line while cruising down I-95 toward Florida. I recall one depressing launch journey pit stop at South of the Border in South Carolina, where I happened to hear a news broadcast reporting the launch had been scrubbed due to a major component replacement that could take weeks. Reverse course.

Welcome to the moment of truth.

But perhaps nothing was worse was than the pit-in-the-stomach feeling as the countdown clock ticked down to 31 seconds - perhaps the most significant moment of each countdown, when the Ground Launch Sequencer would hand over control of the countdown to the shuttle’s onboard computers. Several times I stood in the Florida sun and watched that clock come to a halt just a half minute from launch. Sometimes the resulting delay was brief; other times, the launch was pushed back by a week or more. After all, changing out an Auxiliary Power Unit deep within the innards of an orbiter was no small task.

Even the charmed final flight of the shuttle program had its moment. As Atlantis waited on the pad, poised to begin the STS-135 mission, the clock crept toward the dreaded 31 second mark. Then it hit 30. Then it climbed back up to 31! Mercifully, the resulting delay was one of moments rather than days, and soon Atlantis was thundering uphill for one final time.

These thoughts all came to mind this week as Discovery made her way to a new home in the Washington D.C. area, and the original flight test orbiter Enterprise was prepared for a journey to New York.

Enterprise: ready to depart, just not yet.

I had planned on attending Discovery’s arrival, but family medical issues disrupted that plan. Instead, I made plans to cover the arrival of Enterprise in New York on April 23. I would be witnessing a significant reunion: the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft that will lift Enterprise into the skies one last time is the same plane that carried this first orbiter into the air for the very first atmospheric flight tests back in 1977.

And then, on April 20, came the Media Advisory from NASA:

WASHINGTON -- NASA's planned flight to New York City of space shuttle Enterprise atop the 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) has been postponed until further notice due to an unfavorable weather forecast for Monday, April 23.

File this under "unfavorable conditions."

Somehow, it seems appropriate. This will likely be the last time I will ever see a space shuttle in flight, even if it is attached to a modified Boeing 747. A shuttle-related delay? I’d expect nothing less. But I also know that - as always - the wait will be worth it.