Doing Her

Although disappointing, the abort had - at least, indirectly - shown that NASA was not making special provisions to get STS-93 away on time for the sake of several high-level spectators in the audience. Collins' presence on the crew as the first woman to command a space mission had, for the past year-and-a-half, dominated the news. Sitting in the VIP area was none other than First Lady Hillary Clinton, who had formally announced Collins' assignment as Commander of STS-93 on 5 March 1998 at a press conference in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

For Collins herself, who had worked her way through her 'apprenticeship' just like the male pilots in the Astronaut Office, having a woman lead a mission was simply long overdue, but to Clinton it provided a public-relations boon. In fact, some observers commented at the time that the naming of a Shuttle Commander from the White House was rare, if not unprecedented. However, White House spokesman Barry Toiv defended it as ''an important occasion to mark the advancement of science, the advancement of the space programme and the advancement of women in our society''.

''Eileen's just trying to do her job,'' said Coleman. ''At the same time, I'm actually very excited about the historical significance - not for Eileen, not for me - but for the little girls out there. It's really bringing home the fact to them that if Eileen can do

The STS-93 crew in Columbia's middeck. At the front are Eileen Collins (left) and Michel Tognini, while in the background are Steve Hawley, Jeff Ashby and Cady Coleman.

what she has set out to do, if all of us can be astronauts, it will help them to realise that the world can be theirs.'' Added Ashby: ''Eileen has made me feel very comfortable and treated me not like a rookie, but as somebody who has flown before and I respect her for that.''

The scrubbed launch attempt on 20 July had, therefore, demonstrated that NASA was not prepared to compromise safety to get Columbia off the ground, even with the president's wife in attendance. Fortunately, the fact that the three main engines had not yet been ignited meant that another try could be scheduled for the 22nd; a third opportunity was also possibly available on the 23rd, but after that a three-week delay until the middle of August was on the cards, because the US Air Force was starting a major upgrade of its Eastern Test Range's tracking network.

In eager anticipation for another attempt early on 22 July, eight middeck payloads were removed and serviced and hydrogen sensors in the aft compartment were recalibrated; additionally, the hydrogen igniters - the system that produces what looks like a shower of sparks to clear dangerous unburned hydrogen from beneath the Shuttle's main engines seconds before they roar to life - had to be replaced. The second effort to get Columbia away was also, it seemed, hit by the Steve Hawley gremlin, when lightning strikes were detected just 8.5 miles from the launch pad. According to flight rules, no lightning must be present within a 20-mile radius. The countdown was held at T —5 minutes, in the hope that conditions might improve, but when they did not, the launch was scrubbed.

''Due to the storm that's slowly moving to the south, we need to scrub for the day,'' said Launch Director Ralph Roe. His gloomy news was relayed by Test Director Doug Lyons to the disappointed crew: ''Eileen, we gave it our best shot with this storm today, but it didn't agree with us, so our best bet is to give it another try another day.''

''Okay, CDR [Commander] copies,'' replied Collins. ''And we thought you guys did just a great job tonight. We're proud of the work and the crew will be ready to go at the next opportunity.''

Later that night, Grant Cates told journalists that he was unsure when another attempt could be made, but luckily NASA twisted Boeing's arm to postpone its scheduled launch of a Delta II rocket with four communications satellites and persuaded the Air Force to begin its refurbishment of ground-based tracking facilities a little later than planned. Columbia was granted one more try early on 23 July.

A safe launch was paramount and as Don McMonagle, the head of the Mission Management Team, explained, the mission would be rescheduled for 18 August if its third attempt was also scrubbed. In the early hours of the 23rd, Collins and her crewmates clambered inside Columbia and were quickly strapped into their seats. ''Thanks for all the great work,'' she told launch controllers as the countdown wore on, ''and we'll see you in five days.'' Right on time, and true to form, STS-93 sprang from Pad 39B at 4:31 am, turning night into day across the marshy Florida landscape.

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