Making Lemonade Out Of Lemons

Costs of reflying MSL-1 would clearly be considerably reduced: NASA normally spent around $500 million per mission, although much of that went into hardware testing, processing, training, planning and simulations that did not need repeating. Holloway quoted $50-60 million, although Joel Kearns pointed out that already-budgeted 'reserve' funds could bring that sum down even more. Additionally, said Holloway, ''it would be a very good test of a capability we should have in place for the station - to bring an element of the station back, for whatever reason, and turn it around in as reasonable time as practical''.

True to predictions, the reflight was cheaper: $55 million for the actual processing of Columbia, according to KSC officials, plus an extra $8.6 million for expenses related to the MSL-1 turnaround. ''Our approach'', said Lead Flight Director Rob Kelso, ''has been to treat this flight as a launch delay. The crew is exactly the same, the flight directors are all the same and the flight control team is almost identical . . . it's a mirror-image flight in many respects.'' Even the embroidered patch, worn by Halsell's crew was exactly the same, just with a different-coloured border: red for STS-83, blue for STS-94.

Naturally, the scientists were ecstatic at the chance of flying again so soon. ''From a payloads standpoint, we could be ready,'' said Mike Robinson. ''All the science teams say they could be ready. It's going to be tight, but again, the majority of the [experiment] samples were not processed, so they don't have to be turned around. There would be no facility upgrades or changes.'' After Columbia had been towed from the KSC runway into the OPF, the Spacelab module remained in her payload bay, although the tunnel adaptor was removed to provide better access to it.

Ordinarily, between flights, the modules were transferred to the Operations and Checkout Building, but during the short MSL-1 turnaround period technicians overcame the Shuttle's cramped living conditions and successfully completed many critical tasks, including replenishing fluids for the combustion experiments. ''This is the first time that a payload has remained in an orbiter between flights,'' said KSC

payload manager Scott Higginbotham. ''We are excited about having accomplished something that has never been tried before.''

The Shuttle processing team, too, had its own challenges. Normally, they supervised a spacecraft for around 85 days, but the reflight required a turnaround of only 56 days in the OPF. To accommodate this short timescale, and ensure that all necessary work, such as the replacement of two APUs and several RCS jets in Columbia's nose, was completed, they deferred certain structural inspections until her next mission. Overall, it was down to planning. ''Once the plan was in place,'' said Columbia's flow director, Grant Cates, ''the team approached this challenge in much the same way that they approach every flow.''

Fuel Cells 1 and 2 were both removed and returned to their vendor - Connecticut-based International Fuel Cells - for analysis; although the exact cause was not identified, it was believed to be an isolated incident and engineers took steps to develop monitors for the cells to provide better performance data. Meanwhile, as Columbia rolled into the VAB for stacking, in record time, on 4 June, and from there to Pad 39A on the 11th, the only problems being tracked were efforts to replace three dozen possibly cracked tiles with thicker versions on her forward RCS pod.

Undoubtedly helping the early July target date for STS-94, Columbia was fitted with three 'borrowed' main engines and two 'borrowed' SRBs: the engines were those previously assigned to Atlantis' September flight and the booster set was originally slated to propel Discovery into orbit in August. ''The NASA contractor workforce has put forth an outstanding effort in getting the MSL-1 mission ready to fly again,'' said JSC Director George Abbey. ''The quick turnaround in Columbia's processing for launch will allow the crew and the international team of investigators the opportunity to finish the important work they began earlier this year.''

For Halsell, it was ''a marvellous, once-in-a-career opportunity and something that we all feel very lucky to be a part of", he told a news conference in late June. ''I was talking to one of our Capcoms, [fellow astronaut] Bill McArthur, a few days ago and he said this whole reflight business is making lemonade out of lemons. That's kind of the way we feel about it. The people here at the Cape, as soon as our wheels stopped, were working very hard to make a record-breaking turnaround on Columbia. Meanwhile, the scientific investigators had a chance to look at their data results and we're going to change some of our procedures a little bit... and maybe take advantage of this reflight in the sense that we'll be able to get even better science, better data for them than we would have the first time around. So it's a great opportunity. Our hats are off to the people at the Cape for making this whole thing possible.''

As forecasters continued to assess the Florida weather in the last couple of days of June, the prospects of achieving an on-time liftoff seemed grim, with thunderstorms expected on 1 July and only marginal improvements on the 2nd and 3rd. ''With the dynamic [Florida weather], you can never be sure,'' said NASA's Doug Lyons, who supervised Columbia's countdown. ''They are only forecasts.'' As part of efforts to avoid the thunderstorms, on 30 June managers opted to bring the launch forward by 47 minutes, opening the 1 July window at 5:50 pm instead of 6:37 pm.

This removed one end-of-mission daylight landing opportunity at Edwards Air Force Base, if required, but nevertheless enabled another two opportunities at KSC.

After a 12-minute delay due to initially unacceptable conditions at the SLF, the crew was advised of the decision to proceed with the launch attempt. "Columbia, it looks like we've got the weather lined up with us, so we're going to get you guys out of here," launch controllers told Halsell. "Have a good flight.'' The launch itself, at precisely 6:02 pm, was exceptional, with the only minor glitch being a faulty hydraulic sensor during ascent.

"It looks like Columbia's performing like a champ,'' Capcom Dom Gorie radioed shortly after the Shuttle reached space.

"Roger, Houston, we copy,'' replied Still from the Pilot's seat. "And thanks [to] the whole ascent team for getting us to a safe orbit.''

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