Bathed in the warm amber glow of the launch-tower floodlights, the space shuttle Discovery slowly emerges from behind the retracting service structure.
A passing lightning storm earlier in the evening postponed the final curtain call on the venerable space ship’s emergence but she now stands unobstructed on the eve of her scheduled 39th and final mission.
Fully exposed, the gleaming white outer coat — only marked by her name and United States flag on the lower right wing and the NASA logo on the other — her appearance belies the nearly 30 years of service she has provided to the world’s space community.
True-to-dramatic form the evening is not complete until one-by-one the banks of the high-powered xenon lights come to life criss-crossing the craft and deflecting into the Florida night sky.
But Thursday dawns dark and stormy and the launch committee at an early-morning meeting quickly decides to abort Mission STS 133 to the International Space Station for another 24 hours.
In a complete turnaround, Friday is bright and clear and the atmosphere at NASA’s on-site news nerve centre is positive with word of a 70 per cent chance of launch at 3:04 p.m.
The only potential problem at this stage are the high winds which are expected to dissipate as the day progresses — good news.
Then shortly after 8 a.m. the official NASA TV commentator announces the detection of a hydrogen leak in the main fuel tank during fueling with word to follow.
Very bad news.
Shortly afterwards with a live video feed of the shuttle on the overhead HD screens, the announcer confirmed what many had already anticipated.
“The launch has been officially scrubbed for at least 72 hours.”
The previous silence in the room is broken by a collective groan of disbelief from staff and journalists, this is the fourth aborted mission in five days.
“We’re done, we have to leave Sunday,” said one British media rep, who along with his Dutch colleague have flights to catch before the earliest rescheduled lift-off. “I can’t believe it. We’ve got nothing and now we’re leaving.”
But for the more experienced covering previous launches this is just part of the process.
“What can you do? These are just things that happen and there’s nothing we can do,” said Roland Miller, the dean of arts at College of Lake Country in Chicago.
Meanwhile, most of the members of the Penticton group who travelled across the continent to see the launch have also had to return home.
Penticton’s Patricia Tribe, whose boyfriend Alvin Drew is among the six Discovery crew members, got back to the Peach City Saturday night.
The day of the last aborted mission was actually Drew’s 48th birthday.
Despite the delay, which has now been extended until Nov. 30, Tribe noted the astronauts all seemed to be in good spirits.
“I talked to Alvin last night for quite a while and he’s actually doing really good,” she said earlier this week. “He’s happy they made the call and it gave him a lot of confidence in the people, making the right calls.
“But I do think they’re (crew) a little tired because you’re up, you’re down, you’re up, you’re down, you’re prepped to go and you’re down again.”
But she agreed — in spite of all the pressure to launch — the proper decision was made.
“I’m glad they came to their senses and stepped back and made the right choice because between those two things that could easily been catastrophic.
As well as the hydrogen leak, technicians also found a 20-inch crack on a piece of foam on the external tank.
Following Friday’s decision, the crew members returned immediately to NASA’s Houston centre to continue training for their mission.
For mission specialist Drew that will mean some pool time to practise for his two planned space walks to do some work on the outside of the International Space Station.
Although it’s always been his dream to have the opportunity to do a space walk, he admits it will be a little intimidating, especially at first.
“I’ve talked a lot to astronauts who have gone up and done this before and the first few seconds when you open the hatch — the hatch itself points straight down at the Earth — and so getting out there, even though you’re weightless, you’re trying to convince a part of your body that you’re not going to go plummeting to Earth when you go out,” he said. “It’s a very long ways down.”
Meanwhile, Tribe is already scheduling her next flight to Houston and then Florida for the scheduled night launch.