CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) The space shuttle Discovery reluctantly returned to the launch pad for its first mission since the Columbia disaster, shooting for a July 13 lift-off date. But in an ominous foreshadowing, the journey from the assembly building to the launch pad took much longer than usual due to overheated bearings trashing the transporter. NASA blamed the breakdown on the Shuttle "putting on a few pounds in the last 2 ½ years". The Shuttle vehemently denied the accusations, proclaiming itself fit and ready to fly, clearly anxious to dock with the ISS as soon as possible. Sure, 2 ½ years is a long time to go between "dockings" but, many NASA observers question the mission readiness: "How are we supposed to feel confident when you can't even get the damn thing to the pad on time?" asked one mission control specialist who declined to be identified. NASA safety engineers are not quite as pessimistic but maybe they should be given the rash of mechanical malfunctions plaguing the space agency. NASA's major focus is on keeping large chunks of ice from forming over an expansion joint on the new external fuel tank after the super-cooled fuel is added. After extensive engineering analysis, a thorough redesign and millions of dollars in overtime costs, NASA safety engineers believe they have finally addressed the ‘ice' problem by launching in July. It's hot in July, problem solved.
Discovery is tentatively scheduled for a 12-day tryst with the International Space Station, but NASA will consider the mission a success if they can just get it up. After several months of logistical foreplay with the ISS, the inter-orbital love machine is set to deliver about 30,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station. The supplies carried in a canister in the back of the space shuttle Discovery include almost everything the station needs…except oxygen. Russia recently launched a supply ship of its own to the space station, but it won't solve the oxygen problems, either. "Hey, that's a real biggie for us up here!" said current Space Station occupant Astronaut John Phillips, speaking on behalf of himself and fellow occupant Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who is currently sedated to save oxygen. Previous ISS tenants- NASA astronaut Mike Fincke and Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka - humored the temperamental oxygen-generating equipment for months in 2004 before installing a Frankenstein unit built from parts culled from dead units. There's probably logic there somewhere, but it would take funding Hubble to find it.
Cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov and Astronaut Leroy Chiao inherited the residential problem late last year and continued the remodeling work-in-progress without much more success. While there is something to be said for consistency, the only thing more troubling than a sub par, chronically busted oxygen generator in space is an OLD, sub par, chronically busted oxygen generator in space. "That real estate ad was a little misleading. Nobody told me the space station was such a ‘fixer-upper'" former ISS resident Chiao told reporters shortly after returning to Earth. "Sure, the view was spectacular, but the location sucks when it comes to…breathing!" Besides oxygen problems, they also faced the risk of starvation over the Christmas holidays last year. Fortunately, fears of cannibalism failed to materialize before a Russian supply ship arrived due to oxygen deprivation rendering the crewmen too weak and incoherent to care.
The current crew reportedly has backup supplies of oxygen…probably stashed in a closet somewhere…but surprisingly enough those supplies are not lasting as long as expected. Perhaps due to several unexplained and persistent LEAKS reported over the past few months? That's just a guess really. Considerably worst than a leaky roof in Bermuda during the rainy season, it's not surprising to see the property value on the ISS dropping sharply in the past few weeks. The crew of the station reportedly "has plenty of oxygen as long as it's just the two of them", but should the space shuttle have a problem, the shuttle crew would have to move in like homeless relatives, and the oxygen supply for that many people won't hold out as long. In such an eventuality, a reality show like SURVIVOR wouldn't stand a chance in the face of a real opportunity to see someone really get voted out the hatch. NASA has not given an estimate of how long the oxygen would last in that scenario, fearful of scaring the children again. Mission managers have said only that the supplies are "dwindling"....OK, that's kind of like calling space "black" in its overall descriptiveness. But, I can imagine two people on the ISS really hoping the "real estate bubble" doesn't burst before the Shuttle gets there next month. In the meantime, the ISS just might be the newest listing in Section 8, low-income, space housing.