The space shuttle Discovery pushed safety guidelines to the limit today and thundered through a cloudy, rainy sky only to find trouble waiting for it in orbit.
Success finally came on a dismal day with the third attempt to launch the Discovery, but two hours into the flight the crew discovered that a sun shield designed to protect one of its three communications satellites from thermal radiation was jammed.
Satellites rotate after they are released, constantly changing the surface that is exposed to the sun. But if left unshielded after the cargo bay doors are opened, the sun concentrates its abuse on upper surfaces, and temperatures fluctuate wildly depending on shadows and the angle of the sun.
Shield Had Snagged
The shield apparently had snagged on something--possibly a camera that was in the wrong position on the elbow of the shuttle's robotic arm--and was bent so severely that it was locked in a partially closed position. It could not be closed to protect the satellite, and it could not be opened to launch it.
Astronaut John M. Lounge, 39, used the robotic arm to force the shield open, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration moved quickly to launch the satellite immediately rather than let it cook in the cargo bay, which would have destroyed its electrical components in a matter of hours.
That called for some quick adjustments in the crew's workload since the satellite, owned by the communications arm of the Australian government, had not been scheduled for deployment until the second flight day. Six hours and 35 minutes into the flight, the satellite, called Aussat-1, was released from the shuttle and began its seven-day trip to its permanent spot 22,300 miles above the Equator.
The deployment was otherwise flawless.
"Fantastic," Mission Control in Houston told the shuttle. "We all breathed a sigh of relief down here."
A second satellite, owned by the American Satellite Co., was to be released a short time later, capping one of the stormiest launch days in the history of the shuttle program.
Robert Sieck, launch director at the Kennedy spaceport, conceded that NASA had pushed its regulations "to the limit" to permit the launch, but he insisted that no violations had been committed.
"Technically, it was within the limits," Sieck said, "but realistically it was marginal."
While it may have been within limits, no one here could remember a launch quite like it. Shortly after lifting off from the launch pad, the Discovery disappeared into a cloud.
"That cloud is black," Discovery commander Joe Engle, 53, radioed.
Sieck admitted the cloud was black, but he noted that it was only about 500 feet thick, and the shuttle soon emerged from the other side and roared on.
Although there did not seem to be much lightning in the storm, there was a lot of rain near the launch pad. NASA guidelines prohibit launches if there is rain at the launch pad because of fear of damaging the shuttle's heat protective tiles, and Sieck insisted that the pad itself was dry.
"I would put (the rain) within two miles" of the pad, he said.
Within minutes after the launch, however, the entire area was engulfed with heavy rainfall.