Four sleek T-38 jet trainers cut through a black cloud and streaked over this spaceport in a tight formation Monday afternoon, telling the world that the five astronauts they carried had arrived for duty.
The arrival had been delayed by lightning near the space center's runway, forcing the astronauts to stop for about 45 minutes at MacDill Air Force Base 100 miles away near Tampa and wait for the weather to improve. But the astronauts, who are based in Houston, were jubilant after arriving here about one hour behind schedule.
The blue and white trainers zipped over the sprawling spaceport and flew twice over the launch pad where the Discovery is being prepared for flight.
"The bird is ready and we are ready," Navy Capt. Frederick Hauck, who will command the Discovery, told reporters moments after touching down on the three-mile-long runway. If all goes well, the Discovery will blast off from launch pad 39B at 6:59 a.m. PDT on Thursday.
"The train is leaving the station," crewman Mike Lounge shouted at reporters.
That, however, will depend largely on the weather. Hauck said that based on experience with Florida weather, there is "about a 60% chance we'll go."
Ready for Business
Hauck, who grinned at the wives of the crew standing near the runway as he ran a comb through his sparsely populated hairline, made it clear that he and his fellow travelers are ready for business.
"I tell you we're excited," he said. "We cannot wait to do this."
Before leaving for the Cape, the astronauts spent most of Monday going through a simulated, crisis-laden launch at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"We had our final launch 'sim' this morning where we worked with Mission Control and had all sorts of failures thrown at us, things we know aren't going to happen on this flight," Hauck said. "But everything went very well."
The crew had hoped to spend today flying a training aircraft that is designed to handle like the shuttle, but threatening weather forced cancellation of those plans. The weather is not all that bad right now--mostly clear in the mornings with scattered thunderstorms in the afternoons--but space officials do not want to take any chances at this stage.
Instead, the astronauts will spend the day preparing themselves, and their spacecraft, for the first U.S. manned spaceflight in 32 months.
Two Aboard One Plane
The co-pilot aboard the Discovery will be the man who flew in the aft seat of Hauck's T-38 on Monday, Air Force Col. Richard O. Covey. Three other jets carried the other crewmen--Lounge, David Hilmers and George Nelson.
Plans to launch the Discovery will reach a crucial point Wednesday afternoon. If the weather looks good for a launch on Thursday, engineers will begin pumping 500,000 gallons of supercooled rocket fuel into the shuttle's giant external fuel tank. But under new launch rules, even that cannot be done unless minimal weather conditions are met and the forecast for launch day looks acceptable.
The four-day flight is scheduled to end with a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California on Monday morning. The exact time of the landing will depend on the launch time. The Discovery will have a three-hour launch "window."