KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - Just as an honoring ceremony was ending for Astronaut John Herrington on Nov. 10 and less than two hours before his first flight into space, NASA engineers detected an oxygen leak in the space shuttle Endeavour and postponed the mission.
According to close observers of the space program, odds are 50-50 that a shuttle mission will launch on schedule. The next scheduled launch attempt will be Nov. 18.
The launch was scrubbed just as a ceremony was wrapping up to honor Herrington as a role model for American Indians. Herrington, a commander in the U. S. Navy, is enrolled in the Chickasaw Nation, which sent over 200 members, including students and elders, to witness the launch in Florida.
Over 1,500 American Indians affiliated with other tribes also attended the program, which included a weekend conference on Indian opportunities with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
In the honoring ceremony, a trio of Seminole war veterans presented the flags of the United States, Florida and the Seminole nation. Miss Navajo Nation Radmilla Cody sang the "Star Spangled Banner" in the Dine' language. Jerry Elliot, a 40-year veteran with NASA, presented a flute solo and Buffy Sainte-Marie sang "Up Where We Belong." The Chickasaw Dance Troupe put on a demonstration with the participation of Herrington's parents.
Chickasaw governor Bill Anoatubby said about Herrington, "[he 's] a source of pride to us. He's a role model for our youth. Anybody who has missed a goal and decided it's really tough - you know that you can pick up again and start going and get back in the groove and get it done. He's certainly a source of pride for us because he's Chickasaw and a Native American. He's a source of pride for all Native Americans."
The astronauts were released from their preflight quarantine, which prevents anybody with an illness from passing it on to the astronaut. Herrington was able to spend a short time with his two daughters and his wife Debra. Then the crew flew back to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and re-entered quarantine where they'll remain for several days before flying back to Florida for the next launch attempt.
Herrington and his six crewmates had entered the space shuttle and were strapped in their seats when the final check detected a leak in the plumbing that supplies oxygen to the crew cabin. The space shuttle has two separate sets of metal hoses that transfer oxygen from storage spheres underneath the shuttle's cargo bay into the crew cabin. Ultimately engineers decided that caution was the better choice and scrubbed the launch for the day.
Finding the leak should be easy. The system is similar to the way an auto mechanic tests a car's air conditioning system to see if it's leaking freon. In the case of the shuttle, pressurized helium is forced through the system and a technician holds a mass spectrometer next to the hose. The instrument is an electronic nose that sniffs for the helium. It should quickly determine the location for the leak. The problem could be as simple as a fitting that somehow came loose or something that can be sealed with an external coupling.
What makes the task take so long is getting access to the piping. First, all of the oxygen and hydrogen inside the spheres within the shuttle have to be offloaded. Then the payload bay doors have to be opened. Then a special crane has to squeeze into the two- or three-foot gap between the shuttle's orbital docking system (used in-flight to dock the shuttle to the space station) and the giant P1 truss within the shuttle's cargo bay. The technician will unwrap thermal blankets to get access to the area. And once the fix is completed everything has to be reversed to get ready for launch.
Managers note cautiously that while they're fairly certain about the location for the leak, they might encounter a surprise when the technician gains access to the area. Space shuttle program manager Ron Dittemore said, "[the leak] may be trying to tell us something." In a drastic case it might be necessary to remove the 17-ton, 45-foot long P1 Truss from the cargo bay to gain access to additional plumbing beneath the cargo bay floor.