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John Herrington Prepares to Come Back to Earth

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. -- Bad weather might keep Astronaut John Herrington and the space shuttle Endeavour from landing as planned Dec. 4 at 3:48 pm EST at the Kennedy Space Center. Thunderstorms are forecast, which would violate the weather rules.

If the weather remains bad in Florida for several days and the forecasts remain bad, shuttle entry flight director Wayne Hale would be forced to send Endeavour to the backup landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

For Herrington the biggest difference would be a delay until he gets to see his family. But for the shuttle program the schedule could take a minimum hit of a week, as the shuttle is ferried across country on the back of NASA's specially modified 747 shuttle carrier aircraft.

When the shuttle fires its engines for de-orbit it must land about an hour later; there's no waiting for the weather to improve. In an incredibly drastic case of a major disaster at the Kennedy Space Center's 15,000-foot-long runway, like another plane crashing on the middle of the runway, the shuttle could be diverted to a nearby airport - most likely Orlando International

Airport. The concept of a space shuttle returning from space landing at a commercial airport with terminal buildings filled with tourists coming to Florida to see Disneyworld is rather bizarre, but it is an actual part of NASA's contingency plans.

Because the de-orbit burn takes place half a world away, the weather forecasters have to be fairly conservative in their predictions. An unexpected shower would make the landing more difficult for the pilots and could damage the shuttle's delicate thermal protection system, resulting in costly repairs before the next shuttle flight.

Commander Jim Wetherbee will occupy Endeavour's left hand seat. He's the most experienced shuttle commander with five previous flights, four of them as the commander. He will become the only astronaut to land the shuttle five times. Pilot Paul Lockhart will occupy the right seat. He's on his second flight after serving as the pilot on Endeavour's previous mission,

STS-111 in June.

John Herrington will occupy the center seat, sitting behind the two pilots. As the flight engineer he will monitor the shuttle's systems and keep the crew on the timeline. The other seat on the flight deck will be empty. Instead of sitting upstairs with the shuttle crew, Mike Lopez-Alegria will sit downstairs with the returning Expedition 5 long-duration crew, Valeri Korzun, Peggy Whitson, and Sergei Treschev. He's there to assist them after landing.

Having Lopez-Alegria downstairs makes the job more difficult for the orbiter crew, especially

Herrington. Before the mission Herrington said, "On entry I have to do the role of two people, both Mike [Lopez-Alegria] and myself. And that can be a real challenge, with both of the pilot and commander working malfunctions. I have to stay on the nominal timeline as well as make sure they complete their procedures. It takes a real good understanding of what they're working on, where they're at so I can back them up."

There is a bizarre ritual astronauts go through before returning from space. In weightlessness the blood in your body moves around and tends to concentrate in the torso. In an effort to push more fluids into the arms and legs astronauts are required to drink over a quart of salty liquid a

couple of hours before landing. If there's a wave-off then they drink more liquid. And yes, the body does have to get rid of the excess liquid. After one mission was waved off several times the flight surgeons "awarded" the crew the silver kidney award for all of the times they had to fluid-load.

Herrington has chosen lemon-orange drink with salt tablets. His reentry "cocktail" will consist of eight ounces of water, 16 ounces of Lemonade with Nutrasweet, 16 ounces of Orange Ade and five salt tablets. One hour before the burn he'll start his drinking. He is supposed to be

finished before the shuttle enters the atmosphere. If there's a one orbit wave-off, then he needs to redrink half as much again. If longer, then he repeats the whole protocol from scratch.

Herrington's mission might set a new record for fluid loading. The weather forecast doesn't improve until Friday. Before the shuttle undocked from the space station, mission control warned the shuttle not to give away all of their excess food to the space station crew since there was a strong possibility the mission would be extended because of bad weather in Florida.