Recordsetting Flight

''In the event [the IMU] fails, what we would do is execute a minimum duration flight,'' said Pennington. Fortunately, an early landing was not necessary and revised weather forecasts predicted dry conditions, scattered clouds and light northeasterly winds - coupled, however, with frigid temperatures - for the 19th. With the LDEF in her payload bay, Columbia would weigh a mammoth 103,400 kg at touchdown, meaning that the dry lakebed at Edwards might be 'too soft', with fears that the nose gear could dig into the runway surface and make the vehicle difficult to steer properly.

NASA managers decided, therefore, to land on the 4.8-km-long concrete runway, although even that presented significant challenges for Brandenstein. The presence of the LDEF shifted Columbia's centre-of-gravity further forward, meaning that without the veteran Commander's deft handling of his ship the nose could 'slap down' too hard onto the runway surface. In a press conference conducted while he was in space, Brandenstein told journalists that he needed to maintain sufficient speed after main gear touchdown in order to gently lower the nose.

Despite hopes that the weather would cooperate for a 9:59 am landing on 19 January, a light 'dusting' of snow at Edwards the previous day and the presence of water on the runways - coupled with a possibility of fog - was expected to force NASA to wave-off the attempt. According to space agency spokesman Kyle Herring on the evening of the 18th, ''the weather is right on the edge of the flight rules right now''. Nevertheless, Brandenstein's crew stepped smartly through their pre-landing checks of Columbia's flight control systems; so smartly, in fact, that they finished the work three hours early.

As feared, fog at Edwards conspired to delay STS-32's landing until the 20th. ''We're looking and watching the weather,'' said Bill Reeves on the evening of the 19th. ''Edwards is improving for tomorrow.'' In fact, four landing opportunities were available for Columbia on 20 January, followed by three more on the 21st and the Shuttle crew had enough consumables to remain aloft until the 22nd if necessary. They could have landed at KSC or White Sands, but NASA elected to hold out for Edwards, whose wide runway provided a more forgiving environment with the heavy LDEF on board.

The astronauts followed a light-duty day for the remainder of 19 January, quietly breaking the STS-9 duration record at 8:23 pm. Brandenstein also became the most experienced Shuttle flier, having notched up 573 hours in space on three missions, surpassing the previous record held by Bob Crippen after his fourth flight in October

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