With the return of Columbia's sister ship Atlantis to Florida in early June, following a lengthy refit in California, all four Shuttles were undergoing simultaneous preparation for missions - a rare occurrence, particularly as KSC only had enough Orbiter Processing Facility bays for three of them! Moreover, continuous early summer rains complicated the issue further, forcing technicians to 'shuttle' the Shuttles backwards and forwards between the three OPF bays and a 'transfer aisle' in the VAB to keep them under cover. Columbia finally entered the VAB for stacking on 8 June and was out at Pad 39A by mid-morning on the 15th.
Once on the pad, the final preparations went relatively smoothly, with the exception of a faulty main engine computer in the last week of June which, although not expected to impact the scheduled 8 July launch date, would mean ''we're going to have to work part of the 4 July weekend'', according to KSC spokesman Bruce Buckingham. The computer, part of a network designed to detect potential problems and shut down the engines if necessary - as had happened during STS-55's aborted launch attempt a year earlier - was replaced and retested at the pad.
The countdown on the 8th went well until the T— 9 minute hold, when concerns were raised over the weather; Air Force meteorologists had predicted a 40% chance of early afternoon thunderstorms at KSC. Their biggest worry was that, should such storms materialise, they might impact visibility at the SLF runway, which Cabana and Halsell would use in the event of an emergency during the first few minutes of ascent. Mission managers restarted the clock and counted down to another hold at T— 5 minutes, before stopping again to assess the weather.
Fortunately, none of the holds had to be extended and Columbia rocketed into space at 4:43 pm, precisely at the start of her two-and-a-half-hour window, watched by dozens of Japanese journalists and dignitaries. ''People [in Japan] are keeping a close eye on this mission,'' said NASDA Director Yoshiro Ishizawa. The launch created a blast of such intensity that a corrugated iron roof was torn from a building near Pad 39A. ''There was absolutely no way the vehicle or its crew were in danger,'' Buckingham said later. ''The vehicle was several hundred feet off the ground when the roof [came] off.''
Columbia's rousing liftoff raised the roof in other ways, too, especially from the point of view of her seven astronauts - four of whom had never ventured into space before. Late on 8 July, as the science crew readied IML-2 for two weeks of intensive research, Cabana showed Mission Control a video recorded from inside the cockpit during the bone-rattling climb to orbit. ''As you can see,'' he commented, matter-of-
factly, "it vibrates pretty good." The tiny, lipstick-sized camera had been mounted at the rear of Columbia's flight deck and was already being tapped for inclusion in a new IMAX movie.
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