Penultimate Spacelab

Meanwhile, the seven STS-83 astronauts arrived at KSC and spent some time on board Columbia on the pad, performing their simulated countdown and emergency escape procedures. This gave Still, a native of Augusta, Georgia, the chance to milk her hometown's proud golfing tradition, as she took her best swing to release one of the slidewire escape baskets. "We'll be watching your form,'' one of her crewmates joked, "and your follow-through!"

It was not only her six colleagues who were watching Still's performance with intense interest: so too was one of her former teachers. "There is one person I'd like to thank by name,'' she said before the flight, "my junior high school math teacher, Sarah Brown. Due to her teaching ability, I was able to get where I am today. She was hard on the students and really got us to work.'' In response to Still's tribute, Brown, who retired from teaching in 1976, told journalists "it's a real honour to know what you were doing made a difference".

Then, on 1 April, and only a few hours after the commencement of the three-day countdown, the Mission Management Team opted to postpone the liftoff until the 4th. It was determined that a water coolant line in Columbia's payload bay had been improperly insulated, and with the possibility that it could freeze during the 16-day mission, work platforms were installed close to the forward bulkhead to enable technicians to reach them. The work to install new thermal insulation blankets was complete by mid-afternoon on 2 April.

"From the standpoint of flight safety and meeting the mission requirements, given enough time to work, I think we would have gotten comfortable with flying 'as is','' said Launch Director Bob Sieck at a news briefing on the 2nd. "But that probably wouldn't have occurred until today or tomorrow and the prudent thing to do was just go in and take care of the concern with these blankets.'' Rather than stopping and restarting the countdown from scratch, the clock was halted at T —19 hours on 1 April, held there and picked up again following the completion of the insulation work.

The prospects of a successful launch, now rescheduled for 7:00 pm on 4 April, seemed good, with the exception of a slight chance of rain showers generated by sea breezes. Mission managers also briefly considered, but later discarded, an option to launch Columbia an hour earlier than planned at 6:07 pm, to provide more daylight at the Transoceanic Abort Landing site at Banjul in West Africa and alleviate concerns about delamination of a backup antenna there.

''We're working to get the best science in 16 days in space,'' Halsell said before the launch. ''It's exciting. It's payback time for everybody.'' It was also somewhat disappointing that, on MSL-1, one of the two Spacelab modules built by ESA would be making its final journey into orbit. The other module was reserved for a medical and behavioural research flight called 'Neurolab', planned for the spring of 1998. ''That's currently the last scheduled Spacelab module flight,'' said STS-83's Lead Flight Director Rob Kelso before Columbia lifted off.

''It's sad that this [Spacelab] era is coming to an end,'' Mission Scientist Mike Robinson of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center told a news conference on 18 March. ''But it's also exciting to have long durations. Sixteen days isn't enough. We're excited about going to [the] space station.'' Others echoed his words, with TEMPUS project scientist Egon Egry of the German space agency, DARA, pointing to MSL-1 as an excellent precursor of how future research would be conducted on board the International Space Station.

Following a slight delay in evacuating the closeout crew - the team who strap the astronauts into their seats and conduct final checks at the pad - from the launch danger area, and a problem with excessive concentrations of oxygen in the vehicle's midsection, NASA's 83rd Shuttle mission thundered off to a spectacular start at 7:20:32 pm. It marked the ongoing demonstration of a new Laser Imaging System under development by Naval Research and Development (NRaD). It was hoped that the new system, which was to be provided to the US Air Force's 45th Space Wing, would help to improve launch tracking.

Prior to STS-83, range safety officers monitored Shuttle ascents by optical means, which could be impaired by engine plumes, low-level clouds and fog. By illuminating

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