Originally scheduled to return to KSC on 22 July, after a mission falling just a few hours short of the Shuttle endurance record set by the STS-58 crew a year earlier, Columbia's crew was obliged to spend an extra day in space due to unacceptable weather in Florida. ''Right now, the weather forecast is very good for both Friday [22nd] and Saturday [23rd],'' said Flight Director Jeff Bantle early on 22 July, adding prophetically, ''but as we all know with the history of KSC weather, sometimes that can change on us.''

It did. Both landing opportunities for that day - at 10:47 am and 12:23 pm - were called off due to cloud cover to the east of the SLF runway that Air Force meteorologists were worried could drift over the runway and hamper Cabana and Halsell's visibility on final approach. The weather was fine at Edwards Air Force Base but, with anticipated good conditions in Florida on 23 July, and presumably unwilling to pay the million-dollar fee of ferrying Columbia back to KSC from California on top of a 747, NASA opted to keep the crew aloft for an additional 24 hours.

Immediately after being waved off for 22 July, Cabana and Halsell performed two OMS burns to provide themselves with an additional landing opportunity at Edwards on the 24th if they had to stay aloft even longer. In any case, they were now the Shuttle endurance record-holders: at 4:56 pm on the 22nd, they officially eclipsed the time spent in orbit by John Blaha's STS-58 crew in late 1993. When Capcom Bill McArthur, who had been on board STS-58, congratulated the crew on their achievement, Cabana replied that they could not have done it without Columbia, which he described as ''one fine spacecraft''.

Seventeen hours later, at 10:38 am on 23 July, on the first of two KSC landing opportunities for that day, Columbia settled gracefully onto Runway 33, wrapping up a spectacular mission of almost 15 days. A subsequent sweep-down of the runway surface also revealed a flattened fish, apparently dropped by an osprey or eagle in fright when it heard the sound of Columbia's twin sonic booms! ''It's great to be home and we're all feeling great,'' Cabana told Mission Control as he guided his spacecraft to a halt.

The immense success of the IML-2 research received official acknowledgement from the scientific community in a review meeting at the European Space Operations

234 Extended capabilities

Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, in early November 1994, when the consensus from the gathered Principal Investigators was very positive. ''This is the important part of the mission, where the scientists get their samples,'' said Bob Snyder. ''In some cases, this is going to take many months, up to possibly several years in the cases where this huge amount of data has to be analysed.''

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