The curse of Steve Hawley

Columbia's launch attempt on 6 January proved to be one of the most hazardous yet in the Shuttle's five-year history: the countdown was halted at T— 31 seconds, following the accidental draining of more than 1,800 kg of liquid oxygen from the ET. The tank's liquid oxygen fill-and-drain valve, it seemed, did not close when commanded to do so. Launch controllers reset the clock to T— 20 minutes and efforts were made to re-initiate the liquid oxygen loading, but by now it was realised that the window for that day would close before the vehicle was ready. Another 24hour delay was enforced.

Next day's attempt was scrubbed due to bad weather at two Transoceanic Abort Landing (TAL) sites in Spain and Senegal; which had long runways to accommodate a Shuttle in the event of an emergency during ascent. Yet another try on 9 January was called off when a liquid oxygen sensor on Pad 39A broke off and lodged itself in the prevalve of one of the three main engines. ''That would have been a bad day!'' Bolden would recall grimly years later. ''[It] would have been catastrophic, because the engine would have exploded had we launched.''

Heavy rain put paid to their next opportunity on 10 January. All seven astronauts, ironically on this occasion, were relieved not to launch. ''We went down to T—31 seconds,'' remembered Bolden, ''and they went into a hold for weather, and it was the worst thunderstorm I'd ever been in. We were really not happy about being there, because you could hear the lightning! You could hear stuff crackling in [your] headset. You're sitting out there on the top of two million pounds of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen and two [SRBs]. None of us were enamoured with being out there.''

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