NASA engineers made final preparations Monday for the shuttle Discovery's takeoff today on a "star wars" research flight, but forecasters said stormy weather could delay the launch. Discovery and its seven-man crew, grounded since March by cracks in critical hinges, are scheduled to blast off at 7:05 a.m. EDT today, just 18 days after Atlantis was launched on the year's first shuttle mission.
Working around the clock in two shifts, Discovery's astronauts plan to spend eight days in orbit conducting a smorgasbord of experiments to perfect sensor technology needed by Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) missile hunting satellites.
Discovery's countdown began on schedule Saturday, and no technical problems have cropped up that would delay the flight. But high winds, low clouds, and possible thunderstorms from a fast-moving frontal system threaten to delay the flight.
If Discovery is not off the ground by Thursday, the flight will be delayed five days to top off coolant needed to chill heat-sensitive infrared sensors used by two "star wars" experiments on board.
The goal of the year's second shuttle flight is to gather data on how an enemy missile's fiery exhaust plume appears against a variety of backdrops ranging from the deep black of space to the brilliant blues and whites of planet Earth.
The results will be used by SDI engineers to design sensors that can locate, identify, and track enemy missiles in flight so future "star wars" satellites can mount successful attacks.