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Saturday Part 1

Again, we assemble at 6:30, go through security, and enter Kennedy Space Center (KSC).  Again the sky is totally overcast; I'm not at all optimistic that they'll land today.

Proceeding from the security checkpoint toward the press site, I suddenly spot the Shuttle Training Aircraft above us and to the left, descending steeply.  Astronaut Steve Lindsay is flying mock shuttle landings in order to assess the conditions that Scooter Altman, Atlantis's commander, will experience if they do end up landing here today.

The Shuttle Training Aircraft is a Gulfstream jet that has been fitted with shuttle-type controls, and modified so as to handle like the shuttle.  Shuttle commanders and pilots (the ones who actually fly the shuttle, as opposed to the "mission specialist" astronauts who do spacewalks but no piloting) use this training airplane to practice landing the shuttle.

Scooter, Atlantis's commander, explained to me that the shuttle comes in 7-times steeper than an airliner.  Watching the training jet make a mock approach, it almost looks like a plane about to crash - it seems to be literally diving toward the ground.
When the shuttle lands, they have some pretty restrictive weather requirements.  They don't want any chance of flying through rain or lightning; rain can actually damage the thermal tiles covering the spacecraft (they're incredibly robust against heat, but very fragile when it comes to physical impacts of any kind).

They even try to avoid clouds or smoke.  After all, when it descends the shuttle is a glider with no engines - it's basically falling like a brick, and the pilot has one chance to land it.  If he's off course or can't see the runway, too bad - there's no going around to try again.  So they want conditions to be excellent.

The other problem is the time delay in between committing to land and the actual landing.  Once they decide to go, they fire their engines for the last time and the shuttle basically starts falling, but it takes over an hour to fall from orbit down to the ground.

That means they have to reliably forecast the weather at the landing site over an hour ahead of time.  Our weather here is lousy, but they tell us Florida has some of the fastest-changing weather in the world, which makes their forecasting even harder.

After an hour and a half of waiting, we get word that the first landing opportunity is waved off.  Looking at the sky, I'm not surprised.  The next opportunity will come on the next orbit around the earth, which takes about 90 minutes.

Everybody here is anxious, even the official NASA people who seem to strive for blandness and complete lack of emotion in every manner of speech, dress, and demeanor.

We'll drink more coffee and wait...
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