Space Shuttle Endeavour Weathers Stormy Skies

It’s almost 10 p.m. local time here at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and crowds of bedraggled press are gathered in the media center waiting for the weather to clear so we can go witness a milestone in human spaceflight.

In the distance the space shuttle Endeavour stands at Launch Pad 39A, which glitters with lights like a carnival ride.

Tomorrow at 3:47 p.m. Endeavour is slated to blast off on its final flight before retirement, carrying six astronauts, supplies, and a major particle-physics experiment.

Earlier today, when I arrived at Kennedy for my first ever shuttle launch, the sun was shining and the 84-degree heat was baking the grass in the field around the giant countdown clock.

The Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), an icon of the shuttle program, gleamed under scant, fluffy clouds.

Photograph by Victoria Jaggard

The building is used to inspect and assemble the shuttles and their external fuel tanks before they’re moved out to the launch pad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the VAB billed by NASA as one of the biggest buildings in the world. It’s got more volume than the Pentagon (just shy of 130 million cubic feet vs. 77 million cubic feet), and the Statue of Liberty would easily slide inside (525 feet high vs. 305 feet high).

Since it’s the day before launch, the shuttle has already left the building, so to speak, and is standing out at the pad encased in a scaffolding-like support structure called the gantry.

What everyone hopes to see tonight is the opening of the rotating service structure, an event known among spaceflight veterans as RSS rollback. This is when the gantry opens up, exposing the craft for its imminent departure from Earth.

Tonight RSS rollback was initially scheduled for 7:30 p.m. But that’s about the time the weather decided to roll in.

The same system that devastated the U.S. Southeast this week with severe thunderstorms and tornadoes is now moving over Florida, bringing heavy rain and lightning to Kennedy. (See pictures of the tornado aftermath in Alabama.)

Photograph by Victoria Jaggard

The live TV feed of the shuttle on the pad shows the camera lens blurred by raindrops, and the blackness of night behind the craft is frequently punctuated with blinding white flashes. From inside the press center, we can hear the thunder rumbling.

So far it seems nothing vital has been struck, but a few skilled photographers have captured exactly what Endeavour is up against.

RSS rollback needs to happen for shuttle crews to start filling the fuel tanks for launch. That means if the weather pushes RSS rollback too far, the target launch may get scrubbed.

But there’s stuff NASA can do to make up for any lost time, so we wait with cautious optimism that the storm won’t cause any serious delays, and that at some point tonight we’ll get to go wish Endeavour farewell.

More as it happens—if it happens.

Photograph by Victoria Jaggard

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