Although technical glitches and snafus on the launch pad continue to delay the long-awaited launch of the space shuttle Discovery, accusatory fingers for these setbacks aren't being pointed Utah's way - for a change.
Until recently, Utah's Morton Thiokol, which builds the redesigned booster rockets that will carry Discovery aloft, has borne the brunt of criticism - much of it deserved - for delays in the shuttle program.But now, the proverbial shoe is on the other foot.
Despite an embarrassing setback in early July when a worker accidently damaged a test booster, forcing the delay of the testing schedule, Morton Thiokol officials say they're ready for liftoff - even if the shuttle orbiter currently standing on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Fla., isn't.
NASA engineers at the Cape have run into a steady stream of problems, the biggest being a nagging fuel leak, while attempting to conduct a full-scale launch simulation of Discovery. These problems have already forced postponement of the launch from early September until at least mid-month, and threaten to shove it back even further.
But it's a different story at Morton Thiokol's remote Wasatch Operations in Utah's West Desert, 25 miles west of Brigham City.
"It was an embarrassment to screw up like we did a last month, but now we're on target for an Aug. 20 test of the booster," said John Thirkill, vice president of Morton Thiokol's Space Operations. We're essentially done. I think we're out of the woods.
"We're very pleased to be through our program and to have overcome the difficulties of development and redesign."
Still, Thirkill has had to field numerous calls about the problems now being encountered with Discovery in Florida - even though Morton Thiokol has nothing to do with them. The orbiter is built by Rockwell.
"We always get quite a few calls when something goes wrong with the shuttle," chuckled Thirkill. "We've been very visible throughout this whole thing and I think that visibility continues now."
Another company official, who asked not to be named, was less diplomatic. "We've been the selected whipping boy for a long time. This feels pretty good for a change."
But while Morton Thiokol officials are sitting smug, NASA officials, like John Thomas, who heads up NASA's booster redesign program, said now is not to time to worry about who's to blame for the current problems with Discovery.
"It's nice not to be the pacing item for the launch," Thomas said in a telephone interview from Cape Canaveral. "But frankly, there's not a great deal of time to worry about who's ticket these leaks are on."
Thomas said he's confident the leaks can be repaired on-site and won't necessitate removing Discovery from the launch pad, which would delay the launch until at least mid-October.
He said there have been no problems whatsoever with the Utah-built rocket motors at the pad.