The shuttle Atlantis' five-man crew packed up for a day-late return to Earth Tuesday with NASA managers approving a Kennedy Space Center touchdown if high winds make a normal California landing too dangerous, sources said.
With a clear sky and light winds at the Florida shuttleport, sources said NASA's mission management team decided to proceed with a Kennedy Space Center landing on the assumption that continuing bad weather at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., would prevent a touchdown at the shuttle's normal landing site.If conditions in California improved, however, Atlantis' crew would be directed to proceed with a routine re-entry and landing in the Mojave Desert. A final decision was not expected until later in the afternoon but sources who requested anonymity said NASA managers had decided the landing would not be delayed another day.
Chief flight director Randy Stone said Monday the space agency would hold out for a California landing if at all possible to take advantage of the broad, more forgiving runways at Edwards. But the Mojave Desert weather forecast was not favorable and more of the same was expected Wednesday.
Atlantis and its five-man all-military crew were ordered to abort a landing attempt Monday minutes before a critical rocket firing to drop the ship out of orbit because of high cross winds at Edwards.
The astronauts had three opportunities to land Tuesday at Edwards, beginning at 4:35 p.m. EST, and one to land in Florida at 4:43 p.m.
The last shuttle landing in Florida came April 19, 1985, when Discovery suffered major brake damage and a tire blow out after touchdown in a stiff crosswind. Florida landings have been banned since then pending implementation of improved brakes and other safety systems.
On board Atlantis are commander Richard Covey, 44, co-pilot Frank Culbertson, 41, and crewmates Charles Gemar, 35, Robert Springer, 48, and Carl Meade, 40. All five are active-duty military astronauts.
The primary goal of the 37th shuttle mission - the seventh and last flight to be conducted in total secrecy - was accomplished Friday when the astronauts are believed to have deployed a classified Pentagon satellite.
Atlantis had been scheduled to land at 6:21 p.m. Monday, but re-entry was aborted just 11/2 minutes before Atlantis would have sailed out of contact with a NASA communications satellite.
"Understand we're a wave-off," Covey radioed mission control.