Face it. After 24 consecutive successful missions in space, the situation had reached the point where "routine," was the most commonly used adjective when talking about America's space shuttle program.
But that was B.C. Before Challenger.In the 27 months since Challenger exploded into a giant fireball just 73 seconds into flight, "routine" has been missing from the vocabulary of Morton Thiokol and NASA officials involved with the arduous task of redesigning the shuttle's booster rockets.
Until it crept back in Wednesday.
"That was a routine one," cracked U. Edwin Garrison, president of Morton Thiokol's Aerospace Group, immediately after a seemingly successful test firing of the company's redesigned booster Wednesday.
Moments earlier, Garrison's actions suggested the test was anything but routine as he repeatedly checked his wristwatch during the 120-second event.
"It's a long time," Garrison remarked to another company official. "That's got to be the longest two minutes in the world."
Of course, labeling the test routine calls for making a subjective judgment anyway.
By recent standards, considering that problems with ground support systems and computer glitches forced countdowns of two previous tests to be aborted and rescheduled for later dates, Wednesday's test came off virtually without a hitch.
But while the booster hardware, which featured a purposely flawed center field joint, appeared to perform as planned Wednesday, Mother Nature still managed to give everyone involved with the redesign program plenty to think about.
Forecasts of rain late Tuesday afternoon threatened to jeopardize Wednesday's firing and forced Morton Thiokol and NASA officials to reschedule the test for two hours earlier to 11 a.m. in order to take advantage of a predicted window in the weather.
Throughout Wednesday morning, Garrison and others were still sweating the possibility that rain might cause the test to exceed Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for fallout. However, at T-minus 30 minutes, word came from the EPA that precipitation wouldn't be a problem and the test could proceed. The countdown never skip a beat.
Inside the fenced viewing area and along the highway that fronts the remote desert test site, 25 miles west of Brigham City, nearly 2,000 people clapped and cheered as the giant booster, nearly 10,000 feet away, issued a spectacular 500-foot-long flame from its nozzle along the barren hillside. The display sent grayish-brown smoke several thousand feet into the overcast sky.
The two-minute burn also seemed to ease much of the apprehension that has dogged the redesign program since a similar test two days before Christmas revealed a faulty nozzle component and sent engineers scurrying back to their Hewlett Packards amid national headlines.
J.R. Thompson, director of
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said it would be 24 hours before the first hands-on examination of the booster starts and it could take up to a week before results of the test can be fully evaluated.
But during a post-test debriefing, Royce Mitchell, solid rocket motor project manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, said a cursory inspection of the booster suggests everything went as planned including the purposely flawed joint.
Mitchell said flaws incorporated Wednesday were much worse than anything likely to occur during rocket manufacture and assembly. Even worse flaws are scheduled to be introduced in the two remaining full-scale tests before Discovery can be certified for flight.
"We want to demonstrate that the rocket is tolerant of flaws," Mitchell said. "It's a method of showing our secondary features will do the job if called upon."
Mitchell also said he's anxious to get a first-hand look at the outer boot ring of the booster's nozzle assembly the component that failed during December's test.
Allan McDonald, Morton Thiokol vice president of engineering, said the booster's pressure readings suggests the propellant burned as it was designed to and that stresses and strains on the motor were within expected tolerances.
McDonald also used the "R" word as he described the preliminary results of Wednesday's test.
"It was just a routine test," he said.
So America's manned spaceflight program reached another critical crossroads Wednesday.
But this time there were no detours.