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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

Shuttle releases heaviest payload ever

Artist's drawing of the Chandra X-ray Observatory

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July 23, 1999
Web posted at: 8:01 a.m. EDT (1201 GMT)

In this story:

First female commander handles shaky start

'It's great to be back in zero-g'

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (CNN) -- Overcoming numerous liftoff difficulties on Friday morning, the first U.S. space mission commanded by a woman successfully released the Chandra telescope, the heaviest payload ever carried by a space shuttle.

The Columbia shuttle team tilted, powered up, unplugged and deployed the 50,000-pound (22,680-kilograms) X-ray observatory a little before 8 a.m. EDT. The $1.5 billion telescope will focus on black holes, exploding stars and colliding galaxies, giving astronomers insights into the origins of the universe.

Booster rockets on the Chandra satellite will place it in a highly elliptical oval orbit, taking it one-third of the way to the moon and outside the Van Allen radiation belt that could interfere with observations during its five-year mission.

First female commander handles shaky start

The Columbia, with commander Eileen Collins at the helm, roared into orbit at 12:31 a.m. Friday after a far from perfect launch. Several technical glitches plagued Columbia during its eight-minute climb to outer space.

NASA said the problems started at liftoff when Collins noticed a glitch with electrical power flowing to the shuttle's engines, said Donald McMonagle, a shuttle program manager for the space agency.

A short circuit lasting about a second knocked out computers that controlled two of the shuttle's three engines. Backup computers kept the engines working, and the loss of power should have no impact on the mission, NASA said.

More troublesome was that Columbia ran short of liquid oxygen fuel -- about 4,000 pounds short. That caused the shuttle's engines to shut off "less than three or four seconds" sooner than planned, McMonagle said.

"The cause is not known," he said, but a review would look at how the fuel was loaded and whether mission managers' calculations were in error.

"Keep in mind that's 4,000 pounds out of about 1.2 million pounds" carried in the shuttle's massive external fuel tank, McMonagle said.

But Columbia was left in an orbit seven miles lower than intended, a difference that can be made up using fuel carried aboard the orbiter itself.

Launch controllers said they aren't sure why they had less liquid oxygen than needed, but as it turns out, the high point of Columbia's oval orbit (153 nautical miles) was good enough for deployment of the Chandra.

'It's great to be back in zero-g'


After NASA halted two earlier launch attempts late in the countdown -- Tuesday because of a technical glitch and Thursday because of lightning -- Collins expressed relief to finally be in space.

"It's great to be back in zero-g again," said the 42-year-old Collins, who flew twice before as a shuttle co-pilot. As for the liftoff problems, the commander calmly said, "A few things to work on ascent kept it interesting."

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, her daughter, Chelsea, and members of the U.S. women's world champion soccer team were present for the first two launch attempts but not for Friday's launch.

Among those who were on hand was Lalitha Chandrasekhar, the 88-year-old widow of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born astrophysicist known to friends and colleagues simply as Chandra, for whom the satellite was named.

Chandrasekhar was the scientist who predicted an upper limit to the mass of stars, above which they either explode or form black holes -- points in space so massive that light, energy and matter seem to disappear into them.

Columbia is scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday.

Correspondent Miles O'Brien and Reuters contributed to this report.

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Shuttle mission aims to make history
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