- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s second Mars rover successfully blasted off after nearly two weeks of delays, although technical problems hampered the launch to the very end.

With only seven seconds left in the countdown to the first launch opportunity Monday night, officials called it off after detecting a valve problem.

Less than an hour later, Opportunity finally blasted off at 11:18 p.m. Relieved officials joked about Murphy’s Law being behind the bad weather and glitches that had threatened the launch.

“Everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” said NASA Launch Director Omar Baez.

Time had been running out for Opportunity. NASA had until July 15 to launch the rover before Earth and Mars became too far apart — and the next chance would have been in four years.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe flew to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to watch the rover blast off on a Delta II heavy rocket.

“Everything is in healthy shape,” Richard Brace, deputy project manager, said after the liftoff.

The launch was postponed more than a half-dozen times and pushed back by almost two weeks because of bad weather, a failed battery cell and a nagging problem with cork insulation failing to stick to the aluminum rocket.

The failed battery cell was discovered over the weekend and replaced. Fixing the cork on the rocket had been more challenging.

The cork is believed to have peeled off from the rocket during fueling, when minus-300-degree liquid oxygen is loaded into the rocket. Workers replaced pieces of the cork and used a stronger adhesive.

Workers also fixed minor last-minute problems Monday night involving software and the replacement battery cell.

Opportunity and its sister rover, Spirit, which was launched last month, are scheduled to arrive at Mars in January and land on opposite sides of the planet as part of the $800 million mission.

The six-wheeled vehicles will roll across the rocky, red soil of Mars and send back data that could help scientists determine whether there was ever enough water on the planet to support life.

The rovers are following two other spacecraft on their way to Mars. Japan’s trouble-plagued Nozomi orbiter, originally launched in 1998, is scheduled to arrive in late December or early January. Scheduled to arrive about the same time is the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter and its British-built Beagle 2 lander, which also were launched last month.

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