- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — When the Space Shuttle Discovery is launched in May, a four-man rescue squad will be on standby just in case the spacecraft becomes seriously damaged or encounters other trouble.

“It’s a place where we don’t want to go. We’re training for a mission we never want to fly,” said the team’s commander, Air Force Col. Steven Lindsey.

A rescue mission, which might require the president’s approval, is fraught with complexities:

cA second launch would have to be done hastily without all the usual tests, possibly putting the rescue shuttle — Atlantis — and its crew in harm’s way.

• The astronauts on the first shuttle, Discovery, would hole up at the International Space Station. Designed to house three persons, it would be crammed with nine. And everyone would hope the station’s often-broken oxygen generator would do its job.

• Discovery would have to be pushed off by remote control to eventually plummet into the ocean to make room for Atlantis at the space station.

• If the rescue worked as planned, Atlantis would return to Earth carrying an unprecedented 11 persons.

And even if NASA managed to pull off this nightmare scenario, it would likely mean an end to the shuttle program five years before its time. Never before in 44 years of human spaceflight has NASA gone to such lengths to have a spaceship ready to rush to another’s assistance.

At Kennedy Space Center, hundreds of employees are toiling around the clock on the possibility. Discovery can’t lift off unless Atlantis is ready to fly one month later. It is a self-imposed requirement for the next two shuttle flights and goes beyond the list of recommendations from the panel that investigated the Columbia accident.

And so it is that Atlantis and Col. Lindsey’s minuteman team stands poised. If Discovery goes up in mid-May as planned, NASA says it could launch Atlantis as quickly as mid-June, a month sooner than scheduled.

“I’m ready to do it and I figure probably in that one-month period; I wouldn’t go home anymore, probably sleep in my office,” said Navy Cmdr. Mark Kelly, Col. Lindsey’s co-pilot.

If seven friends were up in space and needed to get home, Cmdr. Kelly said, “I’m willing to take a lot of risk to do that, and I understand that, and it’s not a decision I will have to make later. I’ve already made that decision.”

NASA’s main concerns, for now, are getting Discovery ready for a mid-May launch and Atlantis ready for a possible mid-June emergency launch, and keeping the space station running without more major breakdowns.

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