The space shuttle Discovery landed during the early hours of June 6, 1999.
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Courtesy of NASA

Discovery Landed, Columbia Launch in Question
News story originally written on June 7, 1999

The space shuttle Discovery made a successful landing during the early hours of June 6, 1999. The night landing was only the 11th of its kind in 94 flights. The highlights of the mission include attaching construction cranes on the International Space Station (ISS) and delivering supplies that will be used by the station's first crew, scheduled to be aboard next March.

Most of the attention, however, is focused on the next scheduled mission. The shuttle Columbia is supposed to launch on July 22, 1999. It's payload is an X-ray observatory similar to the Hubble Space Telescope. The $2.5 billion observatory is supposed to be propelled into its orbit by a motor. During an earlier mission, a similar motor failed, stranding a $250 million satellite in space.

The launch will not take place until the cause of the motor failure is found. If the shuttle doesn't launch by August, it will have to re-schedule for next year. The second half of the year is already full, with launches in September, October and December.

"We may have a real problem here," NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin said. "But we will not launch (Columbia) until it's safe. And if we have to wait a year, we have to wait a year."

If Columbia does not complete its mission by August, it will most likely make a trip to California for an overhaul. The earliest it would be able to begin a mission is the fall of 2000. Unfortunately, Columbia is the only shuttle with a cargo bay big enough to hold the observatory.

"We cannot just stay in place and tread water, waiting for the payload to be ready," NASA shuttle program director Ron Dittemore said. "Sooner or later, we're going to have to make a decision to either send the vehicle back to (California) or to launch."

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