|By Cary Shimek
Tension and dismay were etched in the faces
of The University of Montana researchers as their launch window ticked away. The countdown
for the Atlas IIAS rocket that would carry their software into space was on hold, stymied
by unexpected weather balloon data indicating high winds in the upper atmosphere. A
Pacific front had just moved in, perfectly timed to disrupt NASAs 24-minute window
of opportunity on Dec. 18.
Years of work by UMs Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group had come to this:
They were 10 people pacing among hundreds of other scientists and technicians in a huge
Lockheed Martin aircraft hangar at Californias Vandenberg Air Force Base. The UM
delegation edgily scanned television monitors showing the rocket and listened to crackling
public-address-system updates from Atlas Launch Control. Some wandered outside to gaze at
the 165-foot-tall tower of metal resting serenely on its pad four miles away. They
suspected it wasnt going anywhere. And the 60-degree temperature and blue windless
sky belied controllers statements that air currents raged far above.
The group was used to disappointment. Various delays already had kept the rocket and
the Terra environmental satellite it contained stranded on the pad for 27 months. Then
when NASA finally set a firm launch date for Dec. 16, that event was scrubbed because of a
glider straying into Vandenberg air space and then a computer glitch. Close to 1,000
spectators had been bused to the base for that launch attempt, only to be disappointed 39
seconds before liftoff. Now, two days later, NASA was trying again before a much smaller
The wind delay brought spirits to a new low. If this launch failed, NASA wouldnt
try again until at least Jan. 6, and most of the UM crew wouldnt return to watch
their work take flight. No one knew when another attempt would happen. If they had learned
anything in the last two days, it was that rocket science offers no guarantees.
When asked, Joe Glassy, the UM teams director of software development, gave the
launch perhaps a 25 percent chance of taking place. Director Steve Running said,
This is just like a Hollywood suspense thriller. Program director Young-ee Cho
responded, But in Hollywood we usually have a happy ending.
The launch window ticked away, the countdown clock wasnt moving and tensions
mounted. Graduate student team member Alisa Keyser said, I think Im going to