Storm front slows, shuttle launch now 70 percent 'go'

CBS News

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL--A storm front that wreaked havoc across the southeastern United States overnight Wednesday will reach the Florida space coast Thursday night, but forecasters expect the sky will clear in time for the shuttle Endeavour's launch Friday on a long-awaited space station assembly mission.

Shuttle commander Mark Kelly prepares for landing practice earlier this week in a NASA training jet that mimics the space shuttle on final approach. (Credit: NASA)
Shuttle weather officer Kathy Winters said the front slowed and lost energy as it moved toward Florida, but rain showers and possible thunderstorms were expected in the area Thursday evening as engineers roll a protective gantry away and prepare the shuttle for fueling.

The three-hour fueling procedure is scheduled to begin at 6:22 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) Friday and Winters said she was optimistic conditions would improve enough overnight to keep the countdown on schedule. She put the odds of good weather for launch at 70 percent, down from the 80 percent "go" forecast issued Wednesday.

Commander Mark Kelly, pilot Gregory H. Johnson, Michael Fincke, Gregory Chamitoff, Andrew Feustel and European Space Agency astronaut Roberto Vittori plan to strap in around 12:30 p.m. Friday to await liftoff at 3:47:52 p.m.

President Barack Obama planned to tour tornado-damaged sites in Alabama Friday before flying to the Kennedy Space Center for Endeavour's launch. Kelly's wife, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, injured in an assassination attempt Jan. 8, arrived at the spaceport Wednesday.

More than a half-million spectators are expected to gather along area roads and beaches to watch NASA's next-to-last shuttle launch, the 25th and final flight for Endeavour.

NASA Test Director Jeff Spaulding told reporters Thursday that Endeavour's countdown was proceeding smoothly with no technical problems of any significance.

"Everything's going well out at pad A," he said. "We don't have any issues right now that we're tracking."

The weather forecast was not as clear cut.

"As we get into the late afternoon and into the evening hours, we are expecting the front that's been working its way through the southeast U.S. the last couple of days causing all that severe weather, we're expecting that to move down into central Florida," Winters said.

"The front should move through in the overnight hours and the weather will probably be done somewhere around 10 or 11 p.m. So that's not probably going to cause too much of a delay. We'll still be able to get to tanking tomorrow morning."

As the morning wears on, low clouds are expected to break up, but Winters said that will depend on the timing. There is a chance of low ceilings that could cause problems at launch time as well as possibly high crosswinds at the shuttle's emergency runway.

"As we go into launch time, we expect the clouds to scatter out," Winters said. "But we are a little bit more concerned (than Wednesday). A ceiling could linger in the area so we did increase the probability of KSC weather prohibiting launch from 20 percent yesterday to 30 percent due to me fact that the front is a little bit slower.

"So I wouldn't be surprised if tomorrow we are red during the countdown for ceiling and then we expect the conditions to improve by launch time."

The forecast for Saturday calls for a 70 percent chance of acceptable weather, improving to 80 percent "go" by Sunday.