Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Astronauts fight delays with humor, pessimism


For go-go astronauts, the way to cope with the no-go of a launch delay is with a joke.

NASA's king of launch delays, former astronaut Steve Hawley, had some advice for Atlantis' six astronauts awaiting a fifth liftoff attempt yesterday: Have a little pessimism and a lot of humor.

Hawley has experienced 12 launch delays for five liftoffs.

His first flight, on Discovery in 1984, was delayed three times. But that was nothing compared to his 1986 Columbia mission, which set a record for futility with six scrubs.

After all that, Hawley decided he was the problem. So for the seventh Columbia launch attempt he put on a disguise: he wore Groucho Marx glasses, eyebrows and nose and taped over his flight suit name tag with gray duct tape "so the orbiter didn't know it was me. And it worked," he said.

Columbia launched after Hawley donned his disguise.

Three missions later for Hawley, in another delay-ridden flight, an astronaut handed him a paper bag to wear over his head "and it worked then, too," he said.

Hawley, who is now chief of space science at Johnson Space Center, said he survived his dozen delays by being a pessimist. He never thought he would launch on each try, so he wasn't disappointed.

That didn't work for some of his colleagues, who got a bit down.

Mike Mullane, one of those on the on-and-off 1986 Columbia mission, said delays are hardest on rookie flyers.

But that mission, even for veterans, "got really tiresome and stressful," he said.

US Senator Bill Nelson, who hitched along on that Columbia flight, went to the launch pad each time expecting to blast off. And unlike Hawley, the scrubs hit hard, but only briefly.

"There's a momentary disappointment, but then you just get your mind focused on the next launch attempt," Nelson recalled on Friday.

"It gets to be old hat when you scrub after scrub after scrub," he said.

But joking helped, as did exercise in the crew quarters, he said.

"We were laughing all the time because of the great sense of humor of our commander, Hoot Gibson," Nelson said.

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