San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Weather Trumps Costa Rica-Based NASA

WHEN the U.S. space shuttle Discovery landed Tuesday morning, Costa Rica nearly took part in an historic effort to monitor its entry. The mission was sidelined by inclement weather when the shuttle’s landing was delayed twice, but there may be other opportunities for the country to participate in space missions, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) officials say.As part of an unprecedented effort to monitor the shuttle, the first launched since the Columbia disintegrated on reentry in 2003, NASA based a WB-57 high-altitude research plane in Costa Rica. The plane, outfitted with infrared and visible light cameras in its nose, arrived Aug. 5 and took off shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday to track the shuttle in its descent. NASA canceled Discovery’s entry on the first orbit, fearing bad weather, but if it had not, the shuttle would have flown 400,000 feet over San José, plowing through the upper atmosphere at Mach 20 (20 times the speed of sound).“It would have been a sight,” mission manager William Meins told The Tico Times. “At that speed it would have been glowing like a shooting star or a Roman candle.”THE change in plans sent the WB-57 to the Gulf of Mexico to try to record the shuttle’s entry on its second orbit, closer to the Discovery’s planned landing site at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, cruising at Mach 15. But that entry was scrapped, too, when NASA officials, jittery because of the weather, sent the shuttle to Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert instead.“There was no way we could have gotten (the WB-57) over there in time to collect data,” Meins said, so the plane landed at its base in Houston, Texas.The WB-57 not only had a false start Tuesday, but the day before as well, when it took off from the National Aero-transportation Research Hangar (HANIA) in the Juan Santamaría International Airport in Alajuela, west of San José, at 12:15 a.m. in anticipation of the shuttle’s scheduled landing. The plane stayed aloft four hours until NASA delayed the shuttle landing until Tuesday; then the plane landed for refueling and maintenance before its second flight the next day.FROM Edwards, Discovery will ride piggyback on a Boeing 747 back to Kennedy. “NASA tries to avoid landing at Edwards or other bases because it costs over $1 million to ferry it and you lose about a week in turnaround time to process the shuttle for the next flight,” Meins said, acknowledging that in this case the turnaround time doesn’t matter because the fleet is now grounded.“When the shuttles start flying again, there’s a very good chance we will do the same thing, probably out of San José,” Meins said. “We have two WB-57s. One would catch the shuttle at Mach 20 over San José and another would be closer to the landing site and would catch it at Mach 8.”Meanwhile, the plane is due back in Costa Rica in January to conduct tests on the AURA research satellite.It will fly in tandem with the satellite, directly below. Both will take the same measurements and perform the same functions simultaneously. The information will then be compared to verify that the satellite is performing well.THE Discovery mission, which launched July 26, was the most closely observed shuttle flight ever – a precaution NASA took after the Columbia disaster, when a piece of foam that broke loose from the fuel tank during takeoff fatally chipped a wing and caused it to melt from the inside when the shuttle heated on reentry. A piece of foam of nearly the same size broke loose from the Discovery’s fuel tank as well, but officials concluded it did not cause damage. NASA grounded all other shuttles after the launch, pending a solution to the falling foam hazard.The WB-57 can cruise at 65,000 feet, twice as high as commercial jetliners. Crew members protect themselves in pressurized suits and breathe liquid oxygen. The plane’s infrared camera was specially designed for this mission, Meins said.He and other NASA officials worked with Costa Rica’s National Center of High Technology (CENAT) on the Discovery monitoring mission, as they have on other projects.“We all love coming to Costa Rica. We enjoy it so much,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world, and Costa Rica has the nicest people I’ve met.”

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