Reporter's Notebook: Covering the Space Program

The Space Shuttle Discovery is just days away from landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center. The mission has been a spectacular success for the space agency, which has had a rough year.

NASA's endured the alleged tawdry love triangle of former astronaut Lisa Nowak; a report that suggested astronauts drank alcohol before flying; and fallout from the agency's decision to withhold documents about the safety of commercial aviation.

So this shuttle mission, STS-120, has been welcome news in Houston. But it's also been a nail-biter.

"You don't ever show the energy of what is going on here," said a veteran astronaut a couple of days ago, after ABC News had interviewed him. We had been talking about the daring spacewalk that was being planned by hundreds of engineers at the Johnson Space Center. He said he was overwhelmed by the effort and the nonstop around-the-clock planning.

"You're right," I told him. "That's because you divorce us from the process. You don't let us see it."

At briefings, you hear about the process — reporters are told Team Four has been activated. Team Four is the group in Mission Control that is ready to respond to emergencies during missions.

A scene in "Apollo 13" comes to mind, the scene where the guys come walking down a hallway dragging an armful of boxes and tubes taped together in a valiant effort to save the Apollo crew. It worked.

That is the NASA that most people like to imagine. It is the NASA that apparently still exists, when you see the end results. It's just not a process anyone on the outside ever gets to see.

Discovery carried a dream-team crew on this, the most ambitious mission since the shuttle fleet returned to flight.

The entire crew, led by Cmdr. Pam Melroy, was eager to share the tale of their trip. They were descriptive about what they saw, their jokes during spacewalks and their camaraderie overall. They shared what was happening to them and weren't afraid to cry a little when they said goodbye.

Covering a space shuttle mission is as grueling as running a marathon. The crew gets up at 1 a.m. and works until 5 or 6 p.m. Their day is followed by a Mission Management Team (MMT) briefing for reporters. The MMT tracks problems with the mission — are all systems on board the shuttle working as expected? What shape is the orbiters' thermal protection system in?

We were shooting video last week in Building 9, a training facility at the Johnson Space Center stocked with life-size mockups of the space shuttle and the space station. Across the room I could see a few dozen people clustered around a mockup of the damaged solar array on the space station. They were scratching their heads, making notes on paper; they were brainstorming.

"Wow," I thought. "This is cool. This is what it must have been like during 'Apollo 13.'"

But it wasn't something ABC News, or any other news organization ever gets to shoot or report.

Earlier this year on another shuttle flight, there was concern about a torn thermal blanket on the space shuttle's orbital maneuvering system. A NASA team came up with a repair kit, including a surgical stapler, to fix it. Can you imagine what went into that process? I have visions of everything on the shuttle being dumped on a big table, while engineers experimented with this and that.

On the Discovery mission, Saturday's daring spacewalk worked like a charm; clearly the careful, around-the-clock planning paid off. The damaged solar array was fixed.

Construction of the space station will stay on track for now. But once again, NASA missed an opportunity to ignite excitement about its mission by failing to give readers and viewers a glimpse behind the curtain.

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