Space Shuttle Discovery: What Do Astronauts Do When There's Nothing They Can Do?

What shuttle astronauts do when there's nowhere to go.

Feb. 23, 2011— -- The morning Mike Massimino was supposed to make his first flight into space, he says, he woke up in the crew quarters at the Kennedy Space Center raring to go.

"I got up really excited, and I called my wife, and I was talking a mile a minute about the flight, and she said," -- he lowers his voice as he tells this part of the story -- "'You don't know, do you?'"

NASA's space shuttle managers had called off the day's launch attempt while the astronauts were sleeping, and decided not to bother them. So the seven crewmembers were the last to know.

"And I said, 'Don't mess around with me. This is too important,'" he says he told his wife. 'And she said, 'No, you're not flying.'"

Such is the life of an astronaut: One can work for years preparing for a flight, building up to the big moment, and then -- scrub. There have been many launches right on schedule (Apollo 11 was two seconds late), but historically only about half of all space shuttle flights have gotten off the pad on the first try. One flight launched on its eighth attempt.

The space shuttle Discovery was given a go today for launch at 4:50 p.m. Thursday -- not a moment too soon for its six astronauts and the thousands of people who work on each mission. NASA said there was an 80 percent probability that Florida's weather would be acceptable at launch time.

This mission, scheduled to be Discovery's last, has had more than its share of delays. At one time the mission was listed for launch in May 2010, then pushed back to September, then late October. They actually tried to launch in the first week of November, but were delayed on successive days by an electrical problem, a storm front, a fuel leak, and then, finally, unexpected cracks in the shuttle's orange external fuel tank.

Launch day has come and gone repeatedly for Discovery's astronauts.

So what do you do if you get to perhaps the biggest day of your career and there's a stuck valve or a thunderstorm in Florida? Mostly, say astronauts, you do … nothing.

"You kind of have a free day," says Massimino, an exuberant man with a New York accent whose crewmates often call him "Mass." "You're booked solid up until launch -- every minute is taken -- and then suddenly you have a day off."

Certainly, there are astronauts who open their briefing books or do run-throughs of liftoff procedures. But the average training period for a shuttle mission is a year or more, so by launch day they pretty much have everything down cold. They are kept in quarantine in the weeks before flight to protect against a stray head cold, so they can't exactly go out to a restaurant.

"So we went down to the beach for a while, and then came back and watched a movie," said Massimino.

The crew of Mike Massimino's first mission, designated STS-109, consisted of seven astronauts, six male and one female (or, as he puts it, "Six idiot guys and one very nice girl"). When they scrubbed the first time, the guys out-voted their crewmate, Nancy Currie, and they watched "Gladiator." The next day they scrubbed again, and watched something a little less macho: "Sleepless in Seattle."

But there have been many cases when a day's delay turns into one of weeks or months. Discovery's fuel-tank problem put off the launch date to late November, then February, while the shuttle was brought back from the launch pad for repairs. The astronauts flew home to Houston to wait ... and wait ....

Space Shuttle: An Astronaut's Life: Wait ... and Wait....

"Well, it is frustrating, but most of us understand and support the fact that everything needs to be right," said astronaut Leroy Chiao, who has flown four missions in space four times, including a six-month stay on the International Space Station. "The crew would have had a rest, then another big push to be at the same level of preparation."

Shuttle commanders and their co-pilots will spend time in specially-modified jets NASA has for them to practice landings. If astronauts have been assigned spacewalks, they will spend time in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the giant swimming pool in Houston that has turned out to be the best place to practice working in weightlessness.

"The trainers are great. They'll find things for us to do," said John Herrington, who performed three spacewalks on a flight of the space shuttle Endeavour.

Different astronauts handle the emotional roller coaster of a delay differently. John Grunsfeld, a veteran of five flights, said he learned to urge junior crewmates to learn how to "manage frustration." Herrington told ABC News it was fun to hang out at the crew quarters in Florida: "It's kinda fun. They feed us like royalty."

Mike Massimino, who came within two weeks of launch on his second flight -- and then was faced with a six-month delay -- said he learned to be philosophical: "Better that they find the problem while you're still on the ground."

Some astronauts will tell you the truly special moment is not liftoff but "MECO" -- short for Main Engine Cut Off -- the moment, eight minutes into the flight, when the engines shut down and the crew, finally in orbit, enjoys the first sensation of weightlessness.

So perhaps the prize for equanimity in difficult circumstances goes to astronaut Steven Hawley, who was a crew member on Discovery's very first flight in 1984. The countdown actually got to its final seconds, when the main engines ignite and build up thrust. But then, with just four seconds to liftoff, the rockets dangerously shut down before the shuttle had moved an inch.

Hawley broke the tension: "Gee, I thought we'd be a lot higher."