NASA Plans First Night Launch Since Columbia Disaster

ByABC News
September 29, 2006, 6:31 PM

Oct. 1, 2006 — -- NASA said it hopes to launch space shuttle Discovery on its next mission on Dec. 7, a week earlier than previously planned.

If the liftoff happens then, it would take place at 9:38 p.m. ET, the first nighttime launching of a shuttle since the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Since Columbia's seven astronauts died, mission managers have adhered to a strict rule that shuttles launch in daylight.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommended cameras on the ground to capture any potential problems &&151; like the two-pound piece of foam that broke off the shuttle's orange external fuel tank and is believed to have damaged Columbia's wing, dooming the craft.

The three shuttle flights since have launched during the day, and cameras have documented tiny, harmless pieces of foam breaking free each time.

Daytime launches are safer, but they severely limit the "windows" during which flights can happen. The International Space Station only passes over Florida once every 24 hours, often in the middle of the night.

I'll be Home for Christmas

The proposed night launch may reflect new optimism that the shuttle program is back on its feet but the space agency gave a more basic reason for pressing ahead.

"It was an opportunity to allow employees to have more time with their families over the holidays," NASA spokesperson Jessica Rye told Reuters.

Holidays? NASA wants its people to have a life?

Well, that's part of the equation. Discovery's original launch date was Dec. 14. If NASA stuck to that -- and the shuttle ran into the kinds of delays that most do -- Discovery might still be in orbit on Christmas.

And on-the-ground support personnel would be working around the clock.

This flight, designated STS-116, continues the construction of the International Space Station.

It is supposed to include at least two spacewalks to rewire the station's electrical system, which got a jump from the new solar panels delivered by the last shuttle crew.