At three minutes before 10 a.m. today, Lynn Barnett and his 40-member landing site team received the bad news: the space shuttle Columbia would touch down as planned in New Mexico.
It was not coming home after all.
The immediate reaction, Barnett said later, was "unprintable."
"We were very disappointed," he added.
Barnett, landing site convoy commander, and his team began arriving at the Kennedy Space Center at 2 a.m. "At the time we came in we thought we'd be the prime site," said Barnett, an 18-year NASA veteran.
"They held us off until the deorbital burn a little after 10," he said. "It was just enough notice to go watch it someplace on television ."
By noon, most of Barnett's team had gone home and the convoy commander stood alone with reporters next to the three-mile runway that is planned as the shuttle's permanent landing strip after two more missions.
The team, which is identical to the landing site team at White Sands, N.M., consists of firemen, crash crew and technicians to cool and air-condition the spacecraft and vent any poisonous fumes that may have accumulated.
When Mission Control announced Monday that the Kennedy Space Center could be the backup landing site because of gale-force winds and blowing sand in New Mexico, "all hell broke loose here," in the words of a space center canteen worker.
The public affairs staff, dressed in Smithsonian mail-order Space Shuttle ties, ordered 50 special buses to transport an expected 700-member press crew to any of nine outdoor viewing sites. The Brevard County sheriff's department put 100 men on a 30-minute alert for crowd control. Motel room reservations went fast as tourists held on another day.
"We were here at 3:15 this morning, ready to go," said Machelle Jackson, who staffed a food wagon.
During this mission, the third for the shuttle, NASA officials had hoped to avoid landing at the Kennedy Space Center before perfecting a pinpoint touchdown in desert crosswinds typical of the stiff breezes that whip inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
With 10- to 15-knot due-east crosswinds and gusts up to 20 knots, "it would have been close" to the maximum safety conditions for the 300-foot-wide runway, Barnett said.
The landing strip, which is 15,000 feet long with 1,000 feet of lime rock overruns at each end, is hemmed in by the Indian River and grassy stretches filled with alligators.
Barnett and his crew were prepared for any contingency. "We've been on a ready mode since launch," he said. Daily standby alerts and two "dry runs" since the Columbia was launched eight days ago "built up our confidence we could do it," he said.
Six or seven times each day when the shuttle passed over the Kennedy center the 150-member landing team was on alert. They needed three hours to prepare for a daylight landing, which could have come as early as 6:30 a.m., he said.
The worst-case scenarios were known as "Mode 6" and "Mode 7" in space-computer jargon.
In Mode 6, "they'd get down, we'd lose communications with the crew. They'd need to be helped out and the helicopters would go in and pick them up," Barnett explained. In Mode 7, "they'd miss the runway." Helicopters would rush to the crew's rescue and "our job would be to salvage whatever we could," said Barnett.
On Friday, "when everybody was getting bored, we pulled a surprise drill at 8 a.m. just to see if everyone could get here on time," he said.
Everyone did, except one man "who got a miscommunication" and arrived within three minutes of the drill's scheduled landing, Barnett said.