The 10th flight of the space shuttle, the first to have a secret mission, has been postponed indefinitely from its target date of Nov. 3 for the same reason that NASA almost lost a $100 million communications satellite on the shuttle's sixth and most recent flight.
NASA officials yesterday confirmed a report in Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine that the shuttle flight, also the first to be flown solely for the Air Force, had been delayed indefinitely. Officials said they have no idea when it will be rescheduled. They noted that the Air Force and NASA have an agreement that allows the service to preempt any scheduled shuttle mission.
Sources said the reason for the postponement was a "lack of confidence" in understanding why the second stage of a two-stage rocket built for the Air Force by the Boeing Co. failed to put NASA's Tracking Data and Relay Satellite (TDRS) in its proper orbit in April. The difficulty occurred after the flawless deployment of the satellite out of the shuttle's cargo bay and the successful firing of the first stage of the engine, which lifted the 7,000-pound satellite into a higher orbit.
The postponement of the secret flight indicates that the satellite or satellites the shuttle is to carry for the Air Force will use the same two-stage engine (called the Interim Upper Stage) that malfunctioned.
The Air Force and NASA have convened a special board to investigate what went wrong with the rocket, which suddenly pushed the TDRS satellite off course and caused it to tumble 80 seconds after the engine began to fire.
The Air Force has pictures of the satellite veering off course but has yet to make them public. The board has also not released any report of what it believes to have caused the failure.
The rescheduled Air Force shuttle flight will keep its original crew: Navy Capt. T.K. Mattingly, Air Force Maj. Loren Shriver, Air Force Maj. Ellison Onizuka and Marine Maj. James Buchli.