Fog and rain prevented the space shuttle Columbia from landing in Florida yesterday, the latest setback in a trouble-plagued mission whose launch was postponed a record seven times, and one that could delay Columbia's next flight, scheduled for March 6.
If the weather in Florida is no more cooperative today, shuttle managers will be forced to reroute the 100-ton spaceliner to Edwards Air Force Base in California, adding at least six days to the turnaround time for its next launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral.
Columbia's March 6 launch date was selected to match its mission with those of two Soviet and one European spacecraft studying Halley's Comet.
The first of two Soviet Vegas is to fly by the comet March 8, and Giotto, the European craft, is to pass as close as 310 miles from the comet's nucleus five days later.
"It would be nice if the crew of Columbia could photograph Halley at the same time the Russians and Europeans are photographing it from up close," said a spokesman at Houston's Johnson Space Center.
"But the overall objectives of Columbia's mission, including ultraviolet photographs of Comet Halley, would not be compromised if the March 6 launch date is not met. There are opportunities for launch through the end of the month," the spokesman said.
Columbia's seven-man crew, which includes Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), was told yesterday to aim for a landing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center at 7:12 this morning. At the same time, crew members were advised that weather conditions for the landing were uncertain.
Officials said that if Columbia is diverted to California, it will land at Edwards at 5:32 a.m. (8:32 a.m. EST) today. There is also a possibility that a break in the Florida weather will prompt controllers to bring the shuttle to the cape for a landing.
This 24th mission of the space shuttle program has been star-crossed from the start. Columbia's launch was postponed seven times in 25 days before the craft lifted off last Sunday. The record number of delays has raised doubts that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will be able to meet its 15-flight program for 1986, the most demanding launch schedule in five years.
So tight is the timetable that Columbia's crew had been ordered to land a day early to keep the schedule on track. If weather conditions divert the shuttle to California today, further schedule changes will be necessary.
Forecasts had been favorable for a Florida landing yesterday but then rain-choked clouds and thick fog moved over Cape Canaveral. In the predawn hours, chief astronaut John Young reported from a reconnaissance plane that the fog was so thick he could not see the runway lights on the landing strip from an altitude of 1,500 feet.
Once again, the choice of central Florida as the main shuttle landing site was called into question.
Of 23 shuttle landings in almost five years, five have been in Florida. All but one of the others were in California's Mojave Desert, where weather is rarely a problem.
Two of the landings were targeted for Florida but were waved off -- one to California and one to New Mexico -- when weather at Cape Canaveral proved troublesome.
The last Florida landing was April 19 when crosswinds forced the shuttle Discovery to make a high-speed landing on the grooved concrete runway at Kennedy.
Discovery blew a tire and a brake assembly, forcing NASA to resume California landings until a new steering system could be installed on all four shuttles to reduce brake damage on landings.