Along with the actual shuttle, NASA must also tend to the media when launches are postponed
Imagine inviting tens of thousands of people to an event that gets canceled. For NASA public affairs officials accommodating media and VIPs at space shuttle launches in Cape Canaveral, FL, it happens all the time.
At the planned Sunday, August 27 launch of STS-115, for instance, which will deliver important solar panels to the International Space Station, PRWeek was given an inside view on PR and public affairs operations during a launch that, thanks to the vagaries of Mother Nature, didn't happen.
Rather than the hoped for "10, 9, 8..." countdown followed by the roar and rumbling ground of a rocket liftoff, instead on display was a continually changing timetable of media conferences on the mechanical, administrative, and meteorological factors prompting the launch's delay.
David Mould, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs, says his team aims to discuss the status of a launch within a "no-spin environment." For the safety of all involved, NASA engineers simply can't be pressured to launch as scheduled.
As NASA public affairs officer Allard Beutel noted that Sunday evening, hours after the originally scheduled liftoff time had passed, delays are more typical than on-time launches, but the reasons for the delays are always different.
"Everybody is calling about the delay, and the best I can do is keep saying the same thing, although maybe in a slightly different way," Beutel says.
With STS-115, the problems started with a thunderstorm on Friday, August 25, when the shuttle launchpad took a massive lightning strike. The most pressing issue was determining whether any of the electrical systems there had been damaged. NASA scientists and officials periodically convened to provide updates on their findings, which were further complicated by continued thunderstorms that kept workers away from the launchpad.
In the media room, dozens of reporters from print and broadcast outlets both in the US and overseas were continually updating their stories with whatever information they could find, particularly as to when the already rescheduled launch might happen.
On Saturday, officials announced the launch wouldn't happen until Monday, August 28, to give engineers time to complete damage assessments. Then Sunday, officials said they still hadn't had enough time and pushed the launch back another day. But now there was another major complication: Hurricane Ernesto was approaching Haiti and tracking east, threatening to come straight up the middle of Florida.
Moving a space shuttle back into the Vehicle Assembly Building takes a lot more time than parking a car in a garage - a day, at least. If the shuttle didn't launch by Tuesday, but wasn't moved back to the hangar in time, it could get whacked by the storm.
At 8pm that Sunday, officials said they would make their final decision the next morning at 7am - the point at which they would no longer have time to roll the shuttle back to safety. Finally, on Monday, August 28, officials announced that the launch had been temporarily scrubbed, possibly to launch in another week's time.
"We hate delays," Mould says. "It costs the PR department money to stay around, and we only have so much" for such things as reserving the surprisingly expensive shuttle buses to take visitors on and off the NASA complex, as well as travel costs for NASA employees. Many invited VIPs never show up unless the launch is on track, but many others do and must be kept apprised of developments. Moreover, as the delays lengthen, the press crowd dwindles.
But the PR team's hope is that most of the crowd can't help but return, lured by the excitement of the shuttle launch and - if the PR team has done its work properly through media briefings, NASA TV programming, an engaging Web site, and other enticements - the possibilities of space exploration.