Houston, We Have No Problem

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NASA is basking in the glow of two glitch-free operations Monday: One to repair a mission-threatening leak aboard the space shuttle, the other to use Venus’ gravity to help the Cassini space probe build up the speed it needs to rendezvous with Saturn.

The shuttle’s woes were caused by a carbon dioxide removal unit, which blew a valve late Friday and promptly shut down. The old hands at NASA could have been forgiven for casting their minds back to Apollo 13’s deadly CO2 leak, plugged only by the most jerry-rigged air tube in the history of space flight. But this time round, it was a case of Houston, we have no problem. Commander Richard Searfoss compared the repair to fixing the water hose on his car. “Everything’s working great,” he said Sunday. His fellow travelers -- crickets, snails, fish, rats, mice and humans -- can breath a sigh of relief.

As for Cassini, the first of two “gravity assists” from Earth’s sister planet went entirely according to plan -- something of a first in the history of the bulky, plutonium loaded probe. Back in October, its launch was delayed by high winds and protested by hundreds of anti-nuclear activists. Now, with a 16,300 mph boost from Venus, Cassini has left its critics behind. That is, until it boomerangs back in August 1999 and squeezes past Earth with 500 miles to spare. How NASA handles that one will be the true test of its PR mettle.