Why This Shuttle Mission Is in the Spotlight

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When the latest Space Shuttle mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral, it will be loaded — loaded with social significance, scientific importance and painful associations. Columbia and its crew — due to blast off early Tuesday morning but postponed during the final countdown due to technical problems — will be directed by Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a manned space flight in the history of NASA. Aboard the shuttle will be the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the most expensive, heaviest and most powerful X-ray telescope ever hoisted into orbit. The purpose of the $1.5 billion, four-and-a-half-story, 50,000-pound colossus will be to peer into the darkest and furthest recesses of the universe. The whole project has taken on an extra poignancy in recent days. It will take off from Kennedy Space Center, within days of the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing initially envisaged by President John F. Kennedy, on a mission whose pioneering commander was introduced at a Clinton White House ceremony attended by John F. Kennedy, Jr.

"This is an extraordinary mission," says TIME science contributor Fred Golden. "Symbolically, it is great to have a woman command a shuttle flight; but even more spectacular is the incredible new telescope it is carrying." Chandra will be placed in an irregular orbit, which at its highest point will take it one third of the way to the moon. Scientists hope the sophistication of the telescope and its positioning "will enable them to study black holes and other energetic deep space objects, and help them fathom some of the basic mysteries of cosmology," says Golden. "Let’s cross fingers it works." Scientists remember how the famed Hubble telescope was initially defective until a shuttle mission fixed it, and they are conscious of the fact that the rocket motor attached to Chandra has malfunctioned in the past. NASA, which hopes to get the Shuttle up by Thursday, says it has checked and rechecked everything.