Beam Me Up, Eileen

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It took three tries this week to get the shuttle Columbia off the ground. But on the third attempt, following delays caused by technical glitches and bad weather, the first NASA mission to be commanded by a woman lifted off on Friday. Within seven hours, the crew successfully deployed one of the most precious cargos ever to be taken into space: The $1.5 billion Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a huge, sophisticated telescope that will allow astonomers to peer into deep space. There was a tense half-minute barely nine seconds into the flight when Commander Eileen Collins radioed that she had a fuel cell problem. Mission Control diagnosed the problem as a short circuit that very briefly shut down redundant controller systems in two engines. Later the shuttle wound up some seven miles short of its intended orbit because of an unrelated shortage of liquid oxygen fuel. None of the problems, however, adversely affected the release of the observatory.

"Those were breathless moments," says TIME science contributor Fred Golden. "There are no certainties in this business, but they launched the shuttle and got the telescope into orbit." And that brought cheers from astronomers around the planet. "Chandra’s X-ray range will allow scientists to look at very enigmatic objects like black holes and quasars," says Golden. Obtaining more information from deep space could help provide more clues about the beginnings of the universe, and perhaps its ultimate fate. The shuttle is scheduled to stay aloft until Tuesday, conducting a variety of other experiments aboard. It is one of the shorter missions because, at 50,000 pounds, "the observatory was close to the maximum weight that the shuttle can carry into orbit," says Golden. "The trucking aspects take a lot of fuel and energy, and in some sense this was a test." One that apparently both the shuttle and its first female commander passed with flying colors.

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