For the first time in the history of space flight, an astronaut's illness has forced the postponement of a launch. The space shuttle Atlantis was to have been launched on a secret military mission sometime between midnight and 4 this morning, and the countdown was moving along smoothly until mission commander John O. Creighton noticed a tickle in his throat.
By midday Wednesday, flight surgeons Philip Stepaniak and Bradley Beck had diagnosed an upper respiratory tract infection, and the launch was scrubbed.
The last time anything like this happened was before the launch of Apollo 13 on April 11, 1970. Then, crew members James Lovel, Fred Haise and Thomas Mattingly were exposed to the measles, and Mattingly eventually was replaced by John Siwgert. That flight began on schedule, however.
Creighton's illness "is not anywhere near significant enough to give consideration of replacing him as a crew member," said Donald Puddy, NASA's director of flight crew operations.
No one is waiting in the wings, anyway. When the space shuttle program began, NASA had backup crews standing by for each launch. They weren't needed, however, and eventually the practice was dropped.
NASA officials said Creighton will be examined today in hopes of launching Atlantis between midnight and 4 a.m. Friday. But Creighton's illness raises the possibility that the other four crew members might also be infected and just not yet displaying symptoms.
Everyone will need to have a clean bill of health before another target launch date is selected, said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring.
Astronauts are not supposed to get sick the day before a launch, and NASA has a plan _ the "health stabilization program" _ to see to it that it doesn't happen.
The stabilization program goes into effect seven days before launch. Access to the astronauts is limited to NASA employees with a need to be present and the astronauts' immediate families.
All others must keep six feet away from the astronauts or wear a surgical mask. NASA workers who are ill, or who have been recently exposed to someone who is ill, are told to stay away. Security personnel make sure the rules are followed.
So what went wrong?
"We don't know," said NASA spokesman Herring. "He (Creighton) was feeling fine yesterday. Today he's got a sore throat and some head congestion." The rest of the crew was feeling fine, he said.
How an astronaut feels is important, especially in the first few days of a mission, Herring said. In those first days, an astronaut is most likely to feel disoriented and queasy. A head cold added to those anticipated discomforts would make for a difficult, and probably inefficient, mission, he said.
Even if all five astronauts feel in the pink today, the weather looks unfavorable for a launch Friday morning. A cold front is threatening to blanket the space center with low clouds and rain showers.
On its Defense Department mission, Atlantis is expected to deploy a 37,300-pound reconnaissance satellite that will fly over much of the Soviet Union gathering information for U.S. intelligence agencies.