You know it's a quiet mission when the journalists are more focused on milestones than the missile just launched. An hour after the near-flawless dawn flight to space by shuttle Discovery on April 5, the reporters on site talked about this fourth-last flight of the program, that record number of women in space, and the two Japanese meeting face to face for the first time.
Also drawing comment - a pass by the International Space Station that night that from the vantage of the press site, appeared to burst through the moon. But with Discovery's record-low 46 issues to report in the months leading up to launch, few journalists raised queries at the post-launch conference.
"I think that was the first time NASA had to beg for more questions," joked one journalist after the press briefing. (The failure of the shuttle's data and video KU-link was only discovered after the briefing finished.)
The Eagle lands
The lull won't last for long. President Barack Obama will arrive at Kennedy Space Center next week to headline the discussion about NASA's future that he abruptly changed two months ago. Thousands of jobs lie in the balance of his plan to shutter the Constellation moon-to-Mars program and instead focus on delivering heavy-lift vehicles with no fixed destination, built in partnership with private industry.
That requires the approval of Congress, and it drew the ire of members in Florida and Texas - two states with heavy NASA contractor presence. In an economy still in recession, members said they worried about the loss of technical jobs in their constituencies.
Shuttle not as easy to operate as seen
NASA officials shied away from saying anything definitive, even when it was pointed out to them that the program is retiring at a peak of teamwork and efficiency. "It takes a lot of care and feeding to keep the shuttle flying," said shuttle integration manager Mike Moses.
"While it is painful and sad to shut down the program that's flying, you have to to move on." Added Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator of space operations, the 30-year-old shuttle program could use some tweaking for the next generation of craft, whatever that may be. "We need to build a simpler system that's a little easier, to fly what's needed," he said.
More experiment space
Press materials for STS-131 tout the science that the new Leonardo multi-logistics module will bring to the station. Leonardo will add extra racks of equipment space, put in a minus 80 degree freezer and also add an experiment to measure muscle atrophy, Still, it was the lack of a fuss Discovery put up that drew the attention of the media.
"I think a piece of it is the nature of the hardware," said Gerstenmaier in response to a question about why so few anomalies now. "We keep flying it, so we know how it works."