Discovery: Onward And Upward

<B>Dan Rather</B> Reports On First Shuttle Launch Since Columbia Tragedy

NASA has delayed from May until July the launch of space shuttle Discovery, the first shuttle to fly since the 2003 Columbia disaster, because of safety concerns.

Discovery is now scheduled for launch no earlier than July 12. The flight had been targeted for late May.

Original Broadcast: April 27, 2005

In just a few weeks, unless there is a last-minute hitch, the space shuttle Discovery is scheduled to lift off for a much-delayed rendezvous with the international space station.

It's been more than two years since the last shuttle, Columbia, disintegrated in the skies above Texas, killing seven astronauts.

Now, NASA, which was severely criticized for the Columbia flight, says it's ready again to go uphill. That's their expression for the extremely dangerous and risky blastoff into space.

The pressure's on, but you wouldn't know it from talking to the confident commander of the Discovery, a veteran astronaut, who's married, with two young children.

Her name is Eileen Collins, and as Correspondent Dan Rather reports, she seems to have no fear of flying.

60 Minutes Wednesday was surprised to learn that Collins is afraid of roller coasters.

"How am I supposed to believe that when you ride the fire on the Shuttle?" asks Rather.

"I tried last summer. I stood in line for 20 minutes, got all the way up to the top, took a look at what I was gonna get on, and I turned around and went right back down," says Collins, laughing.

Go figure why someone who's afraid of roller coasters feels comfortable on the shuttle, rocketing into space with 77-million horsepower, able to fly from Los Angeles to New York in just 10 minutes.

But Commander Collins says she is ready to fly. She's been training in a $100-million shuttle simulator, which looks and feels just like the real thing. She invited 60 Minutes Wednesday to go along for the trip uphill.

After we strapped in, the entire simulator tilted back to mimic the real shuttle cockpit on the launch pad. Astronauts say it can be uncomfortable, even painful, lying on their backs for several hours, waiting for the final countdown.

Everything shook as we accelerated from zero to 120 in under 10 seconds. From zero to a 1,000 miles per hour in just one minute.

"Six thousand feet right now, 7,000. 8,000. There's 10,000 feet. We're 400 knots right now," says Collins. "You're actually 100 knots by the time you clear the tower -- 100 miles an hour. Now we're going Mach One. We just broke the speed of sound."

In just two minutes, we burned through two million pounds of fuel. "My stomach feels like it's in my throat," says Rather.

Collins became an astronaut in 1991, five years after the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff, killing seven astronauts. She had her own close call in 1999, when she became the first female commander on a shuttle flight. The flight started with a dramatic malfunction, all because of one frayed wire.

"It was rubbing against the top of a screw, and rubbed through the insulation, and caused a temporary loss of power," says Collins. "We lost two main engine controllers. Little did we know we also had fuel leaking out of one of our main engines. We actually ran out of gas."

Backup systems and computers saved the shuttle then, and it made it safely into orbit. Four years later, a catastrophe hit. That same shuttle, the Columbia, broke apart and disintegrated, trying to return to earth after 16 days in space. Seven astronauts died.