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Archive for Wednesday, July 11, 2001

At NASA, science beats superstition

July 11, 2001

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— Ever since star-crossed Apollo 13, NASA has never given a manned spaceflight the number 13. And never in its history has it launched a spaceship on Friday the 13th.

That may change this Friday.

With stormy weather looming, space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of five have a little better than even chance of lifting off before dawn Thursday on a space station construction mission. If Thursday is a washout, NASA will try to launch Atlantis on Friday the 13th.

No one not the shuttle managers, not the astronauts themselves is expressing any superstitious concern.

It will be business as usual, insists the agency that nevertheless countenances all sorts of rituals: NASA serves up beans after every launch. The launch director's tie is cut off after his first liftoff. Some of the brass don good-luck caps and other gear for the final stage of a countdown. And the agency winks at astronauts' carrying good-luck charms into space.

NASA test director Jeff Spaulding will be one of the top men in the firing room on launch morning, and even he was wondering whether the space agency would attempt a liftoff on the 13th. So he asked his bosses. Their answer: Go for launch.

"We're going to treat that just like any other day," Spaulding said Monday.

Apollo 13 left for the moon on April 11, 1970, a Saturday. The spacecraft's oxygen tank exploded two days later, on April 13.

In 1984, the 13th shuttle flight was called 41-G because of a complicated new numbering sequence that was adopted with the 10th mission. Flight 41-G was largely trouble-free.

NASA's chief historian, Roger Launius, warned against reading too much into the fact that there has never been another manned mission numbered 13 or a Friday the 13th manned launch.

"To the best of my knowledge, it's coincidental and my surmises from talking to lots of engineers over the years are that they are notoriously non-superstitious," Launius said Tuesday.

Indeed, STS-113, the 113th shuttle flight, is coming next year.

A few unmanned spacecraft carried the designation 13, most notably NASA's 13th Pioneer space probe and NOAA-13, a weather satellite developed by NASA. Pioneer 13, though, was more commonly known as Pioneer Venus 2, and NOAA-13 conked out 12 days after launch.

Steven Lindsey, commander of Atlantis' 11-day mission to deliver and install a new air lock for the international space station, insisted he is not superstitious. "Doesn't bother me at all," he said when asked about a Friday the 13th launch. He repeated: "Doesn't bother me at all."

"That's my lucky day," said Michael Gernhardt, who will make three spacewalks to hook up the air lock and four high-pressure gas tanks.

Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 commander, said he was never superstitious and neither was his crew. His original command module pilot, Thomas "Ken" Mattingly, in fact, wanted a Friday the 13th launch so the mission patch could bear a picture of a black cat. As it turned out, Mattingly was exposed to German measles before liftoff and was bumped off Apollo 13.

Now, that was luck.

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