NASA has postponed Friday's scheduled launch
of the space shuttle Endeavour due to a mechanical failure in one of its power units, Space.com reports. The shuttle had already endured a wildfire
on Wednesday and lightning strikes
Thursday night (pictured), and clear weather made it seem likely the Friday afternoon liftoff would proceed as planned. But just after 12 p.m. Friday, NASA scratched the launch after discovering two malfunctioning heaters on one of the shuttle's auxiliary power units, which help power its hydraulics systems during re-entry. The next chance for the shuttle to lift off will be Sunday, May 1, at 2:59 p.m., but NASA must determine the cause of the power failure before it can schedule a new launch date. "There's not a way to do the troubleshooting we need to do and stay in a countdown configuration," says NASA spokesman George Diller. "It will be at least a 48-hour scrub turnaround."
Some 750,000 onlookers were expected to gather in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch the launch, meaning huge crowds of shuttle fans will have to shuffle their plans if they hope to see Endeavour's final flight. Among the disappointed spectators are President Obama, who would be only the third U.S. president in history to watch a shuttle launch in person (he planned to bring the first family along, too, the first time any president has done so). As of Friday afternoon, there's no word yet on whether the Obamas will attend the rescheduled liftoff, according to Space.com. Many members of Congress had also planned to attend the launch, most notably Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who is still recovering from a gunshot wound to the head she suffered in January. Giffords' husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, will command the Endeavour on its two-week mission to the International Space Station, and being able to watch the launch live from Kennedy Space Center has long been one of Giffords' top recovery goals.
When it does finally launch, Endeavour will mark one giant leap toward the end of America's 30-year space shuttle era, leaving just one shuttle — Atlantis — in NASA's fleet. The agency has launched shuttles into space 133 times before, each one tasked with a unique array of scientific and logistical missions, and this time is no different: Endeavour will carry a $2 billion, seven-ton particle physics detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer up to the space station, where it will help researchers study the universe's origins. But this launch also carries more symbolic importance than most, marking not only NASA's second-to-last shuttle launch, but also a new era for people on Florida's "Space Coast." As Reuters reports, space travel is woven into life in Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Titusville and other cities along Florida's central Atlantic Coast — even the local area code, 321, is meant to evoke a countdown. The fleet's farewell will mean big changes for the region, laments retired NASA logistician Laverne Woodard. "I'll cry when it launches. I'll cry when it comes back," she tells Reuters. "When you watch them go up, you feel you've touched a piece of history."
To help you pass the time until NASA reschedules Endeavour's launch date, check out these 6 surprising facts
about the shuttle from Space.com.
The death toll from this week's wave of thunderstorms has reached 300, the Washington Post reports, making it the deadliest natural disaster to strike the U.S. since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Rescuers continue to dig through rubble from Mississippi to Virginia, slowly revealing the scope of devastation from a tornado outbreak that increasingly looks like the worst in U.S. history. President Obama visited Alabama Friday, surveying the damage on his way to the shuttle launch in Florida (which was later delayed
At least 213 people in Alabama lost their lives amid Wednesday's historic tornado outbreak, the country's worst since at least April 3, 1974. (That storm killed 330 people and spawned 148 tornadoes; the National Weather Service reported 165 twisters Wednesday.) "This place looks like a war zone," one University of Alabama employee in Tuscaloosa tells the Post. "Folks looked like refugees walking single file with suitcases or grocery carts of their belongings down the sidewalks of University Boulevard." Tuscaloosa, a city of 83,000, was decimated by a tornado estimated to be 1 mile wide, which leveled entire blocks of the college town and left much of it unrecognizable. "It's just devastation. I've never seen this," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told the AP during a visit to Tuscaloosa. "This is the worst tornado devastation I've ever seen." While Alabama received the worst of the storm's fury, it also killed 34 people in Tennessee, 32 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, five in Virginia and one in Arkansas, CNN reports.
The storms were the latest — and by far the deadliest — in a recent string of violent thunderstorms to strike the Southern U.S. The National Weather Service has already counted about 800 tornadoes this month, four times the average for April, and tornado season hasn't even hit its traditional peak yet. "Hopefully, this is not a preview of coming events for May and June, which historically are the most active tornado months," NASA climatologist William Patzert tells the Wall Street Journal. The storms have been fueled by a convergence of warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cold, fast-moving air from the Arctic, yet scientists still say there's an element of mystery to why so many tornadoes are striking all at once. "It's as complicated as a living thing, even though it is only water vapor and air," storm expert Hugh Willoughby tells the WSJ. "I don't see anything that really leaps out to say this is different from all other springs."
Tornadoes were the obvious focal point during this month's Southern storm barrage, but the severe weather has also spurred a subtler, more slow-moving disaster: floodwaters rising along the Mississippi River, potentially rivaling the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 (pictured). The governors of Mississippi and Louisiana issued flood warnings Thursday and declared states of emergency, the AP reports, as the iconic American waterway threatens to crest near 54 feet within a few weeks — a height not seen since it reached 56.6 feet in 1927, causing vast floods that killed hundreds of people.
The region built a $13 billion network of levees after the 1927 flood, hoping to prevent such a disaster from striking again. Those levees are designed to withstand up to 65 feet of water, suggesting they should be able to hold back most of the flooding, but many are aging and in need of repair. And, as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Robert Anderson tells the AP, the levee system "has never been tested before quite like it has been tested now." The corps has spent billions repairing and improving levees around New Orleans since Katrina, but much of that work has focused on blocking storm surges from hurricanes, not river flooding, the AP reports. Plus, some 241 miles of levees between Cape Girardeau, Mo., and the Gulf of Mexico need to be raised or fortified to meet modern standards, according to the corps. "We have some low points," says James Shivers, superintendent of the Fifth Louisiana Levee District. Officials tell the AP crews are working around the clock to battle any leaks — known as "sand boils" — that pop up along the levees, since such leaks can quickly weaken an earthen dam and cause a section to collapse.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead before the river's expected crest — forecast for May 18 at Vicksburg, Miss. — many officials in the region express optimism that their modern defenses will help prevent a repeat of the 1927 flood. "We're going to do everything we can to prepare for the worst-case scenario while we still are hoping for the best case," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal tells the AP. "I do not expect any breaches on this levee system today," adds Reynold Minsky, president of the Fifth Louisiana Levee District. "I think we can withstand the water."
Felt-soled shoes are a godsend for fly fishermen, helping them wade across slick river rocks with less risk of slipping and injuring themselves. But those same soft-bottomed shoes are now being outlawed by states across the country, USA Today reports, because although they help fishermen avoid injury, they may have the opposite effect on aquatic life. That's because their soles can trap spores and larvae of non-native plants and animals, helping the intruders colonize new habitats by stowing away in the felt. And there's one shoe-clinging invader that has scientists and state lawmakers especially worried: didymo, better-known as "rock snot."
The slimy algae first showed up in Vermont's Battern Kill River in 2006, and have since moved into the White River, Mad River, Gihon River and Passumpsic River, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Shawn Good tells USA Today. It's not clear exactly how rock snot affects native fish and other wildlife, but it's certainly ugly — and its fast growth rate worries Good and other wildlife officials. "It's very unsightly," Good says. "It forms dense mats that blanket the bottom of the stream like a shag carpet. It changes these nice, pristine trout streams to a green, yucky mess." And the spread of rock snot, adds Maryland Division of Natural Resources biologist Jonathan McKnight, is clearly linked to "shoes of the fishermen."
Maryland became the first state to ban felt-soled waders on March 21, and they were later outlawed in Vermont on April 1. The shoes will become illegal in Alaska on Jan. 1, 2012, and several other states have considered similar measures, including Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. The Maryland ban "generally got a positive reaction" from fishermen, McKnight says, but many anglers say alternative shoes just aren't the same. Oregon fly fisherman Dennis Richey, for one, says felt waders saved his life when he fell down in the Sandy River 15 years ago. "If it wasn't for the felt soles, I would have gone down those rapids," Richey says. "There's no doubt in my mind I would have drowned."
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Photo (lightning striking the space shuttle Endeavour on April 28): Bill Ingalls/NASA
Photo (overturned car in Tuscaloosa, Ala., following severe storms): ZUMA Press
Photo (1927 Mississippi River flood): La. Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration
Photo (rock snot): N.Y. State Department of Environmental Conservation