CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - This has been a weird year for the U.S. space agency, more notable for contributing a story line for the TV series "Law & Order" than for spaceflight.
NASA bosses hope a June 8 launch of the shuttle Atlantis and a successful mission to the international space station will fade some of the past months' more sensational scenes.
Predictably, Atlantis commander Rick Sturckow said he and his crew haven't been distracted from their preparations for continuing construction of the space station.
"We've just been focused on our training and are ready to go," Sturckow said.
But NASA has had several months worth of troubling distractions.
In February, astronaut Lisa Nowak, the married mother of three children, was arrested on charges that she tried to kidnap a woman who had won the affections of her astronaut-paramour. Nowak drove 900 miles from Houston to Florida to confront the woman and wore an astronaut diaper so she wouldn't have to make restroom stops, according to police.
Weeks later, steamy e-mails surfaced and kept the story going. Nowak has pleaded not guilty and her trial is set for September. She had been scheduled to work on this mission's ground team, working with the astronauts in space and Mission Control, but NASA dismissed her a month after her arrest.
As NASA looked forward to a March shuttle launch that would return the agency to a more positive light, golfball-sized hail from a freak February storm pocked Atlantis' fuel tank. Liftoff was canceled.
A few months later, with just six weeks left until the new June launch date, a seventh astronaut, Clayton Anderson, was added to Atlantis' crew - a jarring adjustment that meant working overtime to get Anderson on track with his duties during the mission.
There also was a murder-suicide at Houston's Johnson Space Center and the derailment of a train carrying rocket booster segments for future shuttle flights. Neither event directly involved Atlantis' mission but reinforced a feeling that, so far, this isn't NASA's best year.
"I think life presents challenges in many shapes and sizes and part of the way we deal with those challenges shapes who we are," Anderson told The Associated Press recently. "They weren't the greatest of times, but I'm looking forward to (Atlantis) getting off and cranking back up again so we can focus on the things that are positive."
Atlantis had been scheduled to lift off in mid-March as the first space shuttle mission of the year. But the hail storm left thousands of dings to the insulation foam that prevents ice from building up on the external fuel tank. Technicians painstakingly sanded down damaged foam and applied new foam to the 154-foot-tall external tank.
"They have shown real American grit in being able to face adversity and keep on doing what needs to be done to advance the American space program," shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said of the technicians.
NASA's ambitious schedule of five space flights this year was cut to four because of the Atlantis delay. That led to more rejiggering, bumping Anderson up to this flight instead of his planned August mission on space shuttle Endeavour. He will replace astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams as a crew member on the space station. Otherwise, Williams would have had to spend more than eight months in space, instead of the more routine six months, since her original return flight on Endeavour was pushed back from early July to August.
Anderson, who had trained for tasks and with the crew of Endeavour, has been working 50 hours a week since the decision to bring himself up to speed with Atlantis' tasks and crew.
Atlantis' crew has three spaceflight veterans and four first-time spacefliers.
Sturckow, James Reilly and Patrick Forrester have flown a combined five times, with Sturckow and Forrester previously flying together on Discovery in 2001. Pilot Lee Archambault and astronauts Steven Swanson, Danny Olivas and Anderson will be reaching space for the first time.
Atlantis' astronauts took scrupulous notes on the lessons learned by their fellow astronauts during two space station construction missions last year. During those missions, spacewalking astronauts ran into some snags, including big problems in folding up an obstinate solar array and getting a solar array rotary joint to spin - all tasks the Atlantis crew will be asked to perform during their 11-day mission.
"We get to learn from the challenges that other crews have faced," Forrester said.
Atlantis will deliver a third pair of solar arrays, a mirror image of another 17½-ton segment delivered to the space station last September aboard Atlantis.
The crew is scheduled to take three spacewalks; a fourth may be added. NASA managers also are leaving open the possibility of extending the mission to 13 days if all the tasks can't be done in 11 days.