When a space shuttle shuts down in the last seconds before liftoff, the launch team has its most important work to do.

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"We're prepared for the emergencies," Bartolini says. "I myself, after I give my last command [at] about two minutes, I have my checklist tabbed, and I turn to the abort procedure and I'm ready to do it."

He admits, however, "that when the call comes, it's still a surprise." In the case of STS-68, the abort came at T minus 1.9 second, so close to launch that the official who announces liftoff said: "We have L...abort."

"It was the French abort," says Bartolini. "L'abort."

He continues, "It was kind of shocking and then it's...you're all business."

It was especially shocking to Daniel Bursch, who was on this mission too. Because he has experienced main engine cutoff (MECO) four times yet flown only twice, his fellow astronauts have dubbed him the MECO Kid. "I'm fully ready for another pad abort," says Bursch, who is scheduled to fly on Endeavour next April. "I said it couldn't happen twice, and it did. Well, it could happen three times."

If it does, the launch team will bring the shuttle back to the vehicle assembly building and spend three weeks changing the engines. Once the engines fire, even for a few seconds, they're removed and serviced. Then the team will send the only reusable launch vehicle operating in the world back to the pad for another try.

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