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Space shuttle launch faces more delay, questions

With tropical storm approaching, NASA set to hunker down

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The chances that the space shuttle Atlantis would be launched this week diminished by the hour yesterday as NASA prepared for Tropical Storm Ernesto and the possibility of moving the spacecraft into shelter.

NASA managers planned to meet early today before making a final call on whether to move Atlantis indoors or try to launch tomorrow.

There was a 30 percent chance that weather would prohibit a launch tomorrow, and the forecast worsened as the week progressed. Preparations already were underway for a rollback.

Yesterday, workers rolled to the launch pad a gigantic crane that could be used to move generators and other heavy gear in case the shuttle is moved back to the protection of the enormous Vehicle Assembly Building. The huge crawler-transporter vehicle that would carry the shuttle was being run through tests, and crews prepared to make room inside the assembly building to accommodate the shuttle.

``With the current storm predictions, it would take a relatively significant change from the current forecasts . . . to prevent us from going into rollback preparation," LeRoy Cain, launch integration manager, said late yesterday. ``If we see a change like that, then we'll press on."

Moving Atlantis back to the Vehicle Assembly building would challenge NASA's ability to launch Atlantis before a Sept. 7 deadline. The space agency wants to launch before then so the shuttle's visit to the international space station doesn't interfere with the trip of a Russian Soyuz in mid-September.

But NASA doesn't want the shuttle on the launch pad if winds are greater than 45 miles per hour. Crews need two days to safely move the shuttle, and weather forecasters predicted the storm could be anywhere from the eastern Gulf near the Florida panhandle to the western Bahamas by Wednesday.

It would take at least nine or 10 days to move Atlantis from the launch pad to Vehicle Assembly Building and back to the pad and then launch, even though the fastest time NASA has done something like that is 11 days, in 1999.

``We have two competing objectives. One, we want to get the vehicle ready to fly. The other objective is we want to get the vehicle ready to roll back," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator. ``At some point in the sequence you have to give up one or the other."

Liftoff originally had been set for yesterday afternoon, but it was delayed until tomorrow in order to give engineers more time to figure out if a lightning strike Friday damaged the spacecraft's solid fuel rocket boosters and other systems.

NASA cleared the solid rocket booster system for launch late yesterday.

NASA has returned the shuttle to the Vehicle Assembly Building 16 times with an average launch delay of 42 days. But Gerstenmaier was still hopeful about launching, even if there is only a single day left in the launch window to try.

The launch window for this mission only goes through Sept. 13 because NASA wants to launch the shuttle to the space station during daylight so it can photograph the shuttle's external fuel tank, where insulating foam has fallen off during previous launches. The shuttle Columbia was doomed after foam hit a wing, causing a breach that allowed hot gases to penetrate during its return to Earth.

NASA hoped to launch Atlantis before Sept. 7 to prevent a traffic jam at the space station since a Russian Soyuz vehicle is set to blast off in mid-September carrying two new station crew members and a space tourist.

If NASA launches later, it will have to persuade the Russians to change their launch date and land at night -- something the Russians do not want to do because they have a new private firm handling capsule recovery.

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