Prospects dim for shuttle’s Florida launch
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) – NASA on Sunday pressed
ahead with plans for a Tuesday launch of space shuttle Atlantis
even as it simultaneously prepared to scrub the liftoff and
bring the ship indoors to ride out encroaching Tropical Storm
NASA had hoped to launch Atlantis on Sunday on the agency’s
first International Space Station assembly mission since the
2003 Columbia accident.
A lightning bolt that hit the launch pad on Friday,
however, prompted a two-day delay to make sure the shuttle and
its ground support systems were not damaged by the massive
Ernesto may make the whole effort moot. The storm, which
was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm as its
winds fell below 74 mph (119 kph) on Sunday evening, could
regain strength and make landfall on Thursday morning near
Tampa on Florida’s west coast, forecasters said.
NASA rules mandate that the shuttle be removed from its
seaside launch pad and returned to the Vehicle Assembly
Building for safekeeping about two days prior to forecasted
winds of at least 58 miles per hour (93-kph) .
A decision was expected by midnight Monday, said NASA
associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier.
“Tonight is really the night that we have to decide,” he
told a news conference at the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s
“We really have two competing objectives: One we want to
get the vehicle ready to go fly. The other objective is we want
to get the vehicle ready to go roll back to the VAB. They are
not compatible. At some point you have to give up on one or
another,” said Gerstenmaier.
While engineers scrutinized data for equipment problems
from the lightning strike, NASA’s shuttle team prepared to
remove Atlantis from the launch pad.
The shuttle’s crawler transporter was prepared to move to
the launch pad in case a decision was made to roll back
Atlantis. Launch pad workers also set up equipment to drain the
chemicals aboard the shuttle which are used during flight to
If NASA has to remove Atlantis from the pad, it will be
hard-pressed to return in time for launch by September 7, the
last day when lighting conditions and other technical
considerations are acceptable for launch.
The next opportunity for flight would be in October.
The shuttle’s six astronauts are scheduled to spend 11 days
in orbit to deliver and install a 35,000-pound (16-tonne) power
module to the International Space Station.
It would be the first mission devoted to assembly of the
research outpost in nearly four years and follows a successful
mission of shuttle Discovery last month to assess safety
upgrades made after the February 2003 shuttle Columbia
Columbia was hit by a piece of foam insulation that fell
off its fuel tank during launch. Damage from the impact
triggered the shuttle’s breakup as it flew through the
atmosphere. All seven astronauts aboard died.
The Atlantis mission is a critical part of NASA’s efforts
to finish building the space station before the shuttle fleet
is retired in 2010.