August 29, 2006

Space shuttle begins trek off Florida launch pad

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle
Atlantis left its seaside launch pad on Tuesday on a slow,
day-long ride back to shelter to ride out expected high winds
and rain from Tropical Storm Ernesto, NASA said.

The move is likely to end the U.S. space agency's hopes of
launching the shuttle by the end of its current launch window
on September 7, in what would be the first International Space
Station assembly mission since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

The window is determined by a variety of technical factors,
including the position of the space station, the angle of the
sun and newly imposed restrictions by NASA to launch only
during daylight so cameras can have clear views of the
shuttle's external fuel tank.

Foam insulation falling off the tank during launch
triggered the Columbia disaster, which claimed the lives of
seven astronauts. NASA has redesigned the tank twice since.

The September 7 deadline is also due to a planned Russian
launch of a Soyuz resupply ship, which would also have to dock
at the space station. NASA has asked its Russian partners to
change their launch date, which would open another six days for
a shuttle launch attempt.

If that does not happen, the next launch opportunity for
Atlantis would be in late October.

NASA has four years to complete construction of the
half-built $100 billion space station before the shuttles,
which are the only vehicles designed for the job, are retired
in 2010.

Despite signs the storm was weakening, NASA managers
decided not to risk damage to the $2-billion spaceship or the
$372-million station power module packed in its cargo bay.

"The storm is now expected to pass within 20 miles (32
km)," Kennedy Space Center spokeswoman Tracy Young said. "We
really just didn't want to take a chance."

The move from the launch pad to the cavernous Vehicle
Assembly Building about four miles away was expected to take 10
hours, Young added.

Ernesto is forecast to bring winds of up to 69 miles per
hour (111 km per hour) to the Kennedy Space Center area by
Wednesday night.