August 29, 2006

Space shuttle pulled from 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 from high winds and rain expected
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.

"Based on what we know today, the probability of launch
before the end of our window is low -- not zero, but low,"
shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said in a teleconference
with reporters.

The window is determined by 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 olumbia disaster, which took the lives of seven
astronauts. NASA has since redesigned the tank twice.

The September 7 deadline also is due to a planned Russian
launch of a Soyuz resupply ship to the space station. NASA had
asked about delaying the capsule's flight to buy more time for
a shuttle launch, but program managers said on Tuesday that
option was unlikely for technical reasons.

The next launch opportunity for Atlantis would be in late

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

"We have plenty of time to absorb of a few of these delays
and complete the assembly of the International Space Station,"
Hale said.

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.

"It does not make any sense to fool with Mother Nature,"
Hale said.

The storm is expected to pass within 20 miles of the
Kennedy Space Center, spokeswoman Tracy Young said.

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 (111
km) per hour to the space center area by Wednesday night.