February 4, 2008

Astronauts Arrive in Florida for Thursday Launch

The Atlantis astronauts arrived at NASA's Kennedy Space Center this morning, prepared to lift off this week on a delayed mission to the international space station with Europe's Columbus science module.

The 11-day mission is scheduled for launch at 1:45 p.m. CST Thursday.

Thursday's weather outlook includes a 60 percent chance of stormy weather linked to the passage of a cold front. Conditions are expected to improve significantly on Friday and Saturday, if the rain and lightning associated with the passage force a postponement.

"We'll keep looking at the weather, but we are happy about the condition of Atlantis," shuttle commander Steve Frick told reporters as he and his six crewmates landed at Kennedy, following a flight from their training base at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA called for a long postponement of the mission on Dec. 9, when two launch attempts were disrupted by erratic shuttle fuel gauge readings. Engineers traced the problem to a fuel tank electrical connector which has since been fixed.

Three other missions were delayed by similar fuel gauge problems, which NASA thought it had remedied.

"A lot of people ask me if it's frustrating or difficult for the crew to get so close to launch last time, then have to wait two months to try again," said Frick. "As for me, I has very happy with the way things went. The problem has been nagging us for quite some time. We were actually very pleased to have it recur a couple of times so we could pull the hardware and find out what the problem really is."

The gauges are a safety device intended to shut off the shuttle's three rocket engines if there was a fuel leak while the winged spacecraft climbs to orbit.

The Atlantis countdown was was scheduled to get under way at 4 p.m. CST today.

Late Sunday, shuttle engineers also resolved a problem with Atlantis that surfaced last week.

Using a makeshift guide pole, a technician nudged a looping metal cooling system flex hose into a storage receptacle within the shuttle's cargo bay.

The loop, which kept the hose from fully retracting, was of concern to engineers because it might expose the plumbing to damage from the shaking during the shuttle's launch. The hose is part of a vital cooling network that removes heat aboard the orbiting shuttle generated by computers and other electronic gear.

The technician was able to push the looping portion of the hose into the storage container without any problems, said NASA's Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, one of the test conductors who supervised countdown activities.

The launch team was working no other hardware issues, said Blackwell-Thompson.

Frick's crew includes pilot Alan Poindexter, robotics officer Leland Melvin, spacewalkers Rex Walheim, Hans Schlegel and Stan Love as well as a new tenant for the space station, Leopold Eyharts .

The fliers have trained to deliver and attach the Columbus module with three spacewalks.\

Eyharts, a French astronaut, will remain aboard the space station for two months to commission the new science lab. He'll replace American Dan Tani, who returns to Earth aboard Atlantis after a four-month stay.

"I'm ready. I'm more than ready," said Eyharts. "I hope February will be the month of Columbus."


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