August 29, 2006

Space Shuttle Begins Trek Off Launch Pad

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- 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 re-supply 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," 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 to the Kennedy Space Center area by Wednesday night.