August 29, 2006

Shuttle Back on Track for September Launch

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA reversed a decision to shelter the space shuttle Atlantis on Tuesday and returned it to its seaside launch pad as the threat from Tropical Storm Ernesto subsided.

The move put the U.S. space agency back on track to launch its first International Space Station assembly mission since the 2003 Columbia accident before the end of its current launch window on September 7.

Shuttle launch manager Mike Leinbach told a news conference a liftoff attempt was now likely on September 6 or September 7. "We're finalizing that now," he said of the targeted launch dates.

The shuttle began its slow, day-long ride back to a cavernous hangar on Tuesday morning to protect it from high winds and rain expected from Ernesto, which was approaching south Florida.

While the storm is still forecast to pass near Cape Canaveral, it is no longer expected to be strong enough to threaten the $2 billion shuttle, or a $372 million station power module packed in its cargo bay, NASA said.

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

Foam insulation falling off the tank during launch triggered the Columbia disaster, which killed 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 that option was unlikely for technical reasons.

The next launch opportunity for Atlantis would have been in late October.

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.