August 29, 2006

Shuttle returns to Florida launch pad

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- NASA returned the space shuttle Atlantis to its seaside launch pad in Florida on Tuesday as the threat from Tropical Storm Ernesto faded.

The decision rekindled hopes that the U.S. space agency would be able 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.

"We feel good about it," NASA's launch director Mike Leinbach said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

With Ernesto threatening to become a hurricane in the Florida Straits, the U.S. space agency had decided to move Atlantis from the launch pad to the safety of a hangar.

The shuttle was about halfway to its evacuation shelter in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center when managers decided to reverse course and send it back to the pad.

A new forecast from the National Hurricane Center in Miami gave the managers confidence the shuttle would be safe at the launch pad, which has a cocoon-like structure that wraps around the ship to protect it from rain and wind.

The pad also has a lightning protection system, which was put to use last week when a giant bolt hit a mast at the top of the complex.

NASA delayed Atlantis' launch two days to assess possible damage from the strike. But by the time the ship was cleared, Ernesto, then the season's first hurricane, derailed NASA's launch plans.

The storm was still forecast to pass near Cape Canaveral on Wednesday, but it was 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.

If the storm passes quickly with minimal damage, NASA could be ready to launch Atlantis on September 6, Leinbach said.

The launch 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 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 on Tuesday 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.