September 4, 2006

Weather Looks Good for this Week’s Shuttle Launch

By Irene Klotz

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- NASA managers had their fingers crossed on Monday in hopes that this week's planned launch of the U.S. space shuttle Atlantis will go ahead after a week's delay due to a lightning strike and a storm.

Atlantis' lift-off has been set for 12:29 p.m. EDT (1629 GMT) on Wednesday from a seaside launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida.

It will be NASA's first mission to restart construction of the half-built, $100 billion International Space Station since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

NASA had planned to launch Atlantis and its six-member crew last week, but a lightning strike at the launch pad and then high winds from Tropical Storm Ernesto kept the winged spacecraft grounded.

"The wait's nearly over," Jeff Spaulding, a NASA launch director at the Kennedy Space Center, told reporters on Monday.

Meteorologists predicted an 80 percent chance the weather would be acceptable for launch.

Atlantis' payload, one of the heaviest ever for a shuttle, includes a space station truss segment that contains a pair of power-producing solar arrays.

The equipment was to have been installed in 2003, but NASA stopped flying the space shuttles after losing the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts on February 1, 2003. The spacecraft broke apart as it headed toward landing because its heat shield had been damaged by falling foam insulation during liftoff.

The agency has since flown two test flights that cleared the way for Atlantis to resume space station assembly.

NASA has just four years to finish work on the research outpost because the shuttles -- the only vehicles designed to carry the station's major components to orbit -- are due to be retired in 2010.