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Shuttle launch delayed; NASA faces uncertainty

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA still doesn’t know when it will be able to launch shuttle Atlantis – or when it will be able to send off the four other missions that are scheduled to go to the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope this year.

In a press conference Thursday, engineers said that Atlantis – whose Dec. 6 launch was scrubbed because of problems with fuel sensors – now won’t launch before Jan. 24, and more likely sometime in February.

That, in turn, will delay the scheduled Valentine’s Day launch of Endeavor to sometime in March at the earliest – and could have a domino effect on the three other launches scheduled for later in the year.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon told reporters that until the fuel sensor problem plaguing Atlantis is fixed, NASA can’t determine how subsequent missions will be affected. But he said he remained confident that the agency will be able to finish building the space station, fix the Hubble telescope and retire the shuttle by 2010.

To get Atlantis off the ground, NASA engineers need to fix the engine cut-off sensors at the base of the shuttle’s external fuel tank whose failure forced back-to-back launch postponements last month. They think that soldering together connectors on a plug that links the wires from the fuel sensors inside the tank to the shuttle’s computer will resolve the problem.

But they still must do tests to make sure that the fix will work. Assuming it does, Shannon said, NASA would try to get Atlantis ready for a Jan. 24 launch.

But, he acknowledged, “Everything has to go exactly right for us to make the 24th.”

Instead, he said, it’s more likely that the launch will be Feb. 2 at the earliest, or Feb. 7 if managers decide to conduct another fueling test.

But those dates conflict with the scheduled Feb. 7 docking at the space station of an unmanned Russian Progress resupply ship. Under current rules, Progress and the shuttle can’t be at the station simultaneously because of the workload that imposes on the station’s three-person crew.

As a result, said space station program manager Mike Suffredini, NASA might have to delay the Atlantis launch until later in February.

The remaining scheduled launches for 2008 include Discovery on April 24, to take the Japanese-made Kibo laboratory to the space station; Atlantis on Aug. 7, to repair the Hubble Space Telescope; and Endeavor on Sept. 18. NASA needs at least five weeks between launches to ready another shuttle, so any delays early in the year could affect the later launches.


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