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Shuttle launch delayed until Monday

From Marsha Walton

This NASA image captured by remote cameras shows a lightning strike at the launch pad Friday.


National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Houston (Texas)
Space Exploration
Marshall Space Flight Center

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- The launch of space shuttle Atlantis on Sunday was scrubbed for 24 hours because of lightning striking the launch pad Friday and other weather worries, NASA announced.

The launch will be tried again Monday. Sunday is the first day of the shuttle's launch window, which closes September 7.

Mission managers said no other significant issues besides weather could affect the launch, said NASA test director Jeff Spaulding.

On Friday, lightning struck Atlantis' launch pad 39B, which has several lightning-detection systems -- but caused no apparent damage, said launch director Mike Leinbach.

The Atlantis crew of six has been waiting nearly four years for the opportunity to travel to the International Space Station, and are hopeful the weather will cooperate, Leinbach said.

Once Atlantis docks with the station, the crew plans to do three spacewalks to install a second set of solar arrays designed to provide about a quarter of the station's power generation.

That should double the station's power capability, in addition to adding more than 17 tons to its mass.

The solar arrays have been packed away since May 2003, when they were originally scheduled to be delivered.

NASA has dubbed the 12-day mission, the 27th flight of Atlantis, the "return to assembly."

If Atlantis takes off Monday, the mission will be the quickest turnaround between flights since the 2003 Columbia disaster.

Space Shuttle Discovery landed on July 17 after a 13-day mission that recorded no major problems.

Weather will remain a concern for the success of Atlantis' mission, even after launch.

NASA is closely monitoring Tropical Storm Ernesto. If the storm gains strength and heads directly for Houston, where Mission Control is located, the Atlantis mission would have to end early.

There are no contingency plans, said LeRoy Cain, launch integration manager of the space shuttle program, on Friday. Should Mission Control be evacuated, the complicated construction activities of the Atlantis mission cannot be accomplished, he said.

"We would undock, de-orbit at the first safe opportunity, and leave the (space) station in the safest configuration we could," he said.

Still, Houston personnel will still be able to communicate with Atlantis and the space station crew through control rooms in Moscow, should Mission Control have to evacuate, said space station program manager Mike Suffredini.

NASA managers hope the Atlantis flight can cement the agency's efforts to resume a regular schedule of missions in order to complete the space station before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010.

Fifteen more flights -- or about four launches a year -- are required to complete the work.

Participants in the flight readiness review were unanimous in their decision to go ahead with the launch of Atlantis, including two senior managers who had declined to sign off on Discovery's launch in July, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space flight.

Those two managers, as well as the directors of the Johnson Space Center in Houston and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, urged modifications be made to "ice-front ramps" on the shuttle's external fuel tank, however.

Small pieces of insulating foam have come off the ice-front ramps on previous flights.

Shedding foam became a major concern after Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry in 2003 after a large piece of foam cracked a heat shield on the orbiter. All the astronauts aboard were killed.

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