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Hail damage postpones shuttle launch

Story Highlights

NEW: Damage to space shuttle will require repairs, launch pushed to late April
NEW: Atlantis will have to be rolled to Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs
NEW: If tank needs to be replaced, the launch would slide to the summer
• Hail storm damaged Atlantis' external fuel tank on Monday
From Kate Tobin
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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida (CNN) -- A scheduled March 15 launch has been delayed after the external fuel tank attached to the shuttle Atlantis and possibly the orbiter itself were damaged by a hailstorm at the launch pad Monday afternoon.

NASA meteorologists say wind gusts of 62 miles per hour and golf-ball-size hail were observed at pad 39A, where Atlantis was undergoing final preparations for launch.

Workers at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are still assessing the extent of the damage, but NASA managers decided Atlantis must be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for thorough inspections and repairs.

The rollback means Atlantis will not launch in March as planned. Program officials hope repairs can be completed for a launch in late April or May. However, if engineers determine the tank needs to be replaced, the launch would slide to the summer.

Shuttle program officials are gathered at Kennedy Space Center for a previously scheduled two-day flight readiness review for Atlantis. They were briefed Tuesday afternoon on the hail damage.

Initial inspections showed perhaps thousands of small divots gouged into the insulating foam on the top portion of the shuttle's external tank. Engineers believe visible dings to the heat shield on Atlantis' left wing are mostly cosmetic.

NASA personnel are extremely cautious regarding any damage to a shuttle's external tank or heat shield.

In 2003, a piece of foam from Columbia's external tank broke free during launch, cracking a gash in the leading edge of the shuttle's left wing. When the shuttle re-entered the atmosphere to land, searing hot gases seeped into the hole, incinerating the orbiter and killing all seven astronauts aboard.

The March window to launch the shuttle to the International Space Station closes March 25, when NASA must stand down to allow a Russian Soyuz launch to ferry a new crew to the orbiting outpost. NASA engineers say they simply don't have enough time make the repairs before the March window closes.

Managers are optimistic they will be ready to launch during a window that runs from approximately April 21 to May 22.

However, if the damage to the tank is extensive, program managers might opt to replace the tank. That would delay the launch to June at the earliest, as the replacement tank is still being processed at the Michoud Assembly Plant in New Orleans.


A remote camera view of the external tank with hail marks.



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