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Weather delays Columbia again

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Morning landing still hopeful

December 6, 1996
Web posted at: 4:30 a.m. EST

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (REUTER) -- NASA ordered the astronauts aboard the space shuttle Columbia to skip their first possible landing attempt Friday, but said the shuttle might be able to land once early morning sunshine burned away patches of fog at its Florida runway landing site.

A combination of fog and low clouds from a cold front moving across Florida made the planned 8:01 a.m. EST touchdown unsafe, said Eileen Hawley, a spokeswoman for the space agency.

If the weather cleared in time, the astronauts would have a second chance to land on Friday at 9:38 a.m. EST.

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The shuttle's main back-up landing strip at Edwards Air Force Base in California was ruled out for Friday because of gusty winds. The space agency prefers to land the shuttle in Florida whenever possible to save the $1 million cost of ferrying the orbiter from California.

The crew was minutes away from firing Columbia's braking rockets to begin their descent when flight controllers called off the planned landing.

"The flight control team advised the crew aboard Columbia that the first opportunity would be waved off in hopes of better conditions for a second opportunity," Hawley said.

The astronauts are equipped with five additional days' worth of food, oxygen and supplies and can safely remain in orbit until one of its two primary landing sites is available.

The delay also pushed Columbia's crew closer to setting a new record for longest shuttle flight. If the orbiter lands on Friday morning, it will rank as the second-longest shuttle mission, falling shy of a record by just four hours. The record for the longest mission was set last July by a different crew aboard the Columbia, which stayed aloft for 17 days.

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The mission, which began Nov. 19, was marred by a jammed airlock hatch that forced NASA to cancel a pair of space walks. Astronauts Tammy Jernigan and Tom Jones spent months training for the spacewalks, which had been intended to test construction tools for the planned permanent space station.

The astronauts were awakened at 9:26 p.m. EST Thursday evening to begin stowing gear and making other landing preparations.

"Good morning, Columbia. It's flight day 17 and we're ready to bring you home," said ground controller Marc Garneau after playing an audiocassette of "Nobody Does It Better" to wake up the crew.

Another problem cropped up this week when a crucial navigation tool stopped working. The shuttle is equipped with two other back-up inertial measurement units to guide it home.

The astronauts released and later retrieved two science satellites. A U.S.-German telescope studied the life cycles of stars and a prototype computer chip factory manufactured ultra-pure semiconductors for the electronics industry.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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