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    Shuttle may be delayed again

    ©Associated Press
    October 7, 2002

    CAPE CANAVERAL -- With Mission Control back in operation, NASA aimed to launch the space shuttle Atlantis today, but a new problem threatened to further delay the flight.

    A heater in a critical water-dump line was running at too high a temperature aboard Atlantis on Sunday, and engineers scrambled to understand the impact to the 11-day mission.

    The space station assembly mission already has been delayed nearly seven weeks, first by cracked fuel lines that grounded the entire shuttle fleet and then by Hurricane Lili, which forced an unprecedented shutdown last week of Mission Control.

    On Sunday, the countdown clocks began ticking again and everything seemed to be falling into place, even the weather -- until the heater malfunctioned.

    The problem is with one of three lines used to flush out water that is a byproduct of the shuttle's electricity-producing fuel cells. The heater for the backup line, needed to prevent ice forming and clogging, is not working right, apparently because of a bad controller setting.

    NASA hoped to work around the problem in time for today's launch at 3:46 p.m., said shuttle manager Jim Halsell. If the controller has to be replaced, however, Atlantis would face a delay of several days.

    The concern is that if the heater started operating at even greater temperatures or there was a water backup, equipment could be damaged. And if all three fuel cells shut down -- the worst-case scenario -- electrical production would be halted and the shuttle probably would not have enough power to make an emergency landing.

    NASA officials stressed that all three lines for getting rid of fuel-cell water would have to stop working for such a crisis to occur.

    "Likelihood very low," said launch director Mike Leinbach. But he conceded the consequences were "very high."

    When the shuttle does launch, it will be beamed live from a camera mounted near the top of Atlantis' 154-foot external fuel tank. The camera will be activated 15 minutes before liftoff.

    Two minutes into the flight, viewers should see the booster rockets peeling away. Six minutes later, Atlantis will separate from its fuel tank. The camera will be turned off 15 minutes after launch.

    Once in orbit, Atlantis' six astronauts will deliver and attach a giant girder to the space station. The structure has so many cables and connections that the crew will have to conduct three spacewalks to hook everything up.

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