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Baffled NASA delays launch indefinitely

A fuel gauge malfunction on Discovery remains a mystery, and a shuttle manager says he doesn't know when the flight will launch.

Associated Press
Published July 16, 2005

CAPE CANAVERAL - NASA has indefinitely put off its long-awaited return to space, saying Friday that engineers were no closer to knowing why a fuel gauge acted up right before a scheduled liftoff two days earlier.

"We are going forward on a day-by-day basis," said deputy shuttle program manager Wayne Hale. "We have got the entire resources of the agency behind us to troubleshoot this problem."

He said that once the problem was identified and fixed, it would be another four days before the shuttle Discovery could launch.

"Everybody is going to want to ask, "What is that date going to be?' Well, I don't know," Hale said.

It was the latest setback in NASA's grueling and drawn-out quest to return to space and recover from the Columbia tragedy 21/2 years ago. The space agency has made a multitude of safety improvements to the aging shuttle to avoid future catastrophes, efforts that have repeatedly delayed Discovery's mission.

Engineers are looking at whether any of those safety improvements - like additional heaters on the external fuel tank to prevent dangerous ice buildup - may be contributing to the failure of one of the four fuel gauges in the tank. When the gauge malfunctioned, Wednesday's launch was canceled.

Hale said it's possible NASA could try to launch again late next week, "but that would require a very near-term lucky find" of the source of the problem.

Discovery's seven astronauts opted to remain in Cape Canaveral and just wait it out, rather than return to their homes in Houston.

Managers had held out hope, however slim, that they might be able to launch Discovery within a few days. But with engineers no closer to figuring out why the fuel sensor malfunctioned Wednesday - a potentially deadly problem - NASA had no choice but to call for a lengthy standdown.

NASA is up against the clock. If extensive repairs are needed and the shuttle has to be moved off the launch pad and into the hangar, the flight could end up being bumped into September to ensure a daylight liftoff.

The space agency wants a clear view of the ascending shuttle in order to spot any launch damage. When combined with the constantly changing location of the international space station, Discovery's destination, this means that the shuttle must fly by the end of July or remain grounded until Sept. 9.

"We are not in any sense of the word becoming pessimistic about making the July launch window," Hale stressed to reporters. "We are here for the duration. We are committed to giving this the good, old college try until we get the problem resolved."

Hale suggested for the first time that if the problem can't be explained after days or weeks of effort, NASA might be forced to consider flying with the mystery unsolved.

[Last modified July 16, 2005, 00:25:11]

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