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Ernesto complicating shuttle launch

NASA hasn't yet ruled out a Tuesday launch.

By JAMAL THALJI
Published August 27, 2006


CAPE CANAVERAL - As space shuttle Atlantis sat on the launch pad and Hurricane Ernesto approached Florida's west coast this afternoon, NASA found itself working feverishly toward contradictory goals.

Engineers are out on the launch pad preparing Atlantis both for a Tuesday launch to the international space station and to roll the orbiter back to Kennedy Space Center's massive Vehicle Assembly Building to shield it from Ernesto's wrath.

"So when you look at that you may think we've lost our minds," said Associate Administrator for Space Operations Bill Gerstenmaier. "We haven't lost our minds. We're protecting our two options to the best of our ability."

NASA's deadline to make a decision: midnight tonight.

A news conference is set for no earlier than 8 p.m. tonight, but it is not known if NASA officials will have made a decision by then.

Ernesto isn't the space agency's only weather-related problem. Engineers are still dealing with the after-effects of a powerful lightning strike on the launch pad Friday afternoon.

The orbiter and fuel tank have been cleared of damage, Gerstenmaier said, but engineers were unable to clear the solid fuel rocket boosters. The specific concern is the pyrotechnic explosive devices that would separate the rocket boosters from the orbiter seconds after launch. More time is needed to test the rocket booster systems, the associate administrator said.

Weather is complicating what NASA has already described as one of its most difficult shuttle missions ever: Atlantis is to carry, install and deploy a 35,000-pound solar-array truss at the international space station. It would have been the first in a series of complicated missions intended to complete construction of the station by 2010.

Another complication: Russia. If Atlantis is rolled back to the VAB, it might not be ready for launch again until a Sept. 7-8 window. But that would put it in conflict with a scheduled mid-September launch of a Russian Soyuz spacecraft set to dock with the international space station, and that could lead to a traffic jam in orbit. Gerstenmaier said NASA and the Russian Space Agency will discuss the situation tonight.