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Misc. News : Non-f.ood Things Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

NASA postpones Atlantis launch after lightning strike
By Sara Andrews
Aug 27, 2006, 13:30

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27 Aug, ( - NASA shuttle managers have put the launch of space shuttle Atlantis on hold until thorough checks are made to assess the damage caused to the shuttle by a lightning strike on Friday. NASA officials said the lightning strike at the launch pad meant the launch would be delayed at least till Tuesday.

The space shuttle Atlantis is to provide expansion to the construction project of the International Space Station for the first time in four years. The launch was scheduled to take place at the Kennedy Space Center at 4:30 p.m. (2030 GMT) Sunday.

The mission is important to NASA since it desperately wants to finish the construction of the International Space Station by 2010, when the shuttle fleet is being retired.
This is the first time since the Columbia disaster in 2003 that a launch is made with the primary aim of building the space station. NASA fears that another disaster could mean an early retirement for the shuttles. Meanwhile, engineers were busy at the launch pad making sure that the lightening bolt that struck the site had not caused any problems.

"They're looking to see if the solid rocket boosters got a high voltage or currents from the strike," spokesman Allard Buetel said on Sunday. "Given the extra time they're going to use for additional analysis, we most likely are not going to be able to make a Monday launch."

Another concern obviously is Hurricane Ernesto. The U.S. National Hurricane Center has said that the tropical storm Ernesto over Caribbean could well be the first Hurricane to hit the American shores this year. NASA's estimation that bad weather could prevent Sunday's launch of the shuttle Atlantis went up from 40 percent on Friday to 60 percent.

Rain would be fatal for the shuttle as it could damage the heat-shielding tiles of the space shuttle while a lightening strike could shut down the computers that control the ship. Hurricane Ernesto could hit Cape Canaveral on Thursday latest and the situation could again delay the launch.

LeRoy Cain, who chairs NASA's pre-launch mission-management team said that the lightning strike on Friday hit the tentlike, lightning-protection system that towers above Atlantis.

Even though the shuttle itself was not damaged it sent 100,000 amps of current surging through the protection systems and NASA wants to make sure that no current leaked through.

"We know just enough to know that we don't know enough to press on into a launch situation," Cain said at a news conference Saturday. "We did see a couple of indications that makes us want to go look at the ground systems and flights systems of the vehicle to make sure we don't have any problems before we go fly."

Lightning strikes are quite common in Florida, but the one that struck Atlantis' launch pad was said to be the largest ever recorded at the Kennedy Space Center.

The launch of Atlantis follows the successful mission of space shuttle Discovery last month. Discovery's mission was to assess safety upgrades made after the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster. Atlantis is to carry a load of 35,000-pound extension for the station's solar power-generation network.

The network will serve as a foundation for the addition of European and Japanese science laboratories next year. The 11-day mission will attempt to resume the assembly of the international space station, which ground to a halt after the Columbia disaster.

Atlantis commander Brent Jett and his crew, Chris Ferguson, Dan Burbank, Joe Tanner, Heide Stefanyshyn-Piper and Steve MacLean are impatiently waiting for the mission to go on, but want to make sure they launch in near-perfect conditions.

"We are obviously familiar with the weather in Florida in the summertime," said Shannon Walker, a fellow NASA astronaut. "It's always iffy because of the thunderstorms. It's not a total disaster if we don't get off in the first few days."

Nasa spokesperson George Diller said that although it was unlikely, NASA would still monitor Monday for a possible flight, "It looks like it's a likely development but they haven't given up on Monday yet," Diller said. "They need more solid rocket booster testing from the lightning strike and they probably can't do that in time to meet the Monday launch date."

Launch director Mike Leinbach revealed that all systems were in place to dismantle if Ernesto hits too close for comfort. "We would undock from space station" and return to Earth, "and come back and pick up the pieces, if you will, on a subsequent mission," he said.

"When you have mission control and launch control down in the southern United States you're stuck with the weather," veteran Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said. "If we flinched every time there was a tropical storm coming through the gap in the Gulf of Mexico, we could never get anything done."

But weather holds the key to a launch in the next few days. The Atlantis mission is vital to NASA's plans to finish the assembly of the International Space Station by 2010. Atlantis has not flown since October 2002 and this has stalled the construction of the international space station. The last work done there was way back in December 2002.

The Atlantis crew is also scheduled to conduct three spacewalks. The Columbia tragedy in 2003 stopped all construction work at the International Space Station. Although Discovery did go there twice after the tragedy, the station is far from complete.

NASA has penciled in a launch window for Atlantis from August 27 to September 13.

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