CAPE CANAVERAL - The planned Sept. 27 launch of the next International Space Station crew might be pushed back to create an opportunity for a shuttle mission in September.

NASA intends to launch its first two post-Columbia missions during daylight and when the shuttle's external tank will be jettisoned on the sunlit side of Earth. The idea is to get sharp pictures of the tank to make sure post-Columbia safety changes work.

The self-imposed constraints limit shuttle launch opportunities to relatively short windows of opportunity, one of which extends from Sept. 9 to Sept. 24.

Station flight rules call for a visiting shuttle to depart at least three days before a Soyuz launch so that station tenants can prepare for the arrival of the Russian crew transport.

With the Soyuz launch planned for Sept. 27, NASA would have to launch its second post-Columbia fight between Sept. 9 and Sept. 13 to complete the 12-day mission and depart the station 72 hours ahead of the Soyuz launch.

The Russian Federal Space Agency is thinking about delaying the Soyuz launch, said Rob Navias, a spokesman for Johnson Space Center in Houston. Doing so would open up shuttle launch opportunities during the entire Sept. 9 to Sept. 24 window.

A decision is expected in the next several weeks.

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