NASA's space shuttle Atlantis appears to be in good health after weathering what is now Tropical Storm Ernesto, and is once more being primed for a September launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"There's no damage that we can find anywhere as of yet," NASA spokesperson George Diller, at KSC, told SPACE.com, adding that the shuttle could fly sometime next week. "We're still looking at no earlier than Wednesday."
Atlantis could launch its six-astronaut crew towards the International Space Station (ISS) on Sept. 6, 7 or 8 to deliver new solar arrays and a pair of 17.5-ton pair of trusses to the orbital outpost. To do that, the shuttle must be ready to begin countdown operations as early as Sunday, or else await a planned ISS crew change later this month, NASA said.
Ernesto passed over KSC Wednesday with peak winds reaching 44 miles per hour (70 kilometers per hour) at about 4:45 p.m. EDT (2045 GMT) that afternoon, Diller said. By 12:30 a.m. EDT (0430 GMT) Thursday the area was cleared for normal operations, with the first scheduled shift of KSC workers arriving at 7:00 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT), he added.
Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it approached KSC, but has since grown stronger as it crosses Atlantic Ocean waters on course towards the Carolinas, the National Hurricane Center reported today.
NASA spokesperson Katherine Trinidad told SPACE.com Wednesday that Atlantis, should it launch on Sept. 8, would have to undock no later than Sept. 17 to avoid conflicts with the planned ISS crew change. That means the shuttle would lose the option for an extra docked day at the ISS during Atlantis' STS-115 mission, though extra days are available if the shuttle launches on Sept. 6 or 7, Trinidad said.
Atlantis' orbital departure would allow a three-day buffer between visiting spacecraft at the ISS to give the station crew time for rest and preparation.
During the upcoming crew swap, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft is expected to launch the station's Expedition 14 crew and a space tourist towards the ISS on Sept. 18, with docking planned for Sept. 20. The outpost's current Expedition 13 crew would then return to Earth with the spaceflight participant, U.S. entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, on Sept. 29.
NASA's STS-115 mission has been delayed several times this month. A lightning strike and subsequent spacecraft checks at the orbiter's Pad 39B launch site last week prevented planned space shots on Sunday and Monday, while Ernesto's Florida pass scrubbed a Tuesday launch attempt.
Atlantis' flight will mark the first major ISS construction mission since late 2002. It is the orbiter mission to launch since the 2003 Columbia accident and the first to follow two post-accident test flights - STS-114 in 2005 and last month's STS-121 - to evaluate shuttle flight safety improvements.
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