NASA: Foam Problems Make September Launch for Atlantis Unlikely

WASHINGTON--NASA says aSeptember launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis is unlikely now that a week ofintensive trouble shooting failed to identify "any immediate easy fixes" to thefoam shedding problems seen during Discovery's July 26 launch.

About two minutes intoDiscovery's July 26 liftoff, a large chunk of insulating foam peeled away fromthe shuttle's external fuel tank, missing the orbiter, but setting back NASA'sefforts to resume construction of the International Space Station (ISS).

All told, Discovery'sexternal tank shed larger than expected pieces of foam from five separateareas, some of which NASA thought it had managed to fix in the two and a halfyears since an errant chunk of foam led to the loss of the Space ShuttleColumbia during its return to Earth on February 1, 2003.

NASA's three remainingshuttle orbiters are grounded until the foam problem is resolved.

Bill Gerstenmaier,the senior NASA official leading the investigation into Discovery's foam lossincidents, said Thursday that engineers so far have found no solutions to theproblem.

"We didn't find anyimmediate easy fixes here," Gerstenmaier said duringa teleconference with reporters. He said least some tank modifications appearnecessary before NASA can fly the shuttle again.

NASA officials had beenholding out hope of resolving the foam issues in time to launch before the endof September. But Gerstenmaier said that no longerappears realistic, given that at least some of parts of Atlantis' tank willrequire "minor engineering modifications" before the shuttle can be cleared forflight.

"We will probably not makethe September launch window," he said.

NASA's next opportunitycomes in November. Gerstenmaier said should Atlantisbe ready to fly by then, NASA would remain on track for resuming constructionof the ISS come March.

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