NASA may push back plans to launch its next shuttle missionuntil March 2006, allowing engineers more time to solve an ongoingfoam shedding problem with orbiter external tanks.
A September launch attempt of the space shuttle Atlantis andits STS-121 mission - NASA's second orbiter to fly since the Columbia disaster- is all but out, with space agency officials stating lastweek that chances were slim they would make the four-day windowthat opens on Sept. 22.
Shuttle managersare discussing whether to push past a brief, four-day launch window inNovember, and even switch shuttles - launching Discovery instead of Atlantis -for the next orbiter flight, NASA officials said.
"There haveindeed been discussions about that," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel told SPACE.com,adding that an update on NASA's shuttle program status is set for 12:00 p.m.EDT (1600 GMT) today.
Shuttleofficials have pledged not to launch the next shuttle mission until the foamissue is solved.
A largepiece of foam insulation weighing nearly one pound pulled free from the externaltank fueling the space shuttle Discovery about two minutes into its July 26 launch.The foam missed the orbiter, but was the largest of severalpieces of foam debris that exceeded safety restrictions put in place after theColumbia accident.
Columbiabroke apart during reentry on Feb. 1, 2003, when damage caused at launch by theimpact of a 1.67-pound piece of tank foam debris allowed hot atmospheric gasesto enter the resulting hole and rip apart the shuttle. Its seven-astronaut crewdid not survive.
Preparationsare underway to send an external tank from NASA's Kennedy Space Centerspaceport in Cape Canaveral, Florida back to Michoud Assembly Facility in NewOrleans, Louisiana - where the tanks are built - so engineers can begintroubleshooting efforts.
Beutel saidthat shuttle managers were still discussing whether to pry Atlantis from itsexternal tank to allow the fuel container to be shipped back to Michoud, orwhether a separate tank at KSC will be sent back.
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Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.