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NASA May Push Next Shuttle Flight to March 2006

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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