CAPECANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA is pushing ahead with plans to launch its Atlantis shuttle Sunday, though weather remains an ongoing concern for the afternoonspace shot.
Atlantis isset to launch six astronauts and a hefty pair of trusses and solar arraystowards the International Space Station (ISS) at 4:30 p.m. EDT (2030 GMT)Sunday, but rain and thunderstorms could thwart the attempt, and lightning hasalready struck the orbiter's Pad 39B launch site.
NASA testdirector Jeff Spaulding said the launch countdown for Atlantis' STS-115 missionis currently on schedule, but that analysis is still underway to determine ifFriday's lightning strike - which hit the Pad 39B's lightning protection system- affected the orbiter's systems in anyway.
"So far itlooks favorable but they are still evaluating as to which direction we needgo," Spaulding said the lightning strike checks.
A bolt oflightning stuck one of the metal cables that run from the ground aroundAtlantis' launch site to the top of a lightning rod on the pad gantry at about2:00 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) Friday.
A finalanalysis will be discussed during a mission management team meeting scheduledfor 3:00 p.m. (1900 GMT) today, Spaulding added.
Shuttleweather officer Kathy Winters said NASA is also keeping close tabs on TropicalStorm Ernesto, which is currently gathering strength in the eastern Caribbeanand headed into the Gulf of Mexico. A National Weather Service forecastpredicts that the storm will gain hurricane status by Monday, and could becomea Category 3 storm by late next week.
Shuttleofficials said Friday that Ernesto, should it develop into a significanthurricane and follow its current track, could impact NASA's shuttle and ISSmission control operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. While it is still too early to predict Ernesto's path, if the storm forces anevacuation of Houston similar to last year's response to Hurricane Rita,Atlantis could return to Earth early.
Spauldingsaid that should poor weather delay Atlantis' launch over the next severaldays, flight controllers and mission managers would have to revisit discussionson whether to press forward with the spaceflight while a potential hurricaneapproaches the Gulf region.
"We have alot of contingency plans in place if in fact a hurricane does pop up whilewe're in orbit," Spaulding said.
NASA'sSTS-115 mission is the agency's first major ISS construction flight since the2003 Columbia accident.
Weatheraside, the launch countdown is back on track now that Atlantis has been loadedwith the super-cold fuel cell propellants used to generate electricity for theshuttle during flight. Thunderstorms and lightning delayed the loading processFriday.
At about5:00 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) today, some final pieces of cargo - including microbeand yeast experiments - will be tucked away into lockers on Atlantis' middeck.Pad workers expect to roll back the Rotating Service Structure, a shell-likecover protecting Atlantis from this week's stormy weather, at about 7:00 p.m.EDT (2300 GMT), shuttle officials said.
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