CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - With TropicalStorm Ernesto headed their way, NASA officials decided Tuesday to haul the space shuttle Atlantisoff its launch pad, effectively delaying the space agency's plan to resumeconstruction of the InternationalSpace Station (ISS).
After several launch delays from an initialAug. 27 target, NASA shuttle officials opted to err on the side of safetyand roll Atlantis back into the shelter of the cavernous Vehicle AssemblyBuilding (VAB) here at the Kennedy Space Center. The orbiter will be safe in the52-story VAB from Ernesto's tropical storm or hurricane force winds, which areexpected to batter Atlantis' launch site by Thursday, NASA officials said.
"The rollback essentially is adecision to slip launch by a couple of weeks at least," NASA spokesperson BruceBuckingham told reporters here at KSC once shuttle managers made the call aftera morning weather briefing. "It could have gone either way up to the lastminute."
While NASA could conceivably readyAtlantis once more for flight within its original launch window - which closeson Sept. 13 - the agency has repeatedly stated its intent to loft the shuttleand its STS-115 astronaut crew towards the ISS by Sept. 7 to avoid launch andlanding conflicts associated with a Russian Soyuz crew change mission set tofly on Sept. 14.
"We essentially have a daylightlaunch window from Oct. 20 through Nov. 15," NASA launch integration manger LeRoy Cain, currently heading Atlantis' STS-115 MissionManagement Team, said Monday. "Only a portion of that is good for the [externaltank] separation as well. Somewhere in there is where we're looking in terms oftrying to understand what we'd be willing to do to expand our launch capabilityin October."
NASA hassaid the optimum dates to photograph the external tank separation after launch occurbetween Oct. 26 and 27 and one day on Dec. 23.
NASA space station officials arestill negotiating with their Russian counterparts to determine if the Soyuzflight could be pushed back to Sept. 18 - which would require a returning Soyuzspacecraft to land in darkness - to give Atlantis extra time to fly its ISSconstruction flight, which will be the first since late2002.
"Those discussions are continuing,"Buckingham said of the U.S.-Russian ISS negotiations.
The earliest Atlantis could be backon the launch pad and primed for flight would be near the end of its lightedlaunch window, some time between Sept. 9-12, NASA has said.
Atlantis' STS-115mission will launch a 17.5-ton of trusses and solar arrays to the ISS tokick off at least 15 planned shuttle flights to complete the orbital laboratoryby Sept. 2010, when NASA plans to retire its three-shuttle fleet.
Buckingham said Atlantis'six-astronaut crew - commanded by shuttle flight veteran Brent Jett - left KSCearlier today and are returning to NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) foradditional training during Atlantis' launch delay. NASA officials at JSC told SPACE.comthat it is unknown at this time whether the astronauts will leave quarantineconditions until a specific launch date is set.
NASA's massive crawler carriervehicle lifted its 12 million pound load of Atlantis, its boosters and fueltank and their Mobile Launch Platform, and began the 10-hour trek to the (VAB)at 10:05 a.m. EDT (1405 GMT). In order to ferry Atlantis into High Bay 2 in theVAB - a more than four-mile (6.4-kilometer) trip - the crawler is being pushedto its maximum speed of one mile per hour until it has to make a turn to movearound the VAB towards its designated slot.
Shuttle planners hoped to toteAtlantis into the VAB's High Bay 3, which faces KSC's two shuttle launch pads, but that space is alreadyoccupied by a crawler laden with a Mobile Launch Platform and apartially-stacked solid rocket booster. Attempts to shift that vehicle Mondayfailed when the crawler broke down, NASA officials said.
For Atlantis, that high bay changetacks on at least three extra hours to what NASA launch director Michael Leinbach estimated would be a day-long trip.
Leinbach said Monday that everything boileddown to weather.
Space shuttles at the launch padcannot stay in place when faced with the prospect of sustained tropical stormforce winds in excess of 40 knots, but must be moved before then since arotating shell that guarding orbiters from weather cannot be moved during suchstrong winds.
KSC's surrounding area is under tropicalstorm and hurricane warnings in anticipation of Tropical Storm Ernesto'sarrival, as well as its potential to gain strength before making landfall inFlorida.
Compounding today's decision, Leinbach said, was the potential for afternoonthunderstorms and lightning threats arriving at KSC while Atlantis was betweenthe launch pad and the VAB.
"I don't think there was anycontention at all," said Buckingham, NASA's KSC spokesperson, who listened inon today's rollback discussion. "I think there was a lot of professionalism, alot of determination to make the right decision."
A total of 16 shuttles have beenrolled back from their launch pad in NASA history, though only four have doneso due to impending tropical storms or hurricanes.
Atlantis weather woes
Weather has plagued NASA's STS-115launch preparations. Strong afternoon thunderstorms battered the KSC area daysbefore Atlantis' initial Aug. 27 launch target.
On Friday, abolt of lightning - one of, if not the, strongest to ever it ashuttle-laden pad - struck a cable at Atlantis' Pad 39B launch site, promptinglaunch delays as engineers checked the orbiter's systems for signs of damage.
"There was a collective sigh offrustration with the weather," NASA astronaut Doug Wheelock,who is set to launch toward the ISS aboard Atlantis next year, told SPACE.com."So I think some folks are disappointed."
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