CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA has renewed hopes oflaunching the space shuttle Atlantis next week, as the spacecraft made historyTuesday as the first orbiter to return to its launch pad in mid-rollback.
"We're going to give a fightingchance," NASA's launch integration manager LeRoy Caintold reporters in a last-minute briefing here at Kennedy Space Center (KSC).
A target launch date has not beenset, but flight controllers plan to pick up the spaceflight's countdown at Tminus three days before launch as soon as possible once Tropical Storm Ernestopasses. The flight window for Atlantis' STS-115 mission to the InternationalSpace Station (ISS) closes on Sept. 7, a self-imposed deadlinethat allows a buffer between Atlantis' stay at the orbital laboratory and anarriving Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA launch director Michael Leinbach said pad crews will prepare Atlantis and Pad 39Bfor Ernesto's arrival, then leave the launch site empty late Wednesday untilthe storm passes.
"There's no trepidation in my mindat all about the decision," Leinbach said. "This isthe right way to go."
Leinbach said Atlantis should return to itsPad 39B launch site at about 8:00 p.m. EDT (0000 Aug. 30 GMT), with shuttleengineers working through the night to reattach conduits and cables before thefirst wave of weather from Ernesto arrives.
It is Ernesto's imminent arrivalthat prompted Cain, Leinbach and top shuttleofficials to haul Atlantis back to the safe haven of NASA's Vehicle AssemblyBuilding (VAB) here earlier today. The storm's wind speeds were expected tojust be barely below the maximum limits allowed for a shuttle-laden launch pad.
But as Atlantis approached themid-point of its 10-hour trek to the VAB, Ernesto weakened to the point thatshuttle officials were convinced the orbiter and its launch stack could weatherthe storm at Pad 39B.
NASA orbiters cannot withstand windgusts at peak speeds of 70 knots at the launch pad.
"When it's at its closest to us,it's at 45 knots, gusting to 55 knots," Leinbach saidof Ernesto's projected strength when it reaches KSC. "That was the data thatallowed us to get comfortable to take the vehicle back to the pad."
NASA's launch window for Atlantiscloses on Sept. 7, a self-imposed deadline to allow a buffer between theshuttle flight and Russia's planned launch of Soyuzspacecraft later next month. The shuttle's full window extends through Sept.13.
Leinbach said that his earlier estimate thateight days would be required to once more ready Atlantis for flight was basedon the shuttle retreating the entire 4.2 miles to the VAB.
The spacecraft could now launch sometime mid-next week if Ernesto's impact to KSC is minimal, space center workersare able to return to work quickly after the storm and if all of theoutstanding tasks to prime Atlantis for flight are completed in time.
While NASA officials told SPACE.com earlier today that a decisionhad not been made as to whether Atlantis' six-astronaut crew would leavequarantine--where they are isolated from certain family members and others toavoid sickness - Cain said STS-115 team did in fact end their quarantinestatus.
The astronauts flew back to NASA'sJohnson Space Center (JSC) training facility in Houston, Texas, where they will conduct additionaltraining and spend time with their families until a new launch date it set andthey reenter quarantine, NASA said.
"It really became a timing issue,"Cain said, adding that spacecraft will be protected from Ernesto's rain andwinds by Pad 39B's shroud-like Rotating Service Structure. "Probably a day or aday and a half ago, we recognized that this was going to be a close call."
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