Extra Launch Day Available for Shuttle Atlantis, NASA Says

NASA flight controllers now have an extra day to launch the shuttleAtlantis towards the International Space Station (ISS) thismonth as mission managers added Sept. 8 among possible dates for theplanned liftoff, agency officials said Wednesday.

"We do have the option for the eighth, I can confirm that," NASAspokesperson Katherine Trinidad told SPACE.com.

On Tuesday, NASA launch integration manager LeRoy Cain said Atlantis'best bet for a potential liftoff ranged between Sept 6-7, the last two days inthe shuttle's flight window. A launchpad lightning strike and subsequentchecks, as well as what is now Tropical Depression Ernesto, have delayedthe shuttle's launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The initial launch window for Atlantis' STS-115mission to deliver newsolar arrays and trusses to the station stretched from Aug. 27 to Sept. 13,but NASAagreed to a Sept. 7 cutoff date to avoid conflicts with a planned ISS crewswap mission aboard a Russian Soyuz vehicle.

Russia's FederalSpace Agency plans to launch that Soyuz spacecraft on Sept. 14, with a fallbackdate of Sept. 18. NASA ISS managers were in discussions with their Russiancounterparts on whether to use that Sept. 18 reserve date, which would put theSoyuz landing of the space station's current crew - Expedition13 - before sunrise on Sept. 29.

U.S. andRussian ISS managers hoped to preserve a lighted landing for the Expedition 13crew as a safety measure, but do have past experience with nighttime Soyuzreturns, NASA ISS program manager Michael Sufferdini said in a Tuesdayteleconference. Night landings are not preferred because they can hamperrecovery efforts, which would be critical if the landing astronauts are indistress, Sufferdini said.

"If the shuttle Atlantis lifts off on September 6-8, theSoyuz will be launched on September 18," Nikolai Sevastyanov, president ofthe Russian aerospace firm RSC Energia that launches Soyuz and Progressspacecraft reporters Wednesday in Star City according to the Russian InterfaxNews Agency.

At KSC, shuttle managers and engineers have gone to great effort to makeAtlantis' September launch window. Current NASA guidelines call for the shuttlelaunch under daylight conditions to allow cameras on the ground, in the air andaboard the spacecraft's launch stack to record the performance of external tankmodifications.

The cutoff to launch Atlantis this month under optimum lightingconditions is Sept. 13.

On Tuesday, NASA shuttle managers firsthauled Atlantis off its Pad 39B launch site to avoid high winds and severeweather from Tropical Storm Ernesto, then rolled the shuttle backto the pad as the tempest weakened.

Ernesto made landfall in southern Florida early Wednesday, and hasweakened into a tropical depression, according to the National Hurricane Center.

A ride-out crew of about 200 NASA workers arrived at the Florida spaceport at about 4:00 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT) to watch over the site while Ernestopasses, NASA KSC spokesperson George Diller said in an update. Ernesto's centeris expected to pass close to KSC, with the entire storm to blow by midnight, headded.

Peak winds at Atlantis' launch pad are expected to reach 55 knots, wellbelow the 70 knot cap for a shuttle at Pad 39B, Diller said. Sustained windsare expected to reach between 40-45 knots, with some locations expected betweensix and eight inches of rain while others prepare for rainfall of three to fourinches.

"KSC could be in a position for employees to return to work onThursday," Diller said, adding that the decision to reopen the center dependson the result of post-storm safety inspections.

Shuttle officials have agreed to restart Atlantis' launch countdown fromscratch, picking the count up at T minus three days. To make an initial Sept. 6attempt, the countdown would have to resume Sunday to preserve at least threeopportunities to launch Atlantis.

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Tariq Malik

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.