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NASA's Shuttle Atlantis Weathers Storm at Launch Pad

NASA's space shuttle Atlantis appearsto be in good health after weathering what is now Tropical Storm Ernesto, and is oncemore being primed for a September launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"There's nodamage that we can find anywhere as of yet," NASA spokesperson George Diller,at KSC, told SPACE.com, adding that the shuttle could fly sometimenext week. "We're still looking at no earlier than Wednesday."

Atlantiscould launch its six-astronautcrew towards the InternationalSpace Station (ISS) on Sept. 6, 7 or 8 to deliver newsolar arrays and a pair of 17.5-ton pair of trusses to the orbital outpost.To do that, the shuttle must be ready to begin countdown operations as early asSunday, or else await a planned ISS crew change later this month, NASA said.

Ernestopassed over KSC Wednesday with peak winds reaching 44 miles per hour (70kilometers per hour) at about 4:45 p.m. EDT (2045 GMT) that afternoon, Dillersaid. By 12:30 a.m. EDT (0430 GMT) Thursday the area was cleared for normaloperations, with the first scheduled shift of KSC workers arriving at 7:00 a.m.EDT (1200 GMT), he added.

Ernesto weakened to a tropical depression as it approached KSC, but has since grown stronger as it crosses Atlantic Ocean waters on course towards the Carolinas, the National Hurricane Center reported today.

NASAspokesperson Katherine Trinidad told SPACE.com Wednesday that Atlantis,should it launch on Sept. 8, would have to undock no later than Sept. 17 toavoid conflicts with the planned ISS crew change. That means the shuttle wouldlose the option for an extra docked day at the ISS during Atlantis' STS-115mission, though extra days are available if the shuttle launches on Sept. 6 or7, Trinidad said.

Atlantis' orbitaldeparture would allow a three-day buffer between visiting spacecraft at the ISSto give the station crew time for rest and preparation.

During theupcoming crewswap, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft is expected to launch the station'sExpedition 14 crew and a space tourist towards the ISS on Sept. 18, withdocking planned for Sept. 20. The outpost's current Expedition13 crew would then return to Earth with the spaceflight participant, U.S.entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, on Sept. 29.

NASA's STS-115mission has been delayed several times this month. A lightningstrike and subsequentspacecraft checks at the orbiter's Pad 39B launch site last week preventedplanned space shots on Sunday and Monday, while Ernesto's Florida pass scrubbeda Tuesday launch attempt.

Atlantis'flight will mark the first major ISS construction mission since late 2002.It is the orbiter mission to launch since the 2003 Columbia accident and thefirst to follow two post-accident test flights - STS-114 in 2005 and last month'sSTS-121- to evaluate shuttle flight safety improvements.

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