NASA: Discovery's Launch Delay Shouldn't Impact Shuttle Fleet Retirement Schedule

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The delay of space shuttle Discovery's launch to the end of the month should not impact the overall schedule for the final missions of NASA's three-orbiter fleet, agency officials said.

A gas leak and a crack on the space shuttle Discovery's external tank forced NASA officials to call off their planned launch today (Nov. 5). The earliest Discovery could now lift off is Nov. 30, NASA announced..

If the space shuttle  can make the next window that begins Nov. 30, then the following planned mission of the space shuttle Endeavour should be able to launch on time in February, officials said.

The space shuttle is limited in when it can launch by "windows" that open up when conditions are optimum to reach the International Space Station. For Discovery, the current window closes Nov. 8 because of unfavorable sun angles at the station that could cause some parts of the shuttle to overheat while it's docked at the orbital outpost.

The next earliest favorable date to launch is Nov. 30, though space agency officials have not yet decided if Discovery will attempt to blast off that day. [GRAPHIC: NASA's Space Shuttle – From Top to Bottom]

If the repair work to Discovery's external tank takes longer than roughly three-and-a-half weeks from now, it's possible that the orbiter's STS-133 mission could be pushed into the February 2011 timeslot that is currently earmarked for the shuttle Endeavour's final spaceflight.

If that happens, Endeavour's STS-134 flight could be bumped to sometime in April. NASA has also tentatively scheduled a final flight for the space shuttle Atlantis in June 2011. This third, extra shuttle mission (STS-135) has been approved by Congress and President Obama but still faces review by congressional appropriators later this year.

"There are other windows between February and the June spot where we put STS-135," Mike Moses, NASA's shuttle integration manager, said in a news briefing today. "We'd probably put STS-133 in February and 134 would move to April. But that will all come out in the coming days as we work options."

But there could be other side effects that come out of Discovery's latest launch delay. For one, three crewmembers currently aboard the International Space Station are scheduled to return to Earth at the end of the month.

This could mean that when Discovery blasts off to the space station, it will have three rather than six residents. One of the main challenges with this smaller crew is in the amount of science that can be achieved on the station. It would, however, also affect the unloading of cargo delivered by the shuttle, and the number of people available to assist with Discovery's mission objectives.

"It changes the mission a little bit because there are less bodies to help out," Moses said.

Still, the ability to adapt to changes and unexpected problems is all part of a space shuttle launch, Moses said, and the teams that help make these events possible are well-adapted to facing challenges.

"Obviously these things happen," he explained. "It's the way the space business works. The team is very good at rolling with the punches."

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.