Image: Atlantis
Dr. Scott M. Lieberman  /  AP
The space shuttle Atlantis stands at Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Sunday. Workers need more time to check whether a lightning strike damaged systems on the shuttle, and they're also wary about an approaching hurricane. staff and news service reports
updated 8/27/2006 9:48:30 PM ET 2006-08-28T01:48:30

NASA is planning for a Tuesday launch of the space shuttle Atlantis to the international space station — but also is preparing to move the shuttle into its protective hangar in case bad weather threatens.

The two-track preparations were required because of the approach of Tropical Storm Ernesto , which was expected to pass through Florida. After assessing the situation on Sunday, mission managers kept their options open for a Tuesday launch, at least for the time being.

Based on the weather forecast, managers would decide on Monday or perhaps even as late as Tuesday morning whether to keep going with the countdown — or call off the launch attempt and move the shuttle back to the protection of the 52-story-tall Vehicle Assembly Building.The latter scenario is aimed at giving engineers enough time to make the move before unacceptably strong winds hit the area.

NASA's launch rules specify that the shuttle's rollback to the VAB must be completed before winds reach 45 mph (72 kilometers per hour). The rollback process usually takes two days.

As part of the rollback preparations at the launch pad, workers brought out a gigantic crane that could be used to move generators and other heavy gear. The huge crawler-transporter vehicle that would carry the shuttle was being run through tests, and crews prepared to make room inside the assembly building to accommodate the shuttle.

LeRoy Cain, NASA's launch integration manager, indicated that the weather outlook made a rollback more likely than a launch attempt. The National Hurricane Center predicted Sunday that the eye of Ernesto was most likely to pass over Florida’s west coast late Wednesday or early Thursday.

"With the current storm predictions, it would take a relatively significant change from the current forecasts ... to prevent us from going into rollback preparation," Cain said late Sunday. "If we see a change like that, then we'll press on."

NASA had originally planned to launch Atlantis on Sunday afternoon. However, the launch pad suffered a strong lightning strike on Friday, and mission managers wanted to find out whether the jolt damaged the spacecraft's solid rocket boosters or other systems. So over the weekend, they delayed the initial launch attempt — first to Monday, then to Tuesday — to give engineers more time to make an assessment.

Cain said engineers "were able to clear the vehicle with respect to the lightning strike," leaving the weather as the biggest outstanding question.

Launch window diminishing
NASA could run into a severe time crunch for a September launch if the shuttle has to be moved inside. One day would be needed to return the shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad, and then seven to 10 days would be required after that to prepare for launch.

The launch window for this mission only goes through Sept. 13 because NASA wants to launch the shuttle to the space station during daylight so it can photograph the shuttle’s external fuel tank, where insulating foam has fallen off during previous launches. The shuttle Columbia was doomed after foam hit a wing, causing a breach that allowed hot gases to penetrate during its return to Earth.

NASA hoped to launch Atlantis before Sept. 7 to prevent a traffic jam at the space station, since a Russian Soyuz vehicle is set to blast off in mid-September carrying two new station crew members and a space tourist.If NASA launches later, it will have to persuade the Russians to change their launch date and land at night — something the Russians do not want to do because they have a new private firm handling capsule recovery.

No damage from lightning strike
There were no immediate indications that any damage was caused by Friday’s lightning bolt, one of the most powerful recorded at a Kennedy Space Center launch pad. Rather than hitting the shuttle directly, it struck a wire attached to a tower used to protect the spacecraft from such strikes — but it created a strong electrical field around the vehicle.

The solid rocket booster system wasn’t powered up at the time, so engineers didn’t immediately get enough data about the lightning’s effect on the boosters, which provide the main thrust to lift the shuttle off the launch pad, said NASA spokesman Bruce Buckingham.

Atlantis’ planned mission is the first of 15 flights scheduled to finish constructing the half-built space station before the cargo-carrying shuttles are retired in 2010. Construction has been on hiatus since the 2003 Columbia disaster, which killed seven astronauts.

The shuttle will carry a 17 1/2-ton addition for the space station, costing $372 million, from which two solar wings will be opened up. The solar arrays eventually will provide a quarter of the space station's power when it is finished.

Weather complications
Adverse weather complicates the scenarios for Atlantis' 11-day mission. If NASA misses the September launch window, there are only a couple of days in October and one day in December that would have acceptable lighting conditions for liftoff.

In the unlikely event that the oncoming storm took a westward turn and forced the evacuation of NASA's Mission Control in Houston after Atlantis' launch, the mission would be cut short, and the shuttle and its astronauts would land early, NASA managers said.

Last September, during Hurricane Rita, Johnson Space Center in Houston was locked down, the power was turned off and monitoring duties for the international space station were turned over to Russian flight controllers outside Moscow. There was no space shuttle mission going on at the time.

This report includes information from The Associated Press and

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