Image: Shuttle crew
Reuters
Atlantis commander Brent Jett, front and center, talks to journalists after the shuttle crew's arrival at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He's surrounded by his crew: Canadian astronaut Steven MacLean, Joe Tanner, pilot Chris Ferguson, Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper and Daniel Burbank.
updated 9/2/2006 6:54:03 PM ET 2006-09-02T22:54:03

Four days after evacuating the Kennedy Space Center with Tropical Storm Ernesto approaching, the space shuttle Atlantis' six crew members flew back to Florida on Saturday to prepare for a launch on Wednesday.

As Atlantis' crew took off from Florida in training jets on a trip back to Houston last Tuesday, they watched from the air as the space shuttle crawled off the launch pad on a journey back to an assembly building for shelter, said Brent Jett, Atlantis' commander.

Midway through the four-mile journey, NASA managers reversed themselves and decided to return the shuttle to the launch pad once Ernesto's intensity was downgraded. The reversal gave NASA an opportunity to launch Wednesday, rather than several weeks later.

"I think all of us thought we were going to be spending a little while in Houston," Jett said Saturday after returning to the Kennedy Space Center. "I think we're all really happy that just four days later we're back here and we have a shot at this launch window."

By the time Ernesto reached the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday night, the storm had been downgraded to a tropical depression, and peak gusts at the launch pad reached 44 mph (70 kilometers per hour), well below the 79 mph (126 kph) threshold that requires the shuttle to be moved indoors.

Minor foam damage
Engineers inspecting Atlantis the next day found three areas of minor foam damage on the shuttle's external fuel tank: a three-eighths-inch-long (centimeter-long) cut in the middle of the liquid oxygen tank, an inch-long (2.54-centimeter-long) scratch near where the tank connects to the solid rocket boosters, and a missing lump of foam from the liquid hydrogen barrel.

The first two scratches were expected to be easily repaired, and the missing foam will not need to be replaced, NASA officials said.

Any kind of foam insulation problem on the external tank is a major concern for NASA engineers since foam falling off the space shuttle Columbia's external tank during liftoff struck the spacecraft's wing, allowing fiery gases to penetrate and kill its seven crew members while returning to Earth in 2003.

Since then, NASA has redesigned the external tank to minimize foam shedding.

Big delivery
Atlantis will deliver a 17.5-ton, $372 million addition to the half-built international space station during the 11-day mission. Four astronauts will take three spacewalks to resume construction on the orbiting space lab, which stopped being built 3 1/2 years ago after the Columbia accident.

Slideshow: Month in space: Future frontiers NASA and its international partners hope to finish the space station during 14 other shuttle missions by 2010 when the cargo-carrying vehicles are retired.

Atlantis originally was set to blast off last Sunday. The launch was delayed after a lightning bolt struck the launch pad, requiring engineers to check out Atlantis' systems to make sure there was no damage. Then Ernesto blew through Florida.

Atlantis crew member Steve MacLean of the Canadian Space Agency called the delays "a dancing shuttle two-step."

"I think we'll give you a good show with a good story to tell everybody else," MacLean said.

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