updated 9/28/2006 6:38:01 PM ET 2006-09-28T22:38:01

For the first time in four years, the next space shuttle launch attempt most likely will be at night, NASA said Thursday.

The first launch possibility for Discovery will be Dec. 7 at 9:38 p.m. EDT, the first try at night since Endeavour lifted off Nov. 23, 2002 at 7:49 p.m. Discovery's launch window extends to Dec. 26.

After the Columbia disaster in 2003, the U.S. space agency began requiring that launches be made in daylight so the space shuttle could be photographed to spot possible damage during liftoff. Insulating foam from Columbia's external fuel tank struck the spacecraft's wing during launch, causing a breach that allowed fiery gases to penetrate the vehicle when it returned through Earth's atmosphere. All seven astronauts were killed.

NASA has launched three shuttle flights since the Columbia disaster, all in daylight and with new inspection equipment and techniques for checking for damage. The most recent two launches lost small amounts of foam that didn't threaten the shuttle.

After last week's successful finish of Atlantis' 12-day mission, NASA officials indicated they were willing to relax the daylight rule since there are now new methods for inspecting the shuttle for holes or cracks while in orbit. They said a night launch is needed to stay on schedule to finish construction of the international space station in 14 more flights by 2010.

"It is very important to us," Leroy Cain, launch integration manager, said last week.

Discovery's launch on Dec. 7 would interfere with a scheduled launch of an Atlas 5 rocket carrying satellites to space, so NASA officials must consult with Air Force officials about that date.

During Discovery's 11-day mission, astronauts will rewire the space station's electrical system and drop off flight engineer Suni Williams for her six-month stay aboard the orbiting outpost.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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