Image: Focusing on shuttle
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images
Photographers make adjustments to remote cameras that are focused on the space shuttle Discovery as it sits on Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Friday.
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updated 12/9/2006 11:41:38 AM ET 2006-12-09T16:41:38

NASA will decide whether to try a Saturday night launch of the space shuttle Discovery at a crucial morning meeting before fueling the spacecraft.

Strong winds kept the shuttle and its seven astronauts grounded on Friday, and low clouds scrubbed a launch on Thursday after a nail-biter of a countdown.

NASA was planning a second attempt at 8:47 p.m. ET on Saturday, although there was only a 30 percent chance of acceptable weather because of high winds. Technicians on Friday fueled the shuttle’s power cells.

“If the weather forecast stays where it is now, it is more than likely they will be going for a launch attempt tomorrow,” astronaut James Kelly at Mission Control in Houston told the space station crew Friday afternoon. “It looks like the weather is similar to what it was yesterday, and as you know we came very close to getting it yesterday.”

Discovery will deliver the next crew member for the space lab, U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams, who is replacing German astronaut Thomas Reiter of the European Space Agency.

Removed from hurricane season and the predictable afternoon showers of summer, December would seem a more reliable time for launching a space shuttle.

But winter has its own pitfalls: low clouds and strong winds.

“The problem with the wintertime is that we can get low clouds and we can get strong winds, which we don’t normally see in the summer,” said Scott Kelly, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Melbourne, Fla. “In the summer, it’s lightning and, of course, hurricanes. So there’s just different weather elements in the winter versus the summer.”

NASA won’t launch a shuttle with low cloud cover because it prevents the necessary observation of the spacecraft during its ascent, and the commander needs visibility if an emergency landing is required.

The top winds allowed at the launch pad, depending on the direction and range, are between about 20 and 40 miles per hour. Peak gusts in Cape Canaveral around noon Friday were at 35 mph.

Slideshow: Planetary pleasures The winds are due to a high pressure system building over Florida. The chances for good weather improve to 40 percent on Sunday and Monday. The best opportunity for launching over the next several days is Tuesday, with a 60 percent chance of decent weather.

The liftoff of Discovery will be the first night launch in four years.

“We actually like to launch at night,” said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. “In general, the weather is a bit calmer. We’re less vulnerable to thunderstorms down here.”

NASA had required daylight launches for the three flights after the 2003 Columbia accident to make sure the agency could get good daytime photos of the external fuel tank in case debris fell from it. Foam breaking off the tank and striking Columbia’s wing at liftoff caused the damage that led to the disaster that killed seven astronauts.

But NASA officials were comfortable with the acceptable levels of foam loss during the last two liftoffs and believe radar will spot pieces falling from Discovery’s tank.

During the 12-day mission, Discovery’s astronauts will rewire the space station, bring up a new 2-ton addition to the space lab and rotate out one of the three station crew members.

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