Image: Space Shuttle
John Raoux  /  AP
The shuttle Atlantis is carried out to its launch pad by a giant crawler-transporter on Tuesday, after NASA spent weeks repairing Atlantis' hail-damaged external fuel tank. Liftoff is set for no earlier than June 8.
updated 5/15/2007 4:03:02 PM ET 2007-05-15T20:03:02

Atlantis returned to the launch pad Tuesday, with white spots on its external fuel tank serving as the only evidence of 2½ months of repairs from hail damage that postponed the year’s first space shuttle flight.

The 3.4-mile trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad took less than seven hours aboard the shuttle’s massive crawler-transporter.

When the spacecraft rolled out before dawn Tuesday, the orange tank had hundreds of white speckles at the top showing where technicians sprayed on new insulation foam, hand-poured foam on other areas and sanded down spots.

John Chapman, NASA’s manager of the external tank project, said last week that the agency had “total confidence in the integrity of the repairs.”

Atlantis last traveled to the launch pad in February, when a storm pounded its fuel tank with golfball-sized hail that left thousands of dings in the tank’s insulating foam.

NASA managers postponed a planned mid-March launch and ordered the shuttle returned to the assembly building for repairs. The launch is now planned for no earlier than June 8. A final decision on the timing will be made at the end of the month.

Slideshow: From Earth to stars Foam debris coming off the external fuel tank has been of special concern to NASA since the seven astronauts aboard Columbia perished when a piece of foam from the tank struck a wing during launch, allowing fiery gases to penetrate the space shuttle while returning to Earth.

Astronaut Clayton Anderson has been added to the previously six-man Atlantis crew so he can replace U.S. astronaut Sunita Williams on the international space station. Until the shuttle arrives, Williams and her colleagues at the space station will make do with 2½ tons of fuel, air, water and other supplies that were delivered Tuesday by a Russian cargo vehicle.

The Atlantis crew will deliver a 17½-ton addition to the space station’s truss system and take three spacewalks during the 11-day mission.

NASA managers hope Atlantis’ launch puts the space agency back on a regular schedule of shuttle missions after a five-month hiatus. The last space shuttle flight was in December, and three more missions are scheduled for this year after Atlantis.

The space agency has at least 14 more missions to finish building the space station and repair the Hubble Space Telescope before the shuttle fleet is grounded in 2010. The next-generation spacecraft, Orion, is not scheduled to fly astronauts until 2015.

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