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updated 7/26/2007 6:12:41 PM ET 2007-07-26T22:12:41

A space program worker deliberately damaged a computer that is supposed to fly aboard the shuttle Endeavour in less than two weeks, an act of sabotage that was caught before the equipment was loaded onto the spaceship, NASA said Thursday.

The unidentified employee, who works for a NASA subcontractor, cut wires inside the computer that is supposed to be delivered to the international space station by Endeavour, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s space operations chief. The worker also damaged a similar computer that was not meant to fly to space.

Gerstenmaier said the damage, which occurred outside Florida, was reported to NASA by the subcontractor. "It was disclosed to us as soon as the event occurred, about a week and a half ago," Gerstenmaier said.

Even if the subcontractor hadn't notified NASA, officials would have found the problem before launch, he said: "The damage is very obvious, easy to detect. It’s not a mystery to us."

The same subcontractor also builds gauges for the shuttle’s wings and other station computer components, Gerstenmaier said. No other damage was detected, on Earth or in space, he said.

Gerstenmaier declined to identify the subcontractor or where the damage took place, citing an investigation by NASA's inspector general. He also declined to speculate on whether the sabotage was motivated by a workplace dispute or other factors — but he stressed that the tampering had nothing to do with a continuing strike at NASA's Kennedy Space Center by a machinists union.

NASA hopes to fix the computer and launch it Aug. 7 as planned aboard Endeavour. The computer is designed for use aboard the space station, not the shuttle, and the damage would have posed no danger to either shuttle or station astronauts, Gerstenmaier said.

The computer, which is to be placed in the U.S.-built Destiny laboratory, is designed to collect and relay data from sensors on the station’s external trusses. The sensors detect vibrations and forces, such as micrometeoroid impacts.

Currently, those readings are stored in the sensors and not immediately accessible. But the computer is not considered a critical item. "If we don’t get it repaired in time, we’ll fly without it," said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring. “It’s not an issue.”

The damage is believed to be the first act of sabotage of flight equipment NASA has discovered, Gerstenmaier and shuttle program manager Wayne Hale said.

Official go-ahead for launch
The issue came up as Hale and other managers assessed Endeavour's readiness for the Aug. 7 liftoff. On Thursday, the management team gave the official go-ahead for launch.

Endeavour, fresh from a complete overhaul and the last of NASA’s three remaining shuttles to return to flight following the 2003 Columbia disaster, is due to install a new structural beam on the international space station during a mission scheduled to last at least 11 days. It will be NASA’s second shuttle flight of the year.

Endeavour was almost totally rebuilt during its overhaul and was like a new space shuttle, Hale said.

“It’s like driving a new car off the showroom floor,” he said.

Endeavour’s seven crew members include teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, who trained 22 years ago as the backup to teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe, one of the astronauts who died when Challenger blew up at liftoff in January 1986.

Among the shuttle’s upgrades is a new system that will enable the spacecraft to tap into the station’s electrical system and stay longer at the outpost.

If the power transfer system works properly, NASA plans to extend Endeavour’s mission to 14 days. That will allow time for the crew to finish extra work preparing the orbital outpost for the arrival of laboratories built by Europe and Japan on later shuttle flights.

This report include information from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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