Image: VAB on Sunday after shuttle scrub
Bill Ingalls  /  NASA via AP
Storm clouds roll over NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building moments after the launch of the space shuttle Endeavour was scrubbed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/12/2009 9:59:41 PM ET 2009-07-13T01:59:41

Thunderstorms forced NASA to call off Sunday evening's launch of the shuttle Endeavour, the fourth delay for the space station construction mission.

The launch team came within minutes of sending Endeavour and seven astronauts to the international space station. But storms quickly moved in from the west and violated NASA's safety rules, leading managers to halt the countdown. They will try again Monday, despite an outlook calling for more bad weather.

"We got the vehicle ready, and the weather unfortunately did not cooperate with us today," launch director Pete Nickolenko told the seven astronauts aboard Endeavour.

"We understand and we'll be ready," replied commander Mark Polansky.

Monday's launch attempt is scheduled for 6:51 p.m. ET.

NASA has until Tuesday, possibly Wednesday, to launch Endeavour with the final piece of Japan's space station lab. Otherwise, it will have to wait until the end of July because of a Russian supply ship that's awaiting liftoff.

No gas leaks this time
The three previous countdowns never made it this far.

Saturday's launch attempt was foiled by a series of lightning strikes around the pad that required extra checks of the many critical shuttle systems. Back in June, hydrogen gas leaks held everything up.

No leaks popped up this time, thanks to all of the repairs. The tight plumbing allowed Polansky and his crew to board the shuttle for the first time for a real launch try.

Endeavour holds the third and final segment of Japan's enormous $1 billion space station lab, named Kibo, or Hope. It's a porch for experiments that need to be exposed to the vacuum of space. The shuttle also is loaded with large spare parts for the space station and hundreds of pounds of food for the six station residents.

When the shuttle astronauts finally arrive at the space station, they will make up the biggest crowd ever in a single place in orbit: 13 people. All of the major space station partners will be represented: the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Tight schedule
Endeavour is scheduled to spend nearly two weeks at the space station. In all, the flight will last 16 days. Five spacewalks are planned to hook up the Japanese lab's new porch, replace space station batteries and perform other maintenance.

Slideshow: Month in Space

Eight shuttle flights remain, including this one, before NASA retires the fleet. All involve space station work.

NASA is aiming to wrap up the space station construction job and retire the shuttle fleet by the end of 2010 — which makes for a tight schedule ahead.

While NASA prepared for Sunday's launch attempt, Russian controllers tested an automated rendezvous system on the space station, using an unmanned Progress cargo ship that had been shadowing the station since its undocking last month.

The ship was successfully commanded to come within about 33 feet (10 meters) of the station, and then back away. The Progress craft then began executing a series of commands that would lead to its safe deorbiting.

The system could smooth out the process of docking with future Progress spacecraft, which are Russia's robotic workhorses for space station resupply.

Over a radio link with the station, the Russian ground team recalled that a similar test led to a collision between Russia's now-defunct Mir space station and a cargo craft back in 1997. They remarked that the near-disaster left some of them with "gray hairs" 12 years ago.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

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