NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 3/15/2010 5:39:34 PM ET 2010-03-15T21:39:34

A helium leak in one of space shuttle Discovery's rocket pods may delay a planned April 5 launch, officials say. If the shuttle can't be repaired on its oceanside pad, the launch team may have to roll Discovery to its processing hangar for repairs.

The problem occurred in Discovery's orbiting maneuver system while engineers were venting the shuttle's propellant tanks on Friday, NASA said on its Web site. Mission managers say that further tests will be conducted this week to determine if a lengthy delay is needed.

The rocket pods are used for major maneuvers and to drop the shuttle out of orbit, and helium provides the pressure that pushes fuel to the maneuvering system's rockets.

NASA said the problem is at least one valve that is leaking, or is remaining in the open position when it should be closed.

Sources told Spaceflight Now, an online space news site, that the valve cannot be fixed on its launch pad. If repairs need to be made, Discovery would have to go back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repair or replacement of the rocket pod, the site reported.

This week's tests will assess whether the shuttle is safe to launch as is.

NASA plans only four more space shuttle flights, with the last scheduled for Sept. 14, 2010.  If the rocket pod has to be replaced in its hangar, the ensuing delay would create a domino effect, pushing the last space shuttle launch near year's end.

This report includes information from NBC News' Jay Barbree in Cape Canaveral.

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