updated 2/12/2004 6:31:53 PM ET 2004-02-12T23:31:53

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said it is looking increasingly unlikely the space shuttle will be cleared to launch in the September through October window the space agency had been targeting.

Testifying before the House Science Committee Thursday on the agency’s new space exploration agenda, O’Keefe told lawmakers that the prospects for making the early fall launch window are “very low” owing to slower than expected progress clearing the shuttle’s external fuel tank for flight and developing an instrumented boom for inspecting the underside of a shuttle for damage.

A chunk of foam shed from the Space Shuttle Columbia’s giant orange external tank on liftoff damaged the orbiter’s left wing, setting the stage for the vehicle’s disastrous Feb. 1, 2002 re-entry and landing attempt. NASA has been taking steps to better understand foam shedding and, where possible, prevent it. In recent weeks, NASA’s efforts to characterize and mitigate foam shedding have been expanded to cover more of the tank. As a result, NASA needs more time for added testing and any design changes that might be warranted.

Shuttle historyNASA is also not making as much progress as expected developing an instrumented boom that would be deployed at the end of the shuttle’s giant robot arm to inspect the vehicle for damage.

O’Keefe said that because of these two technical issues, prospects for an early fall launch are growing dim.

“I have my doubts and do not believe the September-October timeframe will be met,” O”Keefe said.

After the hearing, O’Keefe would not predict the odds the shuttle would be ready to launch by the end of the year.  But shuttle officials have said that the comparatively short launch windows available in November and December are less than ideal opportunities for conducting NASA’s first launch since losing Columbia.  These officials have said they would prefer to wait until at least January -- when launch opportunities start to become more numerous again -- if they miss the September-October launch window.

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