Shuttle with external fuel tank
Peter Cosgrove  /  AP
NASA needs more time to work on problems with the shuttle's external fuel tank, the huge orange object seen in this photo of the shuttle in May.
msnbc.com
updated 8/18/2005 1:10:59 PM ET 2005-08-18T17:10:59

NASA announced Thursday that it was delaying the next shuttle launch until at least March 2006, as the space agency continues to work on problems with the external fuel tank. As reported by NBC News on Wednesday, NASA has also decided that the next mission will be flown by Discovery, instead of the originally planned Atlantis.

"March 4th is the timeframe we're looking at," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, but added that engineers and other agency workers had to take a hard look at the schedule and it would be about two weeks before an official date was set.

Just after Discovery's landing last week, Gerstenmaier said the previous schedule, which called for an Atlantis launch in September, was virtually impossible to meet due to the additional engineering changes that would be required. There had been talk of a November opportunity, but NASA decided to pass up that brief launch window as well as a possible one in January.

The key sticking point has to do with the shuttle's external fuel tank: NASA mission managers and even Discovery's astronauts were surprised to see a large piece of the tank's foam insulation breaking off after the July 26 launch, even though engineers had spent two years trying to reduce the risk of foam debris.

Gerstenmaier said the foam investigation was making "very good progress," but that it was still unclear exactly what had gone wrong.

In addition to the foam repairs, NASA said the delay would allow it to shift the shuttle order around so that Atlantis would not be forced to make two missions in a row, with a quick turnaround. Now that there's a seven-month delay, Discovery will take on STS-121, the next scheduled mission, and Atlantis will take the one after that, STS-115, currently set for May 2006.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said he did not think the delays would greatly impact the five-year plan to finish building the international space station and then retire the shuttle. "We need to view shuttle missions as a process," he said, instead of focusing on individual missions in isolation.

First flight since Columbia
Discovery's just-concluded mission, STS-114, marked the first shuttle flight since the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its crew in February 2003. The mission's twin goals were to resupply the international space station and to test the upgraded safety procedures that were put into place after the Columbia tragedy.

Dozens of cameras monitored Discovery's ascent. In fact, it was a new camera mounted on the fuel tank that caught the crucial view of the foam breaking away from a part of the tank known as the protuberance air load ramp, or PAL ramp.

Although the flying foam caused no damage to the orbiter, the incident led NASA to suspend future shuttle flights until the problem was fixed. Mission planners also decided to transfer more supplies to the space station to help the outpost's two-man crew weather a reduced resupply schedule. The space station should have sufficient supplies despite the new shuttle delay, thanks to Discovery's delivery as well as additional cargo slated to arrive on unmanned Russian spacecraft.

Discovery itself remains in California, where it landed last week because of weather concerns at Cape Canaveral. The shuttle now must be mounted atop a modified Boeing 747 jet for a piggyback flight back to Florida — but the operation has been held up, first by weather, then by a mechanical snag. NASA reported Wednesday that workers had a hard time aligning the shuttle's protective tail cone for the trip. As a result, the scheduled two-day journey is due to begin no earlier than Friday.

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