Storm prompts NASA to delay shuttle move

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NASA is holding off on moving the space shuttle Atlantis to its Florida launch pad this week to ensure it is not threatened by Tropical Storm Hanna, the agency said Tuesday.

While the shuttle could make the 3-mile trek to the seaside launch pad as early as Thursday, it's more likely to move on Saturday after Hanna has passed, said NASA spokesperson Allard Beutel of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

"We're watching and protecting our options," Beutel told "I think we're all pretty much figuring it will be Saturday."

Shuttle workers at Kennedy Space Center had initially planned to move Atlantis to Launch Pad 39A early Monday but held off a day to monitor Hanna, which as of Tuesday had weakened back to a tropical storm after reaching hurricane status over the weekend. NASA hoped to attempt the shuttle move early Wednesday, but later shifted to no earlier than Thursday at 12:01 a.m. EDT with Saturday a more likely target.

Until Hanna passes, Atlantis and its attached external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters will stay in the shelter of NASA's 52-Vehicle Assembly Building at the spaceport.

As of 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Hanna was headed for the southeastern Bahamas with maximum sustained winds of about 70 mph and higher gusts, according to a National Hurricane Center status report. The storm is expected to strengthen over Wednesday and Thursday, with current forecasts predicting it to move northwest off the eastern coast of Florida.

"We're expecting tropical force winds," Beutel said.

NASA is targeting an Oct. 8 launch for Atlantis and a crew of seven astronauts to pay one last service call on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Last week, mission managers were weighing options to push the mission to Oct. 10 or 11 due to processing delays caused by the last month's Tropical Storm Fay, which prompted NASA to close its Kennedy Space Center spaceport for three days. A further launch delay appears likely the longer Atlantis remains inside the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building.

Beutel said today that the spaceport was operating at Hurricane Condition Four, the center's lowest alert level, to secure loose debris in anticipation of wind speeds reaching 58 mph in the next 72 hours.

According to NASA's hurricane plan, space shuttles cannot remain at a launch pad if winds are forecast to reach top speeds of 79 mph. The plan also forbids space shuttles to move between launch pads and NASA's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building after winds reach sustained speeds of 46 mph with gusts up to 69 mph and lightning within a 23-mile radius.

Atlantis' October spaceflight is the fourth of five NASA shuttle flights planned for 2008. The year's final scheduled mission, a planned Nov. 10 launch aboard Endeavour to deliver supplies and equipment to the International Space Station, must fly before Nov. 25, when NASA would stand down due to unfavorable lighting and heating concerns at the orbiting outpost, agency officials have said.