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Hurricane Ike disrupts traffic in space

The impact of Hurricane Ike has reached out into space and delayed the planned Friday arrival of a Russian cargo ship at the international space station.
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The impact of Hurricane Ike has reached out into space and delayed the planned Friday arrival of a Russian cargo ship at the international space station.

The unmanned Russian space freighter Progress 30 was slated to arrive at the space station at 5:01 p.m. ET Friday, but flight controllers at NASA's Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston had yet to move the orbiting laboratory's expansive solar arrays into position for the docking before closing down Thursday to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ike.

"The Russians and [NASA] came to an agreement today to postpone docking until Wednesday," said John Yembrick, a NASA spokesman at the agency's headquarters in Washington.

NASA has set up backup Mission Control teams for the space station near Austin, Texas, and in Huntsville, Ala. Yembrick said that the main Mission Control room in Houston is preferred to feather the space station's U.S. solar arrays into an edge-on position to incoming spacecraft to avoid damage from thruster firings.

If required, the agency could command the solar array movement from a backup center, but mission managers preferred to wait until Wednesday and allow time for NASA personnel to evacuate, Yembrick said.

As of 5 p.m. ET Thursday, Hurricane Ike was a Category 2 storm centered about 400 miles (645 kilometers) east-southeast of Galveston, Texas, and was expected to strengthen into a major hurricane before making landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Two tons of supplies on hold
The Progress 30 cargo ship blasted off on Wednesday from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, laden with more than 2 tons of fresh food, equipment and other vital supplies for the space station's three-man crew 220 miles (354 kilometers) above Earth. The spacecraft will dock at the aft end of the space station's Russian-built Zvezda module.

Awaiting the orbital delivery at the station are Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov and flight engineer Oleg Kononenko, both of Russia, and flight engineer Gregory Chamitoff of NASA. The astronauts have taken several photographs of Hurricane Ike from orbit as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean earlier this week.

Flight controllers at Russia's Mission Control center outside Moscow will command the unmanned Progress 30 to maneuver into an orbit that will keep the cargo ship at a safe distance from the space station until next week's planned rendezvous.

Yembrick said the closure of Johnson Space Center for Hurricane Ike has also suspended astronaut training activities for the next two space shuttle missions. One crew is preparing for an Oct. 10 launch to the Hubble Space Telescope on the STS-125 flight, while another crew is gearing up for a planned Nov. 12 launch toward the space station on the STS-126 mission.

During the STS-125 mission, the shuttle Atlantis' astronauts plan to overhaul the Hubble Space Telescope one last time. NASA's STS-126 astronauts plan to ferry new supplies and equipment to the space station aboard the Endeavour orbiter. Ike's impact on both those launch targets remains uncertain.

"Really, it's difficult to assess how, or if, it's going to affect the launch of STS-125," Yembrick said, adding that mission managers will have a better idea once Hurricane Ike passes.

Earlier in the day, NASA's space shuttle program manager John Shannon delayed the start of a planned two-day readiness review for the Hubble mission until next week due to the hurricane.

Meanwhile, engineers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida moved Endeavour from its hangar to the massive Vehicle Assembly Building to be attached to its external fuel tank and twin solid rocket boosters. The shuttle is slated to roll out to its seaside Launch Complex 39B on Sept. 18, where it will be readied to serve as a rescue ship for Atlantis' October flight to Hubble. After the Hubble mission, Endeavour will be configured for its own mission to the space station.