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NASA delays Atlantis launch

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MARCIA DUNN
December 6, 2007
— NASA called off Thursday’s launch of space shuttle Atlantis after detecting problems with a pair of fuel gauges in the shuttle’s external tank.

Shuttle managers said they would try again Friday, provided the problem can be solved before then.


Engineers were testing the four engine-cutoff sensors in Atlantis’ liquid hydrogen tank when two of them failed. Even though they were commanded to indicate the tank was empty, the two kept showing the tank was full, said NASA spokesman Paul Foerman.


At least three of the sensors must work properly to proceed with a launch.


Officials said the problem might be related to wiring and connectors, rather than the sensors themselves. It was not immediately clear how any repairs might be made.


The sensors are critical to ensure that the shuttle’s three main engines don’t shut down too soon or too late during liftoff. Problems with the sensors have delayed shuttle launches before, most recently in September 2006. The trouble began cropping up following the 2003 Columbia disaster.


NASA had been hoping for an on-time takeoff. Each of the year’s three previous shuttle countdowns had ended with an on-the-dot departure. Atlantis is loaded with Europe’s long-awaited space station lab, named Columbus. The seven astronauts had yet to board their spaceship.


About 750 Europeans connected to the scientific laboratory – a $2 billion project begun nearly a quarter-century ago – were in town for the launch and had begun gathering at the space center.


It was yet another disappointing flight delay for the European Space Agency, which has been working on Columbus for more than 22 years.


Columbus is “our cornerstone, our baby, our module, our laboratory,” Alan Thirkettle, the European Space Agency’s station program manager, said Wednesday.


Columbus will be the second laboratory added to the international space station. NASA’s Destiny lab made its debut in 2001, and Japan’s huge lab Kibo – which means hope – will go up in three sections beginning on the very next shuttle mission in February.


Scientific work will start almost immediately inside Columbus, which is essentially packaged and ready to go.


Thirkettle sees Columbus as a stepping stone for Europe to the U.S.-led moon expeditions planned for late in the next decade. To gear up for that, NASA is under presidential orders to finish the space station and retire its three remaining shuttles in 2010.


Counting Atlantis’ upcoming flight, that leaves 12 shuttle missions to the space station and one, next summer, to the Hubble Space Telescope.


NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said he doesn’t expect that number to change, which means some space station equipment and experiments will never make it up.


Aside from the interruption caused by the 2003 Columbia tragedy, the actual building of the space station in orbit has gone well, Griffin said. That’s in stark contrast to the space station’s planning and development, which dragged on for years and contributed to Columbus’ prolonged grounding.


“We the United States, as the senior partner in the space station coalition, did not plan it well,” Griffin said on the eve of Columbus’ launch. “It has taken far too long and I’ll just leave it at that.”



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