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Fuel leak halts Friday launch of space shuttle

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Associated Press
November 5, 2010
— A potentially dangerous hydrogen gas leak cropped up as NASA fueled Discovery for liftoff Friday, resulting in yet another delay for the space shuttle’s final voyage — possibly until the end of the month.

It was the latest problem — and most serious — to hit NASA’s oldest and most traveled shuttle over the past week.


Another attempt would not be made before Monday, NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said.


Midway through the fueling process Friday, hydrogen gas began leaking from the attachment point for a vent line on the external fuel tank. It’s the same type of problem that forced delays for two shuttle missions last year, and had not reoccurred since then.


Managers halted the countdown two hours after fueling began. The six astronauts had yet to board the shuttle.


Discovery’s final mission already had been running four days late because of technical and weather problems.


Monday represents the last opportunity this month for NASA to send the shuttle to the International Space Station with a load of supplies and the first humanoid robot bound for orbit. Otherwise, the flight will be off until Nov. 30 because of unacceptable solar angles.


Beutel said it will be a challenge to fix the problem by Monday.


The leak, described as substantial, was considered serious because of the flammability of hydrogen gas.


Friday was the closest NASA had come to launching Discovery on this mission and the veteran crew of astronauts led by commander Steven Lindsey. News of the leak came as a disappointment.


All morning, until the leak erupted, the words “Go Discovery” echoed from the firing room, as well as up at the space station, where six astronauts eagerly awaited the shuttle’s arrival.


“The Space Shuttle Discovery awaits release on her final voyage. We’ll be watching closely,” station commander Douglas Wheelock wrote in a Twitter update.


Thursday’s launch attempt was thwarted by stormy weather. The cold front quickly moved through, and the weather was looking favorable for Friday afternoon’s try. Three previous delays were caused by gas leaks and a sluggish circuit breaker. Monday was the original launch date.


Whenever the launch does occur, it will be the 39th and final flight of Discovery. The shuttle first flew in 1984.


The space agency will close out its 30-year-old shuttle program next year. Endeavour is set to lift off at the end of February. Atlantis may make one extra flight next summer, but Washington has yet to provide the money for it.


The White House has instructed NASA to shift its focus from launching astronauts into orbit, to sending them to asteroids and Mars. Given the budget limitations, the space agency can achieve that only by giving up the costly shuttle program.



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