Technical glitch delays US shuttle launch

Updated: 2007-12-07 07:59

The space shuttle Atlantis stands poised on the launch pad as workers prepare it for launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida December 5, 2007. Atlantis is expected to carry a crew of seven astronauts on a mission to the International Space Station on December 6, but was delayed for at least one day due to technical problems. [Agencies]

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida  - NASA on Thursday postponed the planned launch of the space shuttle Atlantis for at least a day due to a technical glitch, just hours before it was due to blast off.

"The launch is scrubbed for at least 24 hours," a NASA spokesman said.

The problem, which came to light before the craft was due to take off for an 11-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS), concerned two of the four gauges on the shuttle's external fuel tanks.

The two gauges were showing that the fuel tank was empty when in fact it was almost full. A similar problem with the gauges occurred in July 2005, delaying a launch of the Discovery shuttle for a week.

NASA was confident it could resolve the problem.

"We keep all our options open" for a launch Friday, said Doug Lyons, a member of the mission management team.

"The team remains in good spirits and we are really confident that we can work our way through this. We still have hope and reasons to believe that we will get off in December and again we are confident we'll get there," Lyons said.

NASA last month said the Atlantis mission to the ISS could be rescheduled during an eight-day period ending on December 13.

Atlantis will ferry a seven-strong crew including Frenchman Leopold Eyharts and German Hans Schlegel to the ISS and will also deliver a European laboratory to be installed on the space station.

Eyharts will stay behind on the ISS for two and a half months to prepare the European Columbus laboratory for future scientific work, while Schlegel will carry out two of three spacewalks planned for the Atlantis mission.

He will be accompanied by US astronaut Rex Walheim, who will help Schlegel attach the Columbus laboratory to the Harmony module, which was delivered to the ISS during the shuttle Discovery's 15-day mission that ended November 7.

Schlegel said his mission will mark "a tremendous step" for Europe. "We are becoming a more important partner for the international spaceflight community."

With Columbus, Europe hopes to become an integral part of the only functioning orbital outpost, where scientific experiments with microgravity are considered essential to prepare humans for long-term living and working in space and subsequent journeys towards Mars and beyond.

Columbus will allow astronauts to conduct hundreds of experiments a year, notably in areas of biotechnology, medicine, materials and fluids.

The Japanese laboratory Kibo, the fourth planned component of the ISS which is to be the largest and most sophisticated of all, should be delivered in three shuttle flights beginning in February 2008. It will also be attached to the Harmony module.

During the third spacewalk of the Atlantis mission, Walheim and Stanley Coils will set up two research platforms outside of Columbus: SOLAR, a solar observatory and EuTEF (European Technology Exposure Facility), which will help conduct eight different research experiments aimed at studies of life in space.

Designed to be carried in the hold of the shuttle, the European laboratory is cylindrical, 6.87 meters (yards) long and 4.49 meters in diameter. Columbus weighs more than 10 tons when empty and 19 tons fully loaded.

It can accommodate up to three people and carry 10 research equipment units.

Construction of the space laboratory, which cost 1.3 billion euros, began in 1992.

Initially it was planned that Columbus would be flown to the ISS at the end of 2004, but the disastrous fatal accident of the shuttle Columbia in February 2003 resulted in the grounding of the three remaining shuttle orbiters for two years, which in turn delayed the Columbus launch.

Columbus will be controlled from a German space operations center near Munich.

Germany is by far the biggest contributor to the project, financing 41 percent of the total cost. Italy contributed 23 percent and France 18 percent.

In all, 10 European countries participate in the program.

NASA said a fourth space walk could be added to the Atlantis mission to inspect a faltering mechanism in one of three solar panels serving the ISS station, which would extend the shuttle's stay in orbit.

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