Likely Looking At February Now
NASA determined Thursday the shuttle Atlantis will not fly until
later this month, at the very earliest -- and, more likely, won't
liftoff until sometime in February -- as the agency works to solve
a persistent issue with fuel sensors inside the external fuel
As ANN reported, Atlantis was
scheduled to liftoff in early December on the latest construction
mission to the International Space Station, but a malfunction in
two of the four engine cut-off sensors inside the tank scrapped the
launch -- as well as a second attempt four days later.
The sensors detect the level of liquid hydrogen in the fuel
tank, to determine when to shut down the shuttle's three main
engines. Failure of the sensors could shut the engines down too
early, or, conversely, run them dry -- the latter a catastrophic
scenario. An on-pad test of the fuel system revealed the likely
cause of the glitch -- a connector that feeds wiring through the
skin of the external tank, and mates up with the orbiter.
Last weekend, engineers removed the external portion of the
connector -- but it will be two weeks before the parts are
completely analyzed, Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon
told The Associated Press. In the meantime, NASA will replace the
suspect part with a new one -- though engineers suspect the design
of the connector is at fault, and the cause of similar problems
over the past several years.
For the moment, NASA is holding out hope for a January 24 launch
for Atlantis... but that's the best-case scenario.
"Everything has to go exactly right for us to make the 24th,"
Shannon said. "What we're doing ... is addressing what we think is
the most probable cause, and there's a lot of information that
points to that connector and that this is the right design
Shannon did not give a timeframe on how long the delay could
last, if the quick-fix solution doesn't solve the problem. He would
also not give an estimate on future shuttle launches -- though the
delay to Atlantis means the scheduled February 14 launch of
Endeavour won't occur as planned, either, since the agency requires
at least five weeks between launches.
The deadline for the completion of the shuttle program -- as
mandated by the White House -- is September 30, 2010... a date that
looms large on NASA calendars, with less that two years to go to
complete 11 remaining missions.