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Robot Arm 'Bruise' Delays Shuttle Launch

November 17, 2002|From Reuters

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Monday's scheduled launch of the space shuttle Endeavour has been delayed for at least several days and possibly more than a month because of an accident caused by a distracted launch-pad worker, the space agency said Saturday.

Space agency officials said the Endeavour would now launch no earlier than Friday. It is to deliver a new crew and a 45-foot segment to the International Space Station.

The shuttle had initially been ready to launch early last Monday, and its astronauts were being strapped into their seats when an oxygen leak halted the countdown about three hours before liftoff.

During repairs to the system that delivers air to the crew cabin, technicians had to open the shuttle's massive payload bay doors, and a mobile platform holding the repair crew collided with the shuttle's robot arm, giving it a "bruise."

NASA fixed the blame on a technician, known as a spotter, who was supposed to prevent such collisions but was looking away at the critical moment.

"This particular person got distracted. It was a mistake. He was trying to relocate himself or reposition himself," Ron Dittemore, NASA's top shuttle manager, told reporters.

Although the robot arm can hoist multi-ton payloads in the weightlessness of space, on Earth it is extremely delicate, unable to lift even its own weight. The collision was minor, but mission managers detected some damage.

"We have a bruise, and we don't know its significance," Dittemore said.

The agency is studying options that could include replacing the arm while the shuttle is still on the launch pad -- something never attempted -- or simply not using the arm on this mission. That would require using a larger, more complex robot arm on the space station, known as the Big Arm, to do all the work.

But if the shuttle has to be rolled back to its hangar so the arm can be replaced with one of three remaining robot arms, that could delay Endeavour's mission into January.

Dittemore said no cost estimates had been worked out for the various options.

In addition to delivering a new three-man, long-duration crew to the space station, Endeavour was to return the two Russians and an American now living on the orbiting laboratory more than four months.

NASA said they have plenty of food, water and life support to last if the mission should extend into January.

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