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NASA Set to Return Atlantis to Its Hangar

August 29, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — With Tropical Storm Ernesto's sluggish but inexorable approach, workers at Kennedy Space Center began preparing Monday to take the space shuttle Atlantis off the launch pad.

Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said the preference would be to begin moving the shuttle to its hangar, called the Vehicle Assembly Building, this morning. "We'd much rather be back in ... earlier rather than later," he said.

Forecasts on Monday indicated tropical storm-force winds could pass within miles of the launch facilities by Wednesday afternoon.

There remained a small possibility of launching this week if the storm track shifted eastward into the Atlantic Ocean instead of over central Florida. If that happened, the shuttle could ride out the storm on the pad and possibly launch on the weekend.

That seemed remote Monday as NASA employees from other parts of the country began returning home.

Atlantis had been scheduled to launch Sunday, but that was scrubbed after a bolt of lightning hit the pad Friday. It was the most powerful lightning strike ever measured at the launch pad.

Although NASA managers satisfied themselves that the shuttle's electronics were not affected, they found themselves facing a new problem with Ernesto.

If the shuttle is moved back to its hangar, it would take at least eight days to return it to the pad for launch after the storm.

That could put Atlantis in a traffic jam at the International Space Station. A Russian Soyuz flight is scheduled to arrive in early September.

The next launch window after that is from Oct. 20 through Nov. 15.

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