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Launch of Shuttle Atlantis Is Delayed by Electrical Short

If the faulty fuel cells can be repaired, liftoff will be Friday. If not, it will be put off for weeks.

September 07, 2006|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A electrical-system problem forced NASA on Wednesday to again delay the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis.

Space agency managers were scheduled to meet today in hopes of clearing the way for a Friday launch.

Liftoff was only hours away Wednesday morning when engineers reported a short in one of three fuel cells that supplies electricity for all the on-board systems, including the crew compartment.

Although the systems are redundant, the launch was scrubbed out of fear that a problem in one generating system could spread to the others.

Despite troubleshooting the problem all day, program managers were still uncertain what caused the short. The possibilities included bad wiring or a faulty connector.

"There is something funny going on in the fuel cell," said N. Wayne Hale Jr., shuttle program manager.

"If we get a good handle on what's going on, then we will go fly. If not, we will stand down and change the fuel cell out.... We're still hopeful to launch Friday morning," he said.

NASA officials said they had no record of any previous problems of this type in the fuel-cell system.

The faulty cell is currently operational even with the short. But after the 2003 Columbia disaster, which killed all seven astronauts, NASA says it has adopted an aggressive, safety-conscious approach to launching.

NASA considers the upcoming launch especially important because Atlantis carries 17 tons of material to restart construction of the International Space Station.

Construction of the half-finished station has been stalled since the Columbia disaster.

The payload bay, which sits over the fuel cells, is filled with a truss -- the backbone of the station -- and solar arrays to generate power.

NASA is trying to finish construction of the station by the time the shuttle is scheduled for retirement in 2010.

Officials said there was a 70% chance that the weather would remain good Friday.

Atlantis was originally set to launch in late August, but a lightning strike to the pad and the approach of Tropical Storm Ernesto forced delays.

If Atlantis is unable to lift off Friday, the launch might be delayed at least several weeks because of a scheduled visit to the station by a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

*

john.johnson@latimes.com

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