NASA: Atlantis launch off until May 18

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Space shuttle Atlantis' launch on a mission to fix and lift the international space station is off until mid-May, NASA said Friday.

After three frustrating weather delays this week, shuttle managers had hoped to squeeze in a fourth try next Wednesday. But top agency officials decided against bumping a weather satellite launch scheduled for that day, and Atlantis had to go to the back of the local rocket lineup.

Atlantis' next launch attempt, as a result, will be May 18.

The three-week delay means the space station may have to dip into its limited fuel supply to boost its orbit, which has been slipping almost two miles a week because of increased solar activity and its effect on the Earth's atmosphere. Atlantis' crew was supposed to raise the station using shuttle fuel.

Atlantis' seven astronauts also were supposed to replace bad batteries aboard the space station. Two of the six electricity-producing batteries have failed and two others are showing signs of deterioration. At least three are needed to maintain station control.

Now, that will have to wait.

The hurricane-monitoring satellite, Goes-L, is scheduled to lift off aboard an unmanned Atlas rocket next Wednesday. The Goes-L launch is already one year late because of rocket problems.

National weather officials were reluctant to bump the satellite launch further, given that it takes two months to check and fine-tune the satellite in orbit and hurricane season is just a month away. The satellite will be stored in orbit as a spare, and will replace an older Goes craft once that one fails.

NASA spokesman George Diller said space station managers ''had some good rationale and some good arguments to go early, but the feeling was that with the current status of the Goes satellites, that we needed this satellite up there as soon as possible.''

NASA tried three times this week to launch Atlantis, but was foiled each time by high wind. It was too windy at Cape Canaveral on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, the weather in Florida was perfect but gusts exceeded the safety limit at the emergency landing site in Morocco, and there was rain at two other sites.

The 10-day mission previously had been delayed one week in order to give commander James Halsell's sprained ankle time to heal.


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