CAPE CANAVERAL,FLA — CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- NASA officials said yesterday that a series of mysterious gas leaks had grounded the space shuttle Columbia, probably until December or later.
The 10-day, $150 million Astro-1 observatory mission was postponed indefinitely while the space agency launches one and possibly two more shuttles with higher priority missions, said Lisa Malone, a spokeswoman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
While NASA technicians continued their search yesterday for the source of a liquid hydrogen leak the shuttle's dejected seven-member crew flew home to Houston.
The crew -- which includes Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Samuel T. Durrance and Ronald Parise of Computer Sciences Corp. in Silver Spring -- has the distinction of having endured the longest delay, 111 days, in the 10-year history of the shuttle program.
Shortly after the leaks caused launch director Bob Sieck to call off the launch Monday evening, NASA managers began assembling a team of specialists to isolate the problem.
Although NASA officials think there is no connection between Columbia's problems and the fuel systems on the Discovery and the Atlantis, investigators will consider all options, said former astronaut Bob Crippen, now space shuttle director.
"Everything says it is in the large 17-inch manifold that feeds the engine compartment," Mr. Crippen said. "There is no reason to suspect that the problem we have seen is not unique to Columbia."
Atlantis leaked liquid hydrogen during a test in June, NASA officials say. That leak was fixed, but the Atlantis has not been tested since the repair.
Discovery has not given NASA technicians any reason to believe it will leak, but it hasn't been tested.
Originally scheduled for launch May 29, the Columbia has been delayed three times because of fuel leaks and once because of a faulty radio transmitter in one of the four telescopes that make up the Astro Observatory.
lTC Columbia last flew in January.