Launch of shuttle Atlantis postponed at least a month

NATION DIGEST

March 01, 2007|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

CAPE CANAVERAL -- NASA has delayed space shuttle Atlantis' planned March 15 launch until at least late April to fix hail damage to the ship's external fuel tank.

A ferocious thunderstorm packing 62-mph gusts pelted Launch Pad 39A with golf-ball-size hailstones Monday, carving an estimated 7,000 divots in the foam insulation that covers the giant tank. Engineers must repair hundreds of the worst gouges and minor damage to about 27 heat-resistant tiles on Atlantis' left wing before the shuttle is allowed to fly.

"This constitutes, in our evaluation, the worst damage that we have ever seen from hail on the external-tank foam," said Wayne Hale, NASA's space shuttle program manager.

Repairs to the foam are necessary to minimize the chance of large pieces breaking off in flight and striking the orbiter. A briefcase-size chunk of falling foam caused the 2003 Columbia accident by smashing a hole in the shuttle's protective heat armor during launch.

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