NASA postpones shuttle launch after hail storm pelts Atlantis' external fuel tank

The golf ball-size hail that pelted space shuttle Atlantis earlier this week, dimpling its fuel tank, did enough damage that NASA has decided to cancel its March launch plans and send the shuttle back inside for repairs.

The launch, planned for March 15, was pushed back to at least late April.

"At this point, we don't see anything that looks irreparable, but we really want to get it back to where we can look at it up close," said John Chapman, external tank manager.

NASA announced Tuesday that technicians planned to move the shuttle back to a giant hangar as early as this weekend and then decide whether repairs can be made at the Kennedy Space Center or whether the tank needs to be returned to its manufacturer in New Orleans.

The hail storm left a ring of dents on the upper reaches of the 153-foot-tall (47-meter) external tank. It also crushed some foam along wedge-shaped brackets, an area where the shuttle in the past has shed foam a potential danger. It did some cosmetic damage to more than two dozen tiles along the shuttle's left wing.

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

The launch of Atlantis would have to be after a Russian Soyuz vehicle completes a mission to the international space station in the first part of April, putting the next opportunity likely between late April and late May, officials said.

The three-member crew of the space station, who had been preparing for their visitors next month, will have to rearrange their work schedules. Two members U.S. cosmonaut Michael Lopez-Alegria and Russian flight engineer Mikhail Tyurin will be back on Earth by the time Atlantis visits.

"We're a little bit bummed out with the fact that (the space shuttle) isn't going to be here," U.S. space station crew member Sunita Williams said in an interview from space Wednesday morning.

NASA managers had hoped to fly five shuttle missions in 2007, the most ambitious schedule in five years. Atlantis' flight was set to be the first of the year; the second was set for June.

Hale said he was confident the goal of five flights could still be met. He said, "There might be some small effect on a couple of later flights, but by the time we roll around to the end of the year, I expect we would be fully able to catch back up."

During their 11 days in space, Atlantis' astronauts are to deliver a 35,000-pound (15,876 kilograms) addition to the international space station, the heaviest ever, along with a new pair of solar arrays. Crew members also plan to unfurl the solar arrays, fold up an old pair and conduct at least three spacewalks.

The hail Monday was up to 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) in diameter; the National Weather Service considers three-quarters-inch (1.9 centimeter) hail to be severe, said David Sharp, a meteorologist with the weather service.

"It only occurred in one location, and that was NASA's Kennedy Space Center complex," Sharp said.

In 1999, hail from a storm made 650 dings in space shuttle Discovery's external tank, forcing NASA to delay a launch and return the spacecraft to the Vehicle Assembly Building. In 1995, space shuttle Discovery was sent back to the Vehicle Assembly Building because of fuel-tank damage caused by a pair of woodpeckers that drilled about 200 holes in the rust-colored foam insulation, apparently in an attempt to roost and build nests.

Hail also hit the external tank of Atlantis in 1990, causing minor damage.

The insulating foam on the external tank is of special concern to NASA since foam flew off space shuttle Columbia during liftoff in 2003 and struck the orbiter. The damage allowed fiery gases to penetrate Columbia during re-entry, breaking up the craft and killing its seven astronauts, reports AP.

NASA redesigned the external tank, removing large amounts of foam, before last year's three successful shuttle missions. The space agency plans another design change to the tank before the shuttle program ends in 2010.

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