- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA yesterday delayed the flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis until late January or, more likely, February to replace a suspect connector in the fuel tank.

The connector is thought to be responsible for back-to-back launch postponements last month.

Deputy shuttle program manager John Shannon said the mission to the International Space Station is off until at least Jan. 24.

“Everything has to go exactly right for us to make the 24th,” he said.

Mr. Shannon said it’s more likely that the launch will be Feb. 2 at the earliest, or Feb. 7 if managers decide to conduct another fueling test.

Atlantis was poised to lift off early last month with a European space station lab named Columbus, but fuel gauges in the external fuel tank failed late in the countdown.

The problem reoccurred during a second launch attempt, prompting NASA to conduct a fueling test just before Christmas. That was when the trouble was traced to a connector that feeds circuitry through the wall of the fuel tank. The circuitry runs between the fuel gauges in the bottom of the tank and the space shuttle.

The fuel gauges are part of a critical safety system to prevent the shuttle’s main engines from running on an empty tank, and have malfunctioned off and on for more than two years. Engineers suspect a design issue.

NASA removed the external portion of the suspect connector, along with some plugs, over the weekend. It will be another two weeks before the parts are fully analyzed, mimicking the super-cold conditions of fueling, Mr. Shannon said.

In the meantime, engineers will replace the external connector and make modifications — essentially soldering pins and changing the material of socket inserts.

Mr. Shannon would not estimate how long the delay might be if engineers determine that the interim solution is not enough or something else is at fault.

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