- The Washington Times - Monday, September 4, 2006

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — After more than a week of storm delays, NASA may be getting its best shot weatherwise for launching Space Shuttle Atlantis, officials said yesterday.

There was only a 20 percent chance that weather would stop the shuttle from blasting off at 12:28 p.m. tomorrow as planned, said Kathy Winters, shuttle weather officer.

Unlike last week’s planned launch attempts, tomorrow’s window opens before Florida’s afternoon summer thunderstorms normally blow through — and a tropical depression brewing in the Atlantic wasn’t expected to interfere.

If Atlantis doesn’t lift off tomorrow, NASA will try again Thursday or Friday.

“If you go back a week, it looked like we were not going to be able to have a launch attempt in September,” said Robbie Ashley, the mission’s payload manager. “So we’re very thankful to the shuttle folks for carving out these three days of launch attempts and giving us another shot.”

Originally scheduled to launch Aug. 27 on a mission to resume construction of the International Space Station, Atlantis was delayed after a lightning strike at the launch pad.

The lightning didn’t hit the spacecraft, but by the time the shuttle was cleared for launch, Tropical Storm Ernesto was approaching Florida.

NASA managers ordered the shuttle returned to its protective assembly building, then reversed course midway through the 10-hour journey when Ernesto’s forecast was downgraded.

By sending the shuttle back to its launch pad immediately, NASA gained enough time to prepare for a launch this week.

A longer wait would have run up against the timetable for a Russian launch to the space station. The Russian space agency planned a Sept. 18 launch of a Soyuz capsule with the first International Space Station-bound female space tourist, Anousheh Ansari, a Dallas-area entrepreneur.

Atlantis’ six astronauts have the complicated job of restarting space station construction, which was stopped after the Columbia disaster in 2003. Crew members, who have been training for four years, will deliver a 35,000-pound, $372 million addition to the half-built station. Their 11-day mission includes three spacewalks.

“Atlantis and her crew have been waiting for several years to complete this mission. Thanks to Ernesto, they’ve had to wait a week longer or so,” said NASA test director Jeff Spaulding.

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