- The Washington Times - Monday, July 13, 2009

From combined dispatches

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. | Thunderstorms forced NASA to call off Sunday evening’s launch of shuttle Endeavour, the fourth delay for the space station construction mission.

The launch team came within minutes of sending Endeavour and seven astronauts to the International Space Station. But storms quickly moved in from the West and violated NASA’s safety rules, forcing managers to halt the countdown. They will try again Monday, despite an outlook calling for more bad weather.

“We got the vehicle ready, and the weather unfortunately did not cooperate with us today,” launch director Pete Nickolenko told the seven astronauts aboard Endeavour.

“We understand and we’ll be ready,” replied commander Mark Polansky.

NASA has until Tuesday, possibly Wednesday, to launch Endeavour with the final piece of Japan’s space station lab. Otherwise, it will have to wait until the end of July because of a Russian supply ship that’s awaiting liftoff.

The three previous countdowns never made it this far.

Saturday’s launch attempt was foiled by lightning strikes around the pad that required extra checks of the many critical shuttle systems. In June, hydrogen gas leaks held everything up.

No leaks popped up this time, thanks to all of the repairs, as NASA fueled Endeavour’s external tank for an early evening liftoff. The tight plumbing allowed Mr. Polansky and his crew to board the shuttle for the first time for a real launch try.

Endeavour holds the third and final segment of Japan’s enormous $1 billion space station lab, named Kibo, or Hope. It’s a porch for experiments that need to be exposed to the vacuum of space. The shuttle also is loaded with large spare parts for the space station and hundreds of pounds of food for the six station residents.

When the shuttle astronauts finally arrive at the space station, they will make up the biggest crowd ever in a single place in orbit: 13 people.

All of the major space station partners will be represented: the United States, Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Endeavour will spend nearly two weeks at the space station. In all, the flight will last 16 days. Five spacewalks are planned to hook up the Japanese lab’s new porch, replace space station batteries and perform other maintenance.

Eight shuttle flights remain, including this one, before NASA retires the fleet. All involve work on the space station, which has been under construction 225 miles above Earth for more than a decade. It consists of nearly 26,000 cubic feet of pressurized space, about as much room as a typical four-bedroom house.

NASA plans to complete construction of the station by Sept. 30, 2010, and retire its three space shuttles. The agency then plans to ramp up development of new capsule-style spaceships that can carry astronauts to the moon as well as to the station.

One of the Endeavour crew’s first tasks will be to transfer astronaut Timothy Kopra to the space station crew. He replaces Japan’s Koichi Wakata, who has been aboard the outpost since March.

Mr. Wakata will return to Earth on July 28 with Mr. Polansky and the rest of the Endeavour crew - pilot Doug Hurley, David Wolf, Christopher Cassidy, Tom Marshburn and Canadian Julie Payette.

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