Space shuttle moves to launch pad for March liftoff

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis was rolled out to its seaside launch pad on Thursday in preparation for a planned liftoff in March on the first of five missions NASA hopes to fly this year.

The space shuttle Atlantis leaves the Vehicle Assembly Building for launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida February 15, 2007. REUTERS/Rick Fowler

Liftoff of the shuttle and a six-person crew is targeted for March 15. The shuttle will carry a new solar power module for the International Space Station, a $100 billion orbital project headed by the United States and Russia in partnership with 15 other countries.

The power upgrade will enable modules built by Europe and Japan to be installed later this year.

The Atlantis’ crew plans to conduct three spacewalks to install the new solar panels and carry out other station construction tasks, including folding up an old solar array so it can be relocated to another position on the station.

During the last shuttle mission in December, an attempt to automatically retract the wing proved to be more troubling than expected, prompting NASA to extend that flight a day.

For Atlantis’ flight, mission managers changed tactics so that spacewalkers will be available to assist with folding the panel if necessary.

“(It) appears to be a daunting task, at least from the experience of our last flight,” station program manager Mike Suffredini said during a briefing on Thursday.

NASA also announced it plans to move up the launch date of a shuttle mission carrying a connecting node that will anchor the new laboratories to the orbital complex.

The flight, originally targeted for September 7, was moved to August 26 to avoid scheduling conflicts with Russian spacecraft scheduled to fly to the outpost and the debut flight of a European cargo hauler.

The earlier date would also mean launch would take place in daylight, providing a clear view for cameras tracking any falling debris from the shuttle’s fuel tank.

The tanks were redesigned after the fatal 2003 Columbia accident, which was caused by falling insulation foam knocking a hole in the shuttle wing’s protective heatshield on liftoff.