April 11, 2007 / 1:33 AM / 13 years ago

NASA delays shuttle launch to fix hail-damaged tank

Space shuttle Atlantis rolls back from launch pad 39A to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs to the external tank while passing by a wheeled transport platform used to move the shuttle's external tanks at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, March 4, 2007. REUTERS/Scott Audette

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA will delay the launch of space shuttle Atlantis at least to June 8 so that its hail-damaged fuel tank can be repaired, managers said on Tuesday.

The tank’s insulating foam was damaged on the launch pad during a freak hail storm in February, forcing the ship back into a processing hangar for repairs.

The U.S. space agency had hoped to fix the dings and gouges in the tank in time to launch Atlantis in May on a mission to deliver more power modules to the International Space Station.

But based on the amount of work left to do, it will be at least June 8 before the shuttle is ready to launch, NASA managers said in a conference call with journalists.

NASA had considered waiting until a replacement tank was ready but was confident the tank already attached to the shuttle could be repaired.

“As of right now, we’re going to stay with the tank that’s on the stack. Progress is being made adequately to do that,” said Wayne Hale, shuttle program manager.

NASA has been particularly sensitive about the tank’s insulation since the 2003 Columbia accident, which was triggered by a piece of tank foam debris that fell off and hit the shuttle’s heat shield during liftoff. The shuttle broke apart, killing all seven astronauts aboard, as it attempted to return through the atmosphere for landing.

The U.S. space agency has to fly at least 13 more missions to the space station to complete its assembly before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010. The station, a $100 billion project of 16 nations, remains about half-built in orbit.

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