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Atlantis won't fly before Jan. 2

| Monday, Dec. 10, 2007

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. -- Richland's Stephen Frick will have to wait until January before commanding his first space shuttle flight.

NASA officials announced Sunday morning that Atlantis would not launch before Jan. 2 because a recurring fuel sensor problem.

"There's a whole list of possible reasons for it," said Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman at Kennedy Space Center. "It's going to take a couple of weeks to figure out what's going on."

Frick and his six crewmates will return to Houston, said Brandi Dean, a NASA spokeswoman for Houston's Johnson Space Center.

"They'll resume training that will keep them fresh through the (launch) hold," Dean said.

Frick was not available for comment.

NASA released a statement from the astronauts: "We were ready to fly but understand that these types of technical challenges are part of the space program. We hope everyone gets some well-deserved rest, and we will be back to try again when the vehicle is ready to fly."

The sensors are designed to shut down the orbiter's engines if the craft is about to run out of liquid-hydrogen fuel.

Postponing the shuttle takeoff means another delay for launching Columbus, the European Space Agency's $2 billion scientific laboratory, said Alan Thirkettle, a human spaceflight manager for the agency.

Officials have been waiting for years to attach Columbus to the International Space Station, Thirkettle said. The 2003 disintegration of the shuttle Columbia during re-entry pushed back all shuttle launches.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm much more concerned about the safety of the astronauts," Thirkettle said. "Another day doesn't make a bit of difference. With this vehicle, things get complicated. It's likely that there will be problems. But they will get fixed."

Columbus research projects will cover a broad spectrum, said Mathias Spude, spokesman for Germany-based EADS Astrium, one of the major contractors that built Columbus.

Scientists will examine the behavior of fluids in space, the effects of zero-gravity on salt in the human bloodstream, the growth of viruses in the absence of gravity and the viability of any type of biological life in the vacuum of space.

Atlantis mission managers scrubbed yesterday's 3:21 p.m. planned liftoff after one of four fuel gauges failed a pre-launch test, Dean said. Launch team members had begun filling Atlantis' external tank with liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel at 5:55 a.m. when the sensor faltered, Dean said.

Under criteria in place until Thursday, when NASA mission managers originally planned to launch Atlantis, the failure of one fuel gauge would not have prevented liftoff. Two sensors malfunctioned hours before Thursday afternoon's launch, causing mission managers to order a delay.

Since then, shuttle team members imposed stricter launch requirements, said LeRoy Cain, chairman of the Atlantis mission management team.

The shuttle could have been launched yesterday only if all four sensors worked, Cain said, and the shuttle would have 60 seconds in which to launch, instead of the previous five minutes.

With the source of the glitch uncertain and such a short turnaround time, mission managers said the more conservative approach would be safer for astronauts.

Frick participated in all mission decisions as NASA officials studied the sensor problem, said Wayne Hale, NASA space shuttle program manager. The repairs are expected to be done with the shuttle at the launch pad.

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