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NASA Hopes For Change With Shuttle Launch

Since the beginning of the year, NASA has endured an astronaut's arrest in a bizarre love triangle, a workplace murder-suicide and a freak hail storm at the launch pad.

What it hasn't had is a space shuttle launch.

NASA hoped to change all that with the blastoff of Atlantis at 7:38 p.m. Friday on a mission to continue construction of the international space station.

"We've had a tough six months for a number of different reasons," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told The Associated Press before the launch. "We'd love to have a textbook launch and a textbook mission. It would just make everybody feel good."

Fueling of the huge external tank was finished on schedule shortly before 1 p.m. EDT, and forecasters predicted an 80 percent chance of good weather at launch time.

The weather should be calmer than what Atlantis faced on the launch pad in late February, when golf-ball-size hail knocked thousands of pockmarks in the insulating foam of Atlantis' external tank, forcing a delay of its launch.

Atlantis was moved from the launch pad back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, and NASA managers chose to repair the tank rather than replace it with another. Scores of engineers and technicians worked for two months to remove, sand down and reapply the foam.

The external tank's foam has been a special concern for NASA since the 2003 Columbia disaster. Investigators determined that a piece of foam broke off during liftoff and hit the shuttle's wing, damaging it enough that fiery gases were able to penetrate the shuttle as the crew tried to return to Earth. All seven astronauts died.

Covered in white splotches where repairs were made, Atlantis' tank now looks like it came down with a case of smallpox. But NASA managers said it is as safe as any other tank.

"We feel we are ready to fly," said LeRoy Cain, launch integration manager. "The tank has come a long way."

During the 11-day mission, Atlantis and its seven astronauts will deliver a new segment of the international space station and a pair of energy-producing solar panels.

Astronaut Clay Anderson will replace astronaut Sunita Williams as the U.S. representative at the orbiting outpost.

NASA hopes to fly at least 13 more construction missions to the space station before the space shuttle fleet is grounded in 2010. The space agency also wants to fly a single mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, which officials said Thursday would be in September 2008.

As NASA managers praised engineers and technicians who repaired Atlantis' tank, they kept a wary eye on another set of workers at Kennedy Space Center who may strike as early as this weekend.

Almost 570 machinists and aerospace workers at the Kennedy Space Center last week rejected a contract offer from United Space Alliance, NASA's primary contractor for the space shuttle. Few of the workers who might strike have any direct role in the final preparations for space shuttle launches, and NASA officials have said there are other employees who could fill the roles of striking workers if necessary.

"It's not our intention to stop a shuttle launch," union business representative Johnny Walker said Thursday afternoon. He said the union is considering putting up picket lines, but also arranging to allow union members outside of Kennedy Space Center to keep working on Atlantis' flight.

If the workers did go on strike, it would be yet another twist in a weird year for the space agency. Since the start of the year, NASA has faced:

  • A reduction in the 2007 launch schedule from five to four this year because of the hail storm.
  • The arrest of astronaut Lisa Nowak on charges she attempted to kidnap a romantic rival for the affections of another astronaut. Nowak and Bill Oefelein were dismissed from the astronaut corps, and Nowak is set to go on trial in September.
  • A murder-suicide at the Johnson Space Center complex in Houston.
  • The derailment of a train carrying booster segments for future shuttle launches.