Atlantis Pronounced Leak-Free, Cleared for Launch
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) _ Grounded four months by hydrogen leaks, Atlantis has been declared fit to fly and is being readied for a secret mission to put a satellite in orbit, reportedly to spy on Iraq.
NASA found the shuttle free of dangerous leaks during a fueling test Wednesday and almost immediately began working toward a Nov. 9 or 10 launch.
″Frankly, we expected the system to be tight. We put a lot of work into it,″ said NASA Deputy Administrator J.R. Thompson. ″We’re looking forward to a good launch.″
It was welcome news for the space agency, which has come under fire in the past half-year because of shuttle trouble, the Hubble Space Telescope’s flawed mirror and communication problems with the Venus-orbiting Magellan spacecraft.
Atlantis’ military mission, the fifth shuttle flight this year, will carry five astronauts and a satellite that civilian experts said will spy on Iraqi forces. The mission originally was scheduled for July but was delayed by leaks discovered in June.
Launch director Bob Sieck said small amounts of hydrogen escaped during the test into Atlantis’ engine compartment and around a 17-inch-diameter valve between the orbiter and external tank, the site of earlier problems. But he said the leaks were well within allowable limits.
NASA had replaced Atlantis’ external tank, some fuel lines and seals in the valve to try to stop the leaks.
″It’s always nice to have a successful test under your belt,″ Sieck said. ″That just leaves one more to go, and that’s Columbia. We think we’ve got that one.″
Columbia, grounded by hydrogen leaks since May, will undergo a more extensive fueling test next week. Nearly a dozen TV cameras will be mounted in the engine compartment to help track any leaks.
Columbia could lift off with the Astro observatory as early as December if the shuttle passes the test, Sieck said. Since the last launch attempt, workers have replaced a crushed seal and tightened joints.
″I hope we can get two more off this year. I believe we can,″ Thompson said. ″If we can accomplish all that, as you look back on it I think it would have been a good year.″
NASA stopped trying to launch Columbia after four tries and instead got Discovery up on Oct. 6 with a satellite that will study the sun’s poles.
Discovery’s mission ended a 5 1/2 -month grounding of the fleet, the second longest in shuttle history.