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NASA Postpones Estimated Launch of Shuttle Two Weeks to Aug. 22

Times Staff Writer

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has pushed back its estimated launch date for the space shuttle Discovery by about two weeks but the space agency still hopes to launch the shuttle in August, NASA’s space flight chief said Thursday.

Richard H. Truly attributed the latest delay to slower-than-expected progress in assembling the shuttle’s solid rocket motors. The current target launch date is Aug. 22, 18 days later than the previous estimate.

The shuttle program, halted since the Challenger explosion in January, 1986, will resume as soon as program officials are convinced that the spacecraft is safe, Truly said at a press conference at NASA headquarters.

‘I Just Want to Fly’

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“I’m not clinging to August” as a launch date, the former astronaut said, suggesting that the schedule may slip further. “I just want to fly the first day we can get that sucker ready.”

The shuttle booster and numerous other parts of the spacecraft have been completely redesigned since the Challenger blew up, killing six astronauts and a schoolteacher.

Extensive testing, design changes and a new institutional caution at NASA have caused the launch schedule to slip several times in the last year. Last December, NASA said it hoped to send the shuttle Discovery--with an all-astronaut crew--into space on June 2.

But in early January, the projected launch date was delayed two months after a test of the new booster rocket resulted in the fracture of an 8-foot “boot ring” inside the rocket nozzle.

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Truly said that getting the shuttle flying again is the top priority of the U.S. space program, but he added that NASA is not going to be rushed into setting a launch date by public or congressional pressure. A final date will not be set until a series of tests is completed in mid-July.

No ‘Showstoppers’

“Our commitment to launch in August is still good,” said Truly, who twice flew on the shuttle. There have been no “showstoppers” in the technical preparations for the launch, he added.

However, he left open the possibility that glitches could push the schedule back and that, as the expected launch nears, setting the actual date will be a day-to-day affair.

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“We’re going to be right down to the wire,” he said.

Truly also said that NASA and the Air Force are still assessing the impact of the explosion earlier this month that leveled a critical rocket fuel plant in Nevada.

The Pacific Engineering & Production Co. plant in Henderson, Nev., was one of two U.S. manufacturers of ammonium perchlorate, an oxidizing agent used in fuel for the solid rocket motors in the space shuttle and many of the military’s long-range and tactical missiles.

Enough for 4 Launches

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NASA has enough of the material for four shuttle launches, Truly said, taking the program into the middle of next year. But he added that “I can’t say” what the situation will be after that.

He said the Defense Department and NASA still are discussing how to re-establish supplies of ammonium perchlorate, by expanding production at the second producer, a Kerr-McGee Corp. plant, also in Henderson, or by rebuilding the Pacific Engineering facility.

Because of the material’s importance to America’s space and national security programs, Truly said, the government likely would be involved in financing new manufacturing capacity.


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