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Hurricane Threat Forces Shuttle Schedule Delay

Times Science Writer

Concern over the possibility that hurricane Gilbert might smash into the Gulf Coast forced the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on Wednesday to delay setting a date for the launching of the Discovery on the first shuttle flight in nearly three years.

But the launch target still remains the last week of September, and possibly as early as Sept. 26, Rear Adm. Richard Truly, head of the shuttle program, said at the conclusion of a two-day flight readiness review at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Nothing turned up during the review that would justify delaying the launch, Truly said, but NASA officials are worried that if the powerful hurricane hits south Texas, it could distract personnel and interrupt operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Control of the shuttle will shift to Johnson as soon as the spacecraft clears the launch tower at the Cape.

“Even if the hurricane doesn’t hit Houston, it is threatening Houston and we’ve got a lot of our people there who have to turn their attention to their family and their homes as people are doing all over the Gulf Coast,” Truly said.

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The Johnson Space Center is midway between Houston and Galveston, and some past hurricanes have wreaked havoc on that area. Officials said the center could be evacuated as early as today if it appears that the hurricane is veering toward the area.

With that in mind, Truly said, “we didn’t see any reason to set a specific date” for the launch of the Discovery. If the hurricane cooperates, a date could be set Friday, officials said.

“But let me assure you we’re still holding exactly as we were before. Unless there’s a hiccup in the next day or so, it’ll be in the last week of September,” Truly said.

The concern over the hurricane could well be a harbinger of things to come. NASA has tightened up its “weather criteria” so much that some officials fear future launches will be delayed repeatedly because of weather.

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One new restriction would prohibit a launch if a stray cloud from a distant thunderstorm drifts into the area, according to Robert B. Sieck, launch director at Kennedy. In addition, if any cloud formations that could be considered capable of producing lightning are in the area, the launch would have to be postponed.

And any shower activity within 20 miles of the launch pad would force NASA to delay the launch until the weather clears.

Those rules are far more restrictive than in the past, NASA officials have said, and they were brought about partly because cold weather played a key role in the explosion of the Challenger.

The Discovery is to launch a major communications satellite during its four-day flight. It will be commanded by veteran astronaut Frederick Hauck, 47.

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