Like a confused commuter, the space shuttle Atlantis spent hours on the road Tuesday only to end up where it started, at its seaside launchpad.
NASA officials decided in the morning to roll the shuttle to its hangar about five miles away to protect it from incoming Tropical Storm Ernesto. Hours later, they reversed themselves when it appeared Ernesto wouldn’t be as strong as previously thought.
It was the first time in the 25-year history of the shuttle program that the craft was rolled away and then back to the launchpad.
The decision to have Atlantis ride out the storm on the launchpad keeps the shuttle on schedule for a possible launch next week. Had it reached the Vehicle Assembly Building, the launch could have been stalled until late October.
Mission management team Chairman LeRoy Cain said no new launch date had been set, but shuttle officials were holding out hopes for Sept. 7.
The latest series of events began Tuesday morning, when Kennedy Space Center officials received weather reports from the National Hurricane Center and NASA’s own forecasters that said winds could reach 65 knots when Ernesto arrived today.
Although that is within the limit of 70 knots for staying on the pad, Cain and launch director Mike Leinbach decided on the cautious approach of loading the 4.5-million-pound shuttle onto one of its two giant crawler-transporters for the trip back to the safety of the assembly building.
Each transporter, which resembles the deck of an aircraft carrier on wheels, is 131 feet wide. Fully loaded, it travels about 1 mph, using 150 gallons of diesel fuel for each mile driven.
The transporter had gone about half of the five or so miles to the assembly building when a more optimistic weather report said Ernesto’s top winds would not go higher than 55 knots.
“That allowed us to get comfortable to go back out to the pad,” Leinbach said.
There were some crossed wires at upper levels of NASA. While officials at Kennedy were reversing themselves, shuttle program managers at Johnson Space Center in Houston were holding their own news conference to explain why the shuttle could not stay on the pad.
NASA’s launch plans have been up in the air since lightning hit the pad Friday. That forced a delay in Sunday’s planned launch while engineers verified the health of the shuttle and ground systems.
Atlantis is carrying 17 tons of construction materials for the International Space Station, including a truss and solar panels for power. Construction on the half-built space station has been delayed since 2003, when the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on reentry.
NASA is hurrying to finish construction of the station by 2010, when the aging shuttle fleet is scheduled for retirement.