Mission managers announced today that they’re moving the vehicle back to the pad ahead of Ernesto, which has been downgraded to a tropical storm. But it’s unclear when the vehicle will be able to lift off.
That means the shuttle could still miss its rendezvous date with the International Space Station. The launch window is set to close on 14 September, and, complicating the situation are plans to launch a Russian Soyuz capsule to the station later in the month. The Russians have requested that the shuttle not launch after 7 September in order to prevent a scheduling conflict. NASA officials are now pleading with the Russians for more time, but it’s unclear whether they’ll get it.
If the September launch window is missed then Shuttle planners will have a small, two day window in late October, and a day in December when the launch pad and station will line up correctly. The next siginificant launch window will not open until February. Waiting that long would be a setback, though not a devastating one, according to John Logsdon, Director of the Space Policy Institute at Geroge Washington University. “I wouldn’t call it minor, but I wouldn’t call it major either,” he says. While it will put pressure on plans to finish the station and retire the shuttle by 2010, the construction “remains doable.”
When it does eventually fly, the Atlantis will deploy a massive solar array that will provide additional power for an upcoming space station expansion. It will be the first mission to continue construction of the International Space Station since the break up of the shuttle Columbia upon reentry in 2003.