Shuttle flights are gone 'til November

At the earliest

No new Shuttle missions will blast off until November at the earliest, NASA has said, as it scrubbed a flight scheduled to depart in late September this year.

The space agency is unwilling to risk new flights until it has nailed down the cause of the falling debris during the launch of the shuttle Discovery, the BBC reports.

NASA spent more than two-and-a-half years trying to solve the problem of foam falling from external fuel tanks, after the disastrous loss of Columbia in March 2003. Since then, the agency has spent more than a billion dollars on various safety improvements, and had thought that it had solved the problem of falling debris.

The chunk of foam that fell from Discovery was not much smaller than the piece that fatally wounded Columbia. Fortunately, it did not hit the shuttle as it fell.

NASA says it cannot see an immediate or obvious solution to the problem. "It's an extremely difficult engineering problem to solve," NASA investigator Bill Gerstenmaier said, in a media teleconference.

"Frankly, even the next time we fly the tank, I would expect to see a little bit of foam loss somewhere," he added.

The next shuttle scheduled to launch was Atlantis, which had been pencilled in for a 22 September lift-off. Its mission would have been similar to Discovery's: to test new in-orbit inspection and repair systems, and to ferry equipment to the International Space Station.

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