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Tropical storm Ernesto has almost menaced the Shuttle Atlantis back into a storm-proof hanger, as NASA mission managers wait for the weather to clear.

Managers are preparing to roll the Shuttle off the launch pad today, unless the forecast changes dramatically.

If the shuttle does have to be moved, the mission will be set back by at least several days, and possibly over a month.

NASA says that even if the weather miraculously clears and Ernesto changes course, the launch is unlikely to happen before next Sunday (3 September).

The forecast is most likely to send Atlantis scurrying for shelter, a move that on its own takes around six hours. If the shuttle is mothballed, the whole launch procedure will have to begin again, making it unlikely that Atlantis will take to the skies before 8 September, further delaying the long overdue work on the International Space Station.

The delay is more than a costly irritation. The mission was supposed to be finished and NASA's astronauts on their way home by 14 September to make space on the ISS for the next Russian arrivals.

NASA may have to wait until this mission is completed before sending Atlantis up. If negotiations with the Russians don't go well, the Shuttle could be grounded until late October.

Ernesto is not expected to leave the area any time soon. Forecasters predict the storm will gain strength over the coming days before graduating to full hurricane status and sweeping through central Florida.

Atlantis was originally scheduled to launch on 27 August, before the launch pad was struck by lightning. Although engineers concluded no damage was done, NASA had already had to postpone the countdown.

Mike Suffredini, NASA's space station program manager told the Houston Chronicle that the next few flights would be critical to the success of the ISS. "This flight has to occur for the next flight to occur and then the next flight and the next flight," he said. ®

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