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NASA: hail damage means no launch yet for Atlantis

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NASA says it will not set a date for the next Shuttle launch until it has properly assessed the damage to the fuel tank.

The shuttle Atlantis was supposed to blast off last week, but the fuel tank's foam covering was damaged by "golf ball sized" hailstones as it sat on the launch pad during a storm in late February. NASA says the foam has thousands of dings in it, and it is not yet clear whether the dings can be repaired or whether the tank will have to be replaced in its entirety. Some can be sanded out, but around 1600 would have to be filled, engineers say.

NASA associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier said the agency was planning more analysis. "Then we will have enough data to make a good decision."

The delay means one of the five planned launches for 2007 has had to be bumped into 2008. The agency says it hopes to catch up with its launch schedule by the middle of next year.

The foam is designed to prevent a build up of ice on the rocket ahead of a launch. Any ice that builds up can fall off, potentially damaging the Shuttle's insulation. Damaged foam is also more likely to fall off, as with the Columbia. NASA, understandably, does not want to risk a similar incident in the future.

The company that makes the tanks is trying out ways of applying a new layer of foam on a mock up of the launcher. According to reports, the company has also asked for time to test the heat resistance of the new foam.

If the tests are successful and the tank can be repaired, Atlantis could still be ready for a launch in May. If things slip further, for instance if it has to be swapped out for a new tank, there is no chance of a launch before June. The current launch window closes on 21 May, and another does not open until 8 June.

NASA's head of all things shuttle related, Wayne Hale, said: "The goal is to have a good tank." ®

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