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Atlantis looking good for rain-free launch

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The scheduled launch of the space shuttle Atlantis (at 23:38pm, GMT) is looking more likely to go ahead as the weather in Florida has slightly improved.

The clouds started to clear as NASA technicians were making the last of the pre-flight checks in the final full day before the launch.

The Shuttle is loaded with parts for the the International Space Station where it will continue the construction work. This mission will see NASA's astronauts install a new solar array and a rotary joint that will allow the photon-gathering wing to track the sun.

Atlantis was originally due to fly in mid-March, but a massive hail storm damaged the external insulation on the fuel tanks, meaning the launch could not go ahead. The insulation prevents ice - a potential launch hazard - from building up on the cryogenic tanks ahead of take off.

Engineers counted more than 4,000 dings in the foam insulation, 1,600 of which were so bad they needed to be filled, rather than just sanded out.

NASA still has 15 Shuttle missions to fly to the ISS before the craft is retired in 2010. The three month delay caused by the storm damage is a set back, but NASA says it is confident it can still get everything done in time.

Despite this being the first Shuttle launch of the year, NASA has not had a quiet 2007, thanks largely to its employees.

Firstly, astronaut Lisa Nowak was arrested a charged with attempted kidnapping, after allegedly driving 1,000 miles in a space-nappy to confront a rival in a love-triangle; then a contract employee fatally shot a colleague and held another hostage at the Johnson Space Centre, before finally shooting himself.

And let us not forget the train derailment that saw parts of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters take a spill.

Against that kind of complexity, dealing with a few dings in some foam insulation must seem like easy work.

Wayne Hale, NASA's shuttle program director commented: "Life is full of unexpected events. The real key is having the flexibility to deal with it and the resilience to buck up to adversity and keep going."

As well as delivering parts and a construction team, Atlantis will collect Sunita Williams and drop off Clayton Anderson, who will stay aboard for the next six months. He will catch a ride home with the crew of the Shuttle that delivers the European Space Agency's Columbus module in December. ®

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