KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - You've got to feel sorry for NASA's engineers and mission managers who are struggling to meet a very ambitious space shuttle launch schedule, yet once again find themselves bedeviled by setbacks.
Today, it's a problem with one of three fuel cell motors on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis that has scrubbed the launch set for 12:29 p.m. The fuel cells are critical, since they provide electrical power to the shuttle while it's in orbit. In addition, they produce drinkable water for the crew.
When engineers tested the system last night, they discovered a voltage spike from a motor winding or the power feed on the left side coolant loop. They're now trying to chase down the problem, hoping to isolate it in time to launch Atlantis and its cargo: a massive addition to the International Space Station.
The trouble is -- there isn't much time to do that. The launch window for the 116th space shuttle mission expires on Friday. After that, the Russians are slated to launch a mission to deliver a new crew to the Space Station.
This is just the most recent setback for NASA and the Atlantis crew that has trained for more than four years for this mission. Mission managers first scrubbed the launch August 26 when lightning hit the launch pad. Then the threat of Tropical Storm Ernesto forced NASA to take Atlantis off the pad and roll it back to the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
That decision was supposed to have eliminated any chance of a September launch, because of the time it takes to prep a shuttle once it's back on the pad. But half-way through the roll-back, weather forecasters changed their predictions for Ernesto's direction and strength. NASA quickly did an about-face and rolled Atlantis back to the pad. Now, this delay.
NASA could delay the launch attempt until October, but that's only a two-day window. And it has yet another mission slated for the end of the year.
The time line is tight, because NASA must fly 15 or 16 missions by this time in 2010 in order to finish the International Space Station. The president has ordered, and Congress has agreed, to ground the shuttle fleet at that point, allowing NASA to concentrate on its next mission: Returning to the moon.
While the shuttle is the most complex machine ever built -- with 2 million parts and 230 miles of wiring -- NASA administrator Michael Griffin has said the design is fatally flawed, since it allows for debris to fall off the External Fuel Tank and hit the orbiter. That's precisely what brought down Columbia in 2003, killing the crew of seven.
Yet, the shuttle is also the only vehicle that can transport the huge components to the International Space Station. And the U.S. has international agreements to use the shuttle to finish building the ISS.
So, Atlantis remains on launch pad 39-B with engineers scrambling to fix a problem with a 260-pound fuel cell.... with the mission, and the entire shuttle timeline on hold.