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Sunday, Feb. 25
The Indiana Daily Student

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Fuel gauge problem postpones shuttle launch until January

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – \nNASA on Sunday delayed the launch of space shuttle Atlantis until January after a gauge in the fuel tank failed for the second time in four days.\nWith only a few days remaining in the launch window for the shuttle’s mission to the international space station, senior managers decided to stand down until next month in hopes of better understanding the perplexing and persistent fuel gauge problem.\nThe trouble with the fuel gauge resurfaced just before sunrise Sunday, about an hour after the launch team began filling Atlantis’ big external tank for an afternoon liftoff.\nShuttle managers had said they would halt the countdown and call everything off if any of the four hydrogen fuel gauges acted up. Three failed during Thursday’s launch attempt; no one knows why.\nLaunch director Doug Lyons said Sunday’s failure was similar to what happened before, except only one gauge malfunctioned this time.\n“This could all be good news because it may give us some data points that we did not have as to what may be behind this problem,” said NASA spokesman George Diller.\n“So essentially our launch attempt this morning has turned into a tanking test,” he added.\nNASA had until Thursday to launch Atlantis with the European Space Agency’s space station laboratory, Columbus. After that, unfavorable sun angles and computer concerns would make it impossible for the shuttle to fly to the international space station until January.\nOfficials previously have said Jan. 2 would be the earliest try.\nDespite objections from some engineers, NASA tightened up its launch rules for Sunday’s attempt in hopes of getting Atlantis off the ground by the week’s end.\nNot only did all four of Atlantis’ fuel gauges have to work on Sunday – until now, only three good gauges were required – a new instrumentation system for monitoring these gauges also had to check out. NASA also shrank its launch window from five minutes to a single minute for added safety.\nThe troublesome gauges, called engine cutoff sensors, are part of a backup system to prevent the shuttle’s main engines from shutting down too late and running without fuel, a potentially catastrophic situation. They have been a source of sporadic trouble ever since flights resumed in 2005 following the Columbia tragedy.\nTwo groups of NASA engineers recommended that the flight be postponed and the fuel gauge system tested, to figure out what might be going on. But they did not oppose a Sunday launch attempt when it came time for the final vote.\nShuttle commander Stephen Frick was deeply involved with the decisions that were made, officials said.\nBoth the astronauts and flight controllers would have an added burden if multiple fuel sensors were to fail once the shuttle lifted off and a leak or some other serious trouble cropped up during the 8½-minute climb to orbit. They would have to override the system, and hobble to orbit or make an emergency landing.\nFrick and his six crewmates – \none of them French, another German – are set to deliver and install the $2 billion Columbus laboratory at the space station. It will be the second lab added to the orbiting outpost and Europe’s entree to daily, round-the-clock scientific operations with astronauts in space.\nIt was another frustrating delay for the European Space Agency, which has been waiting for years for Columbus to fly. NASA space station design problems in the 1980s and early 1990s slowed everything down, then Russian troubles and, most recently, the 2003 Columbia tragedy stalled the project.\nAssociated Press writer Brian Skoloff contributed to this report.

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