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NASA suspects a stuck hatch on the space shuttle Columbia could be slightly out of alignment, a problem the astronauts might be able to fix with some well-placed shoves.

The jammed hatch prevented two astronauts from making a crucial practice spacewalk Thursday. NASA studied photos and documents Friday to see what Columbia's astronauts could do to open the hatch.Engineers saw nothing obstructing the six latches on the hatch, leading them to suspect a mis-align-ment.

The earliest astronauts Tamara Jernigan and Thomas Jones could attempt a spacewalk is Saturday night. That's when they should have been making spacewalk No. 2, now up in the air like everything else on the mission.

Jernigan and Jones pushed as hard as they could Thursday night - upside down, right-side up, with their hands and with their feet - but could not rotate the handle on the hatch leading out into the open cargo bay.

It is the first time a hatch has jammed in 15 years of space shuttle flight. NASA flight director Rob Kelso admitted there's little the astronauts can do. The drive mechanism for the latches is on the exterior of the hatch, beyond the crew's reach.

More than anything, NASA does not want to make matters worse.

It could be disastrous, for instance, if Jernigan and Jones forced open the hatch but could not close it properly after their spacewalk. Without a decent seal, the chamber, or airlock, holding the spacewalkers could not be repressurized and they would be unable to re-enter the pressurized shuttle.

NASA also was considering all sorts of options - using tools to shove open the jammed hatch, for example - in the unlikely event an emergency spacewalk would be needed at flight's end to stow the shuttle robot arm or close the cargo-bay doors.

With only 19 experienced spacewalkers on staff and 33 shuttle spacewalks to its credit, NASA needs all the practice it can get before station construction begins with a Russian launch on Thanksgiving Day 1997.