WASHINGTON — The next space shuttle flight, which NASA had hoped to launch in September, will blast off no earlier than March, William Gerstenmaier, mission operations director, said Thursday.
The six-month delay will give engineers more time to fix the persistent problem of debris falling from the shuttle's fuel tank. The delay will also make it easier for NASA to juggle its three shuttles to make sure Atlantis is available to fly a large piece of the International Space Station to orbit next year.
But the delay puts further pressure on NASA chief Michael Griffin's hopes of finishing construction of the space station by 2010, the shuttle's target retirement date. Only the shuttle is big and powerful enough to haul the station's components to orbit.
The delay also further calls into question the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. It will shut down after 2007 without maintenance from a shuttle crew.
Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003 after foam debris from its fuel tank inflicted fatal damage to the wing. Despite NASA's efforts to solve the problem, debris also fell off shuttle Discovery's tank during its July 26 launch. The debris did not hit the shuttle. The ship landed safely Aug. 9.
NASA officials have grounded the shuttle fleet until they can make sure the tank won't shed large, dangerous chunks of foam, such as a one-pound piece that Griffin on Thursday called "embarrassing."
Wednesday, dissenting members of a NASA oversight panel issued a blistering statement claiming that sloppy practices and unnecessary schedule pressure had continued to plague the agency after the Columbia accident. The dissenters had especially harsh words for NASA's unrealistic launch dates for the first shuttle mission after the accident.
Launch delays of a few months at a time led to "numerous instances when an opportunity was missed to implement the best solution," the statement said.
Griffin said the agency is now trying to avoid such short-term planning. "We are trying to insert the necessary conservatism" into the process, he said.
He declined to address the dissenting statement, saying he had not had time to digest the report.
Gerstenmaier said shuttle engineers are now studying whether a March launch date makes sense. It will take two weeks to finish the analysis, he said. He did not rule out moving the mission to May.