NASA: Mother Nature may delay final shuttle launch

Launch team investigates possible lightning strike as bad weather looms

Mother Nature seems to be working against NASA launching its final space shuttle mission on schedule tomorrow.

The space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its final voyage on Friday at 11:26 a.m. Eastern time. This won't just be the last mission for Atlantis. It also will be the final mission of the space shuttle program, which is being retired after 30 years.

The problem may be the weather.

As of 2:45 p.m. Thursday, the space shuttle launch team was investigating a possible lightning strike that may have hit within one-third of a mile of the shuttle's launchpad. NASA said engineers are reviewing data to determine if the lightning affected Atlantis or any of the pad's ground support equipment.

However, a rolling band of thunderstorms moving through the area has kept crews from conducting a thorough inspection of the launchpad area.

Today's tumultuous weather may continue into Friday, which could disrupt liftoff.

At a Thursday morning prelaunch briefing, Shuttle Weather Officer Kathy Winters said there is only a 30% chance of favorable weather for a Friday morning launch.

When the shuttle does lift off, it will embark on a 13-day mission that will have its four-person crew delivering supplies, a major experiment and spare parts to the International Space Station. NASA has been trying to load up the station with supplies and spare parts to sustain its operations once the shuttle fleet is no longer flying missions.

The experiment loaded on Atlantis is a washing-machine-size mockup of what basically is a gas station in space.

The Robotic Refueling Mission is an experiment that will be attached to the outside of the space station, where astronauts will use the station's Dextre robotic arm to test the tools that would be needed to robotically refuel satellites.

Atlantis, which was rolled out on March 6, 1985, has flown 32 flights on which it has traveled 111.3 million miles.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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