UnNews:Space shuttle inferno postpones launch

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8 September 2006

Shut23

Runaway fires, though common, make shuttle launches problematic.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA scrubbed Friday's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis again, this time because of a problem that has bedeviled the space agency before: the shuttle spontaneously bursting into flames.

The launch was rescheduled for 11:15 a.m. EDT on Saturday, when NASA will try a fourth time to get Atlantis off the ground and send it to the International Space Station of Pancakes to resume construction on the orbiting restaurant for the first time since the Columbia tragedy 3 1/2 years ago, when the shuttle caught fire during re-entry.

Previous launch attempts over the past 12 days were dashed by a lightning bolt that struck the launch pad, causing another blaze, Tropical Storm Ernesto, which set the shuttle on fire, also, and a fuel cell coolant pump that exploded, burning half of one of the solid rocket boosters.

This time, the shuttle just seemed to spontaneously combust, although some scientists theorized it was a result of "birds being too close to it."

Atlantis' six astronauts had donned their oil-soaked, orange flightsuits and strapped themselves into the space shuttle, and the hatch to the shuttle had been closed, when NASA decided to postpone the launch with just 45 minutes to go until liftoff.

"We had a lot of discussion," said launch director Mike Leinbach. "I, personally, was willing to try launching while it was on fire. I mean, what the fuck, right? But I was outvoted."

Atlantis commander Brent Jett responded, "We thought the fire thing might create problems during liftoff. Once we're in space, of course, it's no problem."

In order to fly, NASA would have had to waive a rule requiring that all significant fires be under control prior to launch.

The "no fires" requirement is designed to prevent backdraft from the engines from igniting the main fuel tanks, and to prevent the engines from running too long or not long enough during the climb to space. An engine explosion at the wrong time could prove catastrophic, forcing the astronauts to attempt a difficult, high-altitude freefall without parachutes.

"Sure, maybe we're being a bunch of nervous Nellies," commented Jett. "But shuttles don't grow on trees, you know."

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